Archive Index (1999-2012) | 2013-current at | About  

Article: Linux, the GPL, and a new model for software innovation

Aug 27, 2002 — by LinuxDevices Staff — from the LinuxDevices Archive


Increasingly, software is going 'open source,' with increasingly good results. Linux, the most visible of open-source software, is rapidly gaining ground in both embedded and server software markets, and even begins to make inroads on the desktop.

This is particularly interesting given the peculiar licensing structure that governs it: the GNU General Public License (GPL). This license 'promises' cannibalization of intellectual property, but does not quite deliver on this promise, and so has attracted the affection of mammoth electronics companies (normally IP-protective) who see Linux as their key to the future. In turn, this most 'anti-IP' of licenses is arguably doing more to foster innovation than patents or copyrights ever have.

In this whitepaper, Matt Asay (“former Linux naysayer-turned-disciple”) analyzes the GPL, picking apart what it means (and does not mean) for users, and whether it is enforceable. Asay also details how its terms inhibit and foster innovation, and why we should care. In this next generation of software, those who understand 'copyleft' licenses like the GPL will have the upper-hand, and will be best positioned to take on closed-source shops like Microsoft.

Table of Contents

  • Introduction
  • What Is the GPL?
  • The Economics of the GPL: Is This a Good Thing?
  • Old View: GPL Kills Innovation
    • GPL and Innovation
    • The GPL and Applications
    • Inefficiency of the GPL
  • New View: GPL Promotes Innovation
    • GPL and Innovation, Revised
    • The GPL and Applications, Revised
    • Inefficiency of the GPL, Revised
  • The GPL: Not Broken, Why Fix It?
    • BSD-Style GPL?
    • Short-Term Copyright
  • Can Open Source Survive Closed-Source Involvement?
  • Conclusion
  • Appendix A: Suggested Revision of the GNU GENERAL PUBLIC LICENSE (see link below)

Read the full whitepaper here . . .

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Market:

Linux, the General Public License,
and a New Model for Software Innovation

by Matt Asay

written for Professor Larry Lessig Stanford Law School
April, 2002

(revised September 30, 2002)

(600KB PDF download)

Note: Matt Asay's paper makes reference to a proposed revision to the GNU GPL. That proposal, by Matt Harris (currently CEO of Lineo), is available here . . .

Suggested Revision of the
Version 3.0, May 2001

(100KB PDF download)

About the author: Matt Asay has been involved with Linux for the past few years, both professionally and academically. His first taste was an investment in Cobalt (acquired by Sun Microsystems) that he helped manage while at Mitsui & Co. But his real involvement came while working as Director of Business Development and then General Manager of Residential Gateways at Lineo, an embedded Linux software startup. Asay worked full-time (and then some) at Lineo while also attending Stanford Law School, where he studied the GNU General Public License under Professor Larry Lessig. Asay is now at Novell, where he works in Business Development for Novell's Developer Services group, responsible for increasing Novell's third-party developer base. In the process, he hopes to have some influence in moving the company toward Linux. In his “free time,” Asay also runs a consulting practice.

This article was originally published on and has been donated to the open source community by QuinStreet Inc. Please visit for up-to-date news and articles about Linux and open source.

Comments are closed.