The Problem With GPL

The Gnu Public License was designed from a Marxist economic perspective.

Classic Marxism teaches "From each according to his ability, to each according to his need." The fundamental problem with that philosophy is that our needs and abilities are adjustable according to our desires, as the Bible clearly teaches. Thus a true Marxist economy is only possible within a community of sinless persons, where everybody honors the Golden Rule perfectly. There has never been such a community on earth, and Marxism has always failed everywhere it was attempted.

The Marxist ideal is nonetheless workable in a smaller way among altruistic people who seek no personal benefit from a shared goal. The original Bolshevik revolutionaries came close to this ideal, but after their initial success they were quickly replaced by politicians eager to work the system for personal gain.

First-generation Christian organizations also exhibit this same kind of missionary zeal, and I believe that Bible translators especially can work together for the common goal of getting the Word of God into the hands of every person who wants to read it in their own language, yet without stepping on each other's personal agendas and economic requirements.

The GPL defines and encompasses two novel legal ideas, CopyLeft and "Free Software".


The word "CopyLeft" is a play on the legal term "copyright" and is intended to be in some sense its opposite. Copyright is a right granted by government to authors and artists to restrict the copies that can be made of their creative works, so that they can make a reasonable profit from their labors and thus repay the time invested in creation. CopyLeft denies the value of such profits and explicitly forbids any restriction in making copies. In a Marxist world, this is as it should be: anybody who needs a copy can have it, without respect to their ability to pay. It assumes, however, that the creators of every valuable work are salaried on some other basis than how they spent their time. That again is true in a Marxist economy. It is also true in crypto-Marxist sub-economies like tenured university faculties and hobby clubs.

However the vast majority of real-world workers need to be paid for whatever they spend most of their working hours doing, and most creative works take vast amounts of time to create. Most computer software takes more time to do well than competent programmers are willing to spend in their leisure; they want to be paid for writing programs people find useful, and people are generally willing to pay them to do that. However, the value of the software cannot be realized until all the work is finished, so somebody must invest capital (up-front money, the opposite of Marxist teaching) to pay them, and then recover their investment by selling their products at prices set artificially higher than the actual cost of reproduction. They can only do this if they also prevent others from giving it away for free. This is in fundamental conflict with the Marxist philosophy in CopyLeft. As a consequence, very few good programs are available under CopyLeft licensing.

Free Software

By "Free Software" its proponents are careful to point out that they mean "free as in free speech, not as in free beer." That is not entirely accurate. The freedom they promote is not as free as free speech, because the Courts have held that free speech means nothing if you are compelled to say what you do not choose, and the so-called "free software" compels you to make it available in ways you might not choose. Furthermore, by the CopyLeft requirement which forbids you to collect royalties, they really are making their freedom more like free beer than free speech. You might need to pay to have the mug washed, but the beer in it is free of charge; the brewer is paid nothing for his efforts.

The only truly free speech is speech without any compulsions whatsoever, and the GPL does not grant that right. In fact the GPL relies on copyright to restrict the freedom of its licensees and thus enforce its Marxist notion of CopyLeft. They have that right under the law, but to call it freedom is disingenuous.

Tom Pittman
2006 October 24