Thursday 10 April 2008 by Bradley M. Kuhn
I was amazed to be involved in yet another discussion recently regarding the old debate about the scope of the GPL under copyright law. The debate itself isn't amazing — these debates have happened somewhere every six months, almost on cue, since around 1994 or so. What amazed me this time is that some people in the debate believed that the GPL proponents intend to sneakily pursue an increased scope for copyright law. Those who think that have completely misunderstood the fundamental idea behind the GPL.
I'm disturbed by the notion that some believe the goal of the GPL is to expand copyrightability and the inclusiveness of derivative works. It seems that so many forget (or maybe they never even knew) that copyleft was invented to hack copyright — to turn its typical applications to software inside out. The state of affairs that software is controlled by draconian copyright rules is a lamentable reality; copyleft is merely a tool that diffuses the proprietary copyright weaponry.
But, if it were possible to really consider reduction in copyright control over software, then I don't know of a single GPL proponent who wouldn't want to bilaterally reduce copyright's scope for software. For example, I've often proposed, since around 2001, that perhaps copyright for software should only last three years, non-renewable, and that it require all who wished to distribute non-public-domain software to register the source with the Copyright Office. At the end of the three years, the Copyright Office would automatically publish that now public-domain source to the world.
If my hypothetical system were the actual (and only) legal regime for software, and were equally applied to all software — from the fully Free to the most proprietary — I'd have no sadness at all that opportunities for GPL enforcement ended after three years, and that all GPL'd software fell into the public domain on that tight schedule, because proprietary software and FLOSS would have the same treatment. Meanwhile, great benefit would be gained for the freedom of all software users. In short, GPL is not an end in itself, and I wouldn't want to ignore the actual goal — more freedom for software users — merely to strengthen one tool in that battle.
In one of my favorite films, Kevin Smith's Dogma, Chris Rock's character, Rufus, argues that it's better to have ideas than beliefs, because ideas can change when the situation does, but beliefs become ingrained and are harder to shake. I'm not a belief-less person, but I certainly hold the GPL and the notion of copyleft firmly in the “idea” camp, not the “belief” one. It's unfortunate that the entrenched interests outside of software are (more or less) inadvertently strengthening software copyright, too. Thus, in the meantime, we must hold steadfast to the GPL going as far as is legally permitted under this ridiculously expansive copyright system we have. But, should a real policy dialogue open on the reduction software copyright's scope, GPL proponents will be the first in line to encourage such bilateral reduction.
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