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Think before using the GPL license - Robin Wils's website

Last modified: Sun, Dec 1, 2019

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GPL, the good parts

The GPLv3 logo.

Free Software Foundation - CC0 licensed.

The GPL license tries to give you the four freedoms. This makes it a bit more trustable as other licenses.

That is all great, but the license has some things which you should think about

The GPL attempts to force people to release their source code

It would be great if this would actually work.

Think about it for a minute. What would a closed source company do?

They would use the code and not tell anybody or in the other case write code from scratch. I don’t think that that first option would benefit anyone. The code would stay secret and improvements will not help the project.

Consider the same project under another license like MIT or BSD. The company might use the code, but they are more likely to commit changes back. This can lead to a better project.

The GPL license isn’t easy to understand

The GPL is complex. You are supposed to include a license notice on every file for example. That takes some effort. You can find many incorrectly GPL licensed projects online.

You have to re-release programs under the GPL license

The GPL forces you to release anything which uses the source code of the program under the GPL license. This means that closed source companies can’t build a closed source version or new program based on your GPL licensed software.

My opinion about the GPL

I think that people who use the GPL usually have good intentions. I do like, use and trust many GPL licensed software.

I believe that you shouldn’t trust licenses. Look at what others think of the software and check the history of the software. The GPL license makes a program more trustable, but it is still a license. Licenses can be violated. The idea of the GPL is not bad, but it is different in practice.

I do prefer programs which have readable code because people can read the code and make it better. Closed source can be bad, but you never trully know.

What if they never do anything bad with the code or your personal data?

Does your online privacy even matter? You can find more about this in my How important is online privacy? article.

Which licenses should you use?

That totally depends. I don’t think that the GPL is bad. It just requires some effort to implement. I think that it is great for privacy and trust. The GPL can be a good choice, but please think before you use it.

I think that BSD, MIT, CC0,… are better licenses if you want to be good for people. Keep in mind that everything can have a bad side. CC0 also know as public domain means that anyone can steal your program. It has no restrictions.

You should do some research on the different licenses before you pick one. Make sure to think enough about it. Licenses can have consequences.

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