The Open Source Freeloader Phenomenon - InformationWeek

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1/17/2008
11:22 AM
Serdar Yegulalp
Serdar Yegulalp
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The Open Source Freeloader Phenomenon

After the filing of the Verizon / BusyBox suit, and after reading about any number of other, similar incidents where a company showed what could only be seen as flagrant disregard for the GPL, I had to ask myself: Why do people do this?  Are companies really that naive about the GPL, or do they just think they can get away with anything?

After the filing of the Verizon / BusyBox suit, and after reading about any number of other, similar incidents where a company showed what could only be seen as flagrant disregard for the GPL, I had to ask myself: Why do people do this?  Are companies really that naive about the GPL, or do they just think they can get away with anything?

I've gone back and forth about this, and I've come to the conclusion that GPL violators, or "freeloaders," aren't all of one mind.  There's more than one way for a given vendor to run afoul of the GPL, and I've tabulated three that seem to be the most common:

1. They're uninformed.  They simply don't understand how the GPL works, and think that free in this context means "you do what you like."  They saw the word "free" and ran with that, and everything after that just sort of fell by the wayside.

2. They're bumbling.  They understand how the GPL works, but they goofed.  Maybe they handed off the actual process of posting the source to someone who dropped the ball.  As someone else once said, never blame malice when incompetence will do nicely.  (This is the sort of thing I can believe once or twice from a given vendor, but not a whole bunch of times.)

3. They just don't care.  They think the GPL is unenforceable in court, or feel they have enough clout or moxie to assume it won't apply to them.  Or they assume they can get away with it because no one's looking.

I tried to put myself into the mind-set of a company that is using some variety of open-source code.  Surely the people doing the actual work with the code have some awareness of the GPL.  Do they simply assume that their bosses are going to understand how compliance works?  Do they bring it up with said superiors only to get brushed aside (to the tune of "it's free, we can do whatever we want with it; and we can't just publish the source code to OUR PRODUCT")?

Looking back on the list above, I see #1 and #3 being remarkably similar, actually.  It's a very small step from being uninformed to acting on that ignorance, and (worse) pretending as if there was nothing to be learned in the first place.  #2 is excusable, provided it doesn't become a habit, but again, I have to ask myself: Are some people really wretched enough to believe that they're not going to get caught violating a publicly disseminated, widely discussed, and definitely enforceable software contract?

Until proven otherwise, the answer seems to be, sadly, yes.  And unfortunately, the only way to dispel that delusion amongst people with money and business at stake may be to hit back in court.  Simply crossing one's fingers and assuming everyone will play nice doesn't seem to work.  Then again, when did it ever?

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