There is a trend in open source (or free software) world of referring to GPL/LGPL as freedom friendly or simply freedom licenses as though using them is going to give you some profound and mystical liberation or something.
As we all know, the English word free is rather confusing sometimes because it could mean one of two things:
- Free of cost (as in free beer or gotten something without cost).
- Freedom from something (as in India got freedom in 1947 from the colonial rule).
When it comes to GPL, folks are referring to the second kind of freedom (this freedom is also called libre, a french borrowed terminology, hence LibreOffice, Libre Linux, etc.).
Stallmanists (as the GPL proponents are usually called) think that GPL is somehow more free (libre) than the permissive licenses like MIT, Apache, BSD, etc. which they are too eager to dismiss.
However, that's a great misunderstanding because that may not be true at all depending on your definition of freedom or liberty. Liberty is the concept which directly tackles this second libre kind of freedom. Traditionally, Liberty proponents are of two kinds:
- Individual Liberty: Those who hold that each individual or person should have as much liberty as possible.
- Collective Liberty: The collective of individuals (or commons) should have as much liberty as possible as a group.
So you see, there are two kinds of liberties and there is a subtle difference between them. Stallman's stand on freedom (GPL) makes sense only if you consider the second variety of liberty (commons) as the measuring barometer but fails miserably when you consider the first kind of liberty (individual liberty).
Now, as much as I like the concept of commons or a community, I'm not too fond of licenses like GPL which carry that too far and place restrictions on how an individual chooses to use the GPL code. GPL states that any modifications or derived work from GPL code should be distributed under the terms of GPL only (I cannot even distribute them as MIT/BSD/Apache or any other permissive license).
Now this is great for the GPL common cause but here lies the biggest weakness of GPL too: The first kind of freedom (individual liberty) is actually sacrificed, an individual is no more free to define the terms of her own developed code. In contrast, the permissive licenses like MIT/Apache/BSD are lot more free in comparison when you consider the individual liberty aspect too.
Thus, next time when you talk about GPL licenses and the freedom it provides, be sure to understand what kind of freedoms are we talking about in the first place!