08 August 2005

The GPL will have a bigger impact than the printing press

This Eric Laffoon article singing the praises of the GPL and TrollTech’s relationship to it said this:

500 years ago the printing press ended the dark ages with an unprecedented sharing of ideas. The internet offers dramatically more potential.
Given that the GPL is all about sharing information, a leading representative of a new way of thinking about information, a shorter way of putting that is:
The GPL will have at least as much impact on society as the invention of the printing press did.
I’ve thought around the issue a bit, and a few yesses and nos raised their heads so far, but nothing lethal and nothing requiring significant amendment.

FOSS in general and the GPL in particular has made software for most purposes readily, legally available. The printing press did the same for “brain software” — the records and techniques which made training beyond the apprentice system and possible independently of the extant political authorities feasible.

It may be argued that computers have made the copying of information cheap, but that’s not the key point. The advent of computers and cheap data storage made copying cheap, but they did not make it legal or safe.

Public Domain and BSD-like licenses make it legal but not safe to copy — your competitors take your own code and out-develop you with it. Only the GPL and related sets of rights really make it safe. A competitor cannot legally out-develop you because they are required by the GPL to publish their own improvements, which you can then use in turn.

It could be argued that the Internet is at least as much responsible for the increase in access to information as things like the GPL... until one notices that the Internet is built on RFCs, which are effectively a (milder) form of GPL for protocols.

Eric points out that:

outside of niche markets the traditional model is eventually going to fail even Microsoft
Microsoft are busily trying to capture other markets. In those other markets, Creative Commons and the like are just getting started with the process of wiping out the markup merchants standing between artist/author and customer, and redefining “ownership” of expression. GPL for other media.

I reckon we’re headed for another Renaissance, if The Real World™ gives us enough time to snowball to critical mass. A Renaissance in which a monopoly on most things becomes effectively impossible.

We may already be irrevocably committed to that critical mass; I’m not sure that there’s a reliable way to measure it. Here’s hoping. (-:

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