On the continuing decline of the GPL

Our most popular CAOS blog post of the year, by some margin, was this one, from early June, looking at the trend towards persmissive licensing, and the decline in the usage of the GNU GPL family of licenses.

Prompted by this post by Bruce Byfield, I thought it might be interesting to bring that post up to date with a look at the latest figures.

NB: I am relying on the current set of figures published by Black Duck Software for this post, combined with our previous posts on the topic. I am aware that some people are distrustful of Black Duck’s figures given the lack of transparency on the methodology for collecting them. Since I previously went to a lot of effort to analyze data collected and published by FLOSSmole to find that it confirmed the trend suggested by Black Duck’s figures, I am confident that the trends are an accurate reflection of the situation.

The figures indicate that not only has the usage of the GNU GPL family of licenses (GPL2+3, LGPL2+3, AGPL) continued to decline since June, but that the decline has accelerated. The GPL family now accounts for about 57% of all open source software, compared to 61% in June.

As you can see from the chart below, if the current rate of decline continues, we project that the GPL family of licenses will account for only 50% of all open source software by September 2012.

That is still a significant proportion of course, but would be down from 70% in June 2008. Our projection also suggests that permissive licenses (specifically in this case, MIT/Apache/BSD/Ms-PL) will account for close to 30% of all open source software by September 2012, up from 15% in June 2009 (we don’t have a figure for June 2008 unfortunately).

Of course, there is no guarantee that the current rate of decline will continue – as the chart indicates the rate of decline slowed between June 2009 and June 2011, and it may well do so again. Or it could accelerate further.

Interestingly, however, while the more rapid rate of decline prior to June 2009 was clearly driven by the declining use of the GPLv2 in particular, Black Duck’s data suggests that the usage of the GPL family declined at a faster rate between June 2011 and December 2011 (6.7%) than the usage of the GPLv2 specifically (6.2%).

UPDATE – It is has been rightfully noted that this decline relates to the proportion of all open source software, while the number of projects using the GPL family has increased in real terms. Using Black Duck’s figures we can calculate that in fact the number of projects using the GPL family of licenses grew 15% between June 2009 and December 2011, from 105,822 to 121,928. However, in the same time period the total number of open source projects grew 31% in real terms, while the number of projects using permissive licenses grew 117%. – UPDATE

As indicated in June, we believe there are some wider trends that need to be discussed in relation to license usage, particularly with regards to vendor engagement with open source projects and a decline in the number of vendors engaging with strong copyleft licensed software.

The analysis indicated that the previous dominance of strong copyleft licenses was achieved and maintained to a significant degree due to vendor-led open source projects, and that the ongoing shift away from projects controlled by a single vendor toward community projects was in part driving a shift towards more permissive non-copyleft licenses.

We will update this analysis over the next few days with a look at the latest trends regarding the engagement of vendors with open source projects, and venture funding for open source-related vendors, providing some additional context for the trends related to licensing.

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57 comments ↓

#1 Chris Aniszczyk on 12.15.11 at 11:49 am

Can you explicitly call out the AGPL if possible? A lot of business these days are running their code behind servers and not actually distributing any code. This doesn’t cause the distribution trigger to fire within the GPL so it doesn’t matter that much. Sure there are mobile applications being shipped today on devices, however, future trends look like that will be shifting to potential applications that just wrap the browsers and are “thin clients” of old.

The AGPL is the only thing that embodies the philosophy of the GPL for applications that are primarily sitting on a server and not distributed. I would like to see if there’s any pickup or if the license usage is just stagnant.

#2 Matthew Aslett on 12.15.11 at 12:29 pm

Hi Chris,

Thanks for the comment. I agree on the potential significance of the AGPL, which is why it is surprising that it has not passed the 0.20% threshold to break into the top 20 licenses, according to Black Duck. For context, Microsoft Reciprocal License (Ms-RL) is in the top 20, and almost no one use that :-). As you can see from the link to Black Duck’s figures http://www.blackducksoftware.com/oss/licenses#top20, adoption of AGPL is currently at 407 projects in total.

Matt

#3 LinuxLife Blog - Umfrage: Copyleft- oder liberalere Lizenzen für freie Software? on 12.16.11 at 8:50 am

[…] einer aktuellen Untersuchung nimmt der Anteil von Copyleft-Lizenzen, insbesondere der GPL, an der gesamten freien Software ab, […]

#4 Bruce Byfield on 12.16.11 at 11:24 pm

Hi, Matt:

The article by Ivan Drakic is a plagiarism of one I wrote for Datamation:

http://www.datamation.com/open-source/7-reasons-why-free-software-is-losing-influence.html

I am quite sure you didn’t know, but could you please update your article?

Thanks,

Bruce Byfield

#5 Matthew Aslett on 12.17.11 at 1:50 am

Hi Bruce,

Apologies. Ivan’s “article” showed up as a pingback to one of our posts, and I was unaware of your original. Have updated our post accordingly.

Thanks
Matt

#6 Bruce Byfield on 12.17.11 at 2:49 pm

Thanks for the correction, Matt. Much appreciated.

#7 orbit on 12.17.11 at 2:16 pm

BlackDuckSoftware is a wekk known Microsoft proxy.

#8 Donnie Berkholz on 12.17.11 at 4:24 pm

I’m curious about the absolute values of each license type rather than percentages. The change in percentages suggests to me that it could be that certain classes of software are increasing in popularity (mainly Web-based stuff), and those classes are biased toward permissive licenses.

#9 Matthew Aslett on 12.19.11 at 4:48 am

HI Donnie,

Have updated the post to reflect growth of licenses in real terms. You can calculate the absolute values of each license type using Black Duck’s #s.

Matt

#10 Jasper Nuyens on 12.17.11 at 6:48 pm

I agree with orbit that this is propaganda = possibly sponosered by Microsoft as they are the only company publicly opposing the GPL license and funding BlackDuckSoftware.

Yet one can clearly do the math themselves. Savannah.org and sourceforge.net both allow the searching for license type. It clearly shows that the GNU GPL license is the only important remaining licence, with a big growth in the GPLv3 area the last years (wheiter you like it or not).

Sourceforge lists 1014 MIT licensed projects while over 13.000 GPL projects. Impossible that MIT license would be at 11%…
AGPL licensed by sourceforge over 370, so there are only 47 projects licensed unther the AGPL and not on sourceforge? Seems unlikely!

Fear, uncertainty, doubt… nice try, but no win today!

#11 orbit on 12.18.11 at 10:56 am

“Savannah.org and sourceforge.net”

Furthermore, platforms like github are more used then sourceforge or savannah nowadays.

#12 Fice on 12.18.11 at 6:28 pm

Bruce Perens wrote in 2008 about how Microsoft fight GPL by supporting permissive-licensed projects:
http://itmanagement.earthweb.com/osrc/article.php/3762786/Bruce-Perens-Microsoft-and-Apache—Whats-the-Angle.htm

#13 Magoo on 04.24.12 at 1:50 am

Now Apple does it too, and Google. No matter, they’re both pumping good code into the system that can be picked up by GPL projects.

I guess some corporate droids will never get why most programmers prefer copyleft.

#14 GPL понемногу уступает позиции пермиссивным открытым лицензиям | AllUNIX.ru — Всероссийский портал о UNIX-системах on 12.18.11 at 7:23 pm

[…] исследованию, проведённому на основании проводимого компанией Black […]

#15 Новости компьютерного мира - GPL понемногу уступает позиции пермиссивным открытым лицензиям on 12.18.11 at 7:27 pm

[…] исследованию, проведённому на основании проводимого компанией Black […]

#16 Matthew Aslett on 12.19.11 at 2:20 am

Jasper, orbit,

Thanks for the comments.

With regards to Black Duck’s data, as I noted above, I previously went to a lot of effort to analyze data collected and published by FLOSSmole, having been reliably informed by Bradley M Kuhn that it “is the only project attempting to generate this kind of data and analysis thereof in a scientifically verifiable way”.

What we found, having analyzed FLOSSmole data from Rubyforge, Freshmeat, ObjectWeb and the Free Software Foundation, was that FLOSSmole figures actually showed a more rapid decline in GPL usage than Black Duck’s.

You don’t have to believe our analysis either, of course, but I assure you it is not “propaganda = possibly sponsored by Microsoft”.

Matt

P.S. I was not aware that Microsoft funded Black Duck. Do you have any actual evidence for that claim?

#17 GPL понемногу уступает позиции пермиссивным открытым лицензиям on 12.19.11 at 7:51 am

[…] исследованию, проведённому на основании проводимого компанией Black […]

#18 451 CAOS Theory » The future of commercial open source business strategies on 12.19.11 at 11:41 am

[…] strategies Matthew Aslett, December 19, 2011 @ 11:41 am ET The reason we are confident that the comparative decline in the use of the GNU GPL family of licenses and the increasing significance of complementary […]

#19 Anton on 12.19.11 at 2:32 pm

@Matthew Aslett have you tried to google?
http://www.blackducksoftware.com/partners/solution
Microsoft is working with Back Duck to ensure that Black Duck products are well integrated into Visual Studio Team System
..
Additionally, Black Duck and Microsoft work together to catalog projects from their Codeplex forge.

#20 Matthew Aslett on 12.19.11 at 2:51 pm

@Anton And? That is not evidence that Microsoft is funding Black Duck.

#21 Anton on 12.19.11 at 4:17 pm

@Matthew I think “funding” might the wrong word here. Let’s call it yet another “proxy” company or “connected” with microsoft. The main purpose of such companies is to influence on public opinion and make other destruction.
http://techrights.org/2011/12/19/microsoft-infiltrators-vs-gpl/
http://techrights.org/wiki/index.php/Black_Duck

Still not convinced? I give up. Go to microsoft for the evidence paper with a circle seal

#22 Matthew Aslett on 12.19.11 at 6:52 pm

Funnily enough, no I am not convinced by the back-tracking away from the funding claim.

You are perfectly free to believe whatever you like but since I personally analyzed the data from Rubyforge, Freshmeat, ObjectWeb and the Free Software Foundation and found that it showed essentially the same trend as Black Duck’s data I chose to believe that Black Duck’s data can be trusted.

Unless of course Rubyforge, Freshmeat, ObjectWeb and the Free Software Foundation are also Microsoft proxies.

#23 Magoo on 04.24.12 at 1:59 am

You’re full of it, you’re just reading from your shill sheet. Freshmeat isn’t even called that any more, which you would know if you hadn’t lied through your teeth and been too lazy to do any fact checking at all. Stands to reason, maybe Microsoft ran out of budget to keep your shill sheet up to date?

Of the 45,000 projects cataloged by the site-the-was-freshmeat, about 25,000 are GPL family and 1700 are BSD-revised, the highest showing BSD license. Phhht.

#24 Matthew Aslett on 04.27.12 at 11:30 am

“Freshmeat isn’t even called that any more”

It was when I analyzed its data.”

“which you would know if you hadn’t lied through your teeth and been too lazy to do any fact checking at all.”

In any case you are free to download the files from FLOSSmole yourself and contradict our findings. Since no one has done that I assume everyone else is either too lazy or they found that our data was correct

#25 GPL in decline? | Bristol Wireless – community IT services, help and training in your aerial on 12.20.11 at 9:05 am

[…] to an analysis by the 451 Group, the proportion of open source projects that uses the GPL family of licences – the granddaddy […]

#26 CFWhitman on 12.20.11 at 12:54 pm

This is misleading, isn’t it? Hasn’t the use of the GPL in new software releases gone up rather than down? It’s just that the use of permissive open source licenses has gone up faster.

Also, this doesn’t really show popularity of the resulting software in the number of people using it. It just shows the number of programs being released. The recent trend of a few companies releasing software under, e.g., the Apache License when they no longer think it’s worth it to maintain the software themselves seems to be adding to this trend more than developer choices for new software.

Another factor that might enter in is that the more permissive licenses encourage fragmentation because there is no obligation to release your code back to the project, while copyleft licenses (like the GPL) encourage unification because everyone has access to any distributed code so good forks are more likely to be remerged into the main trunk.

#27 Matthew Aslett on 12.21.11 at 12:49 am

@CFWhitman,

I don’t think it is misleading. It illustrates the comparative decline of the GPL family of licenses, and we updated the post to show that the number of GPL family projects has increased in real terms (albeit a lot slower than the permissive licenses.

While I am aware of some vendors “dumping” code using permissive licenses, as you note this only accounts for a few projects, not the enormous growth in the use of permissive licenses.

Matt

#28 Steve Clark on 12.21.11 at 7:45 am

So what! The real fact of the matter is how much of the software is actually used by someone. That would be the interesting question to have answered. Anybody can write some code and publish it but how valuable is it.

#29 CFWhitman on 12.21.11 at 11:35 am

I think my point stands. As Steve pointed out, it’s easy to release a little code under any license. That doesn’t mean it has any real world impact on the popularity of that license. How many people are actually using GPL software compared to more permissive licenses? This study doesn’t even address that. That makes it pretty worthless.

I don’t have a problem with permissive licenses in principle, but as I noted, they don’t encourage growth or unification. It’s the license that made the GNU/Linux combination so successful compared to the rather lower profile BSD series of projects. The BSD systems are good operating systems, but their license model doesn’t encourage growth the way the GPL does. Instead it leaves the path open to forking and keeping it secret. This makes developers less willing to contribute to the main project and slows growth. Since much growth is diverted to forks, the environment becomes splintered and that further discourages growth. It takes significantly more time for the real gems (like the BSD systems) to build momentum.

#30 Matthew Aslett on 12.21.11 at 3:33 pm

It’s not a study, it’s a blog post about a specific set of data. Just because you might disagree with the data, does not make it worthless. It has, for instance, started an interesting debate about the relative value of different open source projects. I agree that would make a very interesting study to complement this data and put it in context.

#31 CFWhitman on 12.27.11 at 10:33 am

It’s not about disagreeing with the data. It’s about the fact that the point of data they are using is not indicative of real world use. The number of users for the software is much more indicative of whether the GPL is actually “declining.” I spelled out pretty clearly that talking about number of projects rather than number of users is what is worthless. It doesn’t really tell us anything useful. Who cares if there are a hundred thousand new projects released under a license if hardly anyone at all actually uses the software?

When I said “study” I wasn’t talking about this (or any other) blog post, I was talking about the set of data itself. It’s possible that “study” was not the precisely correct term, but I was referring to the effort involved to collect the data.

#32 Mark S on 01.12.12 at 9:56 am

There are some people who have quasi-religious feelings about GPL, but CFWhitman underestimates the value of being FIRST.

Linux was already widely adopted when the open source BSD systems became available. From there, it was just demographics: People who knew somebody using Linux were more likely to adopt Linux. Since it had substantial market penetration already, it grew faster. With heavy market penetration came additional third-party developers.

I know this because I was there. I saw it happening.

Some years ago now, I got tired of having to port software from Linux to BSD. It was a problem because some developers assumed linux, and that software would not compile easily on BSD. So now I use Linux for the same reason I use Microsoft products: I have to deal with the reality that lots of other people have made that decision, and the costs of going against the trend are too high.

#33 Anton on 12.27.11 at 2:25 am

you can’t say “decline”. This is misleading, I agree with CFWhitman. It’s just that we are getting lesser new GPL projects then BSD *IF* you are right.
Does it mean “declining”? No, both licenses are on fast rise, however BSD license *might be* more often used for new projects. And I’m still skeptical, because I personally and many of friends of mine will be never use BSD license because the World is not ready for it.

I wonder how many more bad examples like Apple bsd developers need to see to understand that they are getting robbed? Why they still bite propaganda from blogs like that?

Think about Apple, protect your rights before releasing your code under BSD.

#34 Haakon on 12.20.11 at 1:12 pm

I like to advocate reciprocal license terms, because I believe these terms are beneficial to users in the long run. This usually means works under GNU licenses and Creative Commons Attribution Share-alike. I have nothing against other free (as in freedom) licenses.

However, advocating based on license terms have become more difficult than before. I used to be able to send people to Sourceforge by providing a link that contained software category, maturity, platform and license. This is not possible today.

Currently, if you choose Search, Advanced and License, you can see that there are 13091 GPLv2, 5526 GPLv3, 2420 LGPLv2, 818 LGPLv3 and 378 AGPL. However, if you add these as filters to see the software, you get 0 as the result – 0 – zero. It does not matter if you have chosen a category first. Adding a license as a filter gives zero result.

Okay, so this is a bug, but what does this tell us about Sourceforge “new” focus? For how long has Sourceforge “taught” its users that license terms are unimportant, the only thing that matters is that Sourceforge is a place for software available at no cost? Try another filter – you will get a result that shows software.

I think a lot of users will not use invisible advanced features like I tried to above. If sites like Sourceforge, Freecode, Google Code think license terms are important to tell users about, then they need to make these visible. There are many other gratis software sites, it makes little sense not to do it, as “source” or “code” are high-lighted even in the sites’ names.

It would be interesting to see if a visible license focus would encourage reciprocal license terms after a year.

#35 GPL понемногу уступает позиции пермиссивным открытым лицензиям | Lidzhiev [dot] com on 12.20.11 at 1:51 pm

[…] исследованию, проведённому на основании проводимого компанией Black […]

#36 Pieter on 12.20.11 at 2:08 pm

Black Duck, really? Aren’t they that pro-Microsoft outfit disguised as F/OSS “fans” like that Florian Mueller patent dude who finally had to admit that he was paid by Microsoft? Couldn’t you find a better or at least neutral source for your information?

I welcome the fact that GPL is on the decline. It is quite challenging to create a small business around GPL licensed software. And I don’t mean a service model like Red Hat as it is obvious that they are doing extremely well. Think smaller like software enhancements which under the GPL I must make available to whoever I sell/distribute the binaries to. My first customer will have the right to ask for the source including my patches/enhancements and redistribute it any way they see fit. So how am I going to recoup my investment in time and money? Licenses like the APL, BSD, MIT etc are much less demanding and provide an actual opportunity to create a small business.

#37 Matthew Aslett on 12.21.11 at 1:03 am

@Pieter,

As I have already mentioned not once, or twice but three times, although I had no reason personally to distrust Black Duck’s data I was previously encouraged to verify it against data collected and published by FLOSSmole. Having personally analyzed the data FLOSSmole collected from Rubyforge, Freshmeat, ObjectWeb and the Free Software Foundation I found that it showed essentially the same trend as Black Duck’s. In fact, it showed a more rapid decline in GPL usage than Black Duck’s.data. Having performed this analysis I have even less reason to doubt the neutrality of Black Duck’s data.

While I am repeating myself, may I also reiterate that if any one has any actual evidence that Black Duck is funded or unduly influenced by Microsoft now would be a really good time to raise it. By evidence, I mean more than the fact that if you throw a Black Duck into a river it would float and not sink.

#38 Grigor Gatchev on 12.20.11 at 3:41 pm

I’d be curious about the significance and impact of the different-licensed projects. It is a common practice novadays for businesses to “open-source” unsuccessful software projects, effectively dumping them overboard. This is almost always done under permissive licenses. So, the permissive licenses start numbering a lot of projects, but a lot of these are actually dead.

My impression is that the interest of the developers is maintained far more easily by the copyleft licenses. For example, the three largest software projects in a typical free software distro – the Linux kernel, LibreOffice and the GNU toolchain – are copylefted (GPLv2, LGPL and GPLv3 respectively). Most of the next 20 or 50 are copylefted, too. Among the popular larger projects, only Apache and Mozilla Firefox are licensed permissively (Firefox is licensed also under GPL, too). The situation in the free content is similar. Eg. Wikipedia is licensed under GFDL and CC-BY-SA.

It is great that the permissive licenses get foothold – it would mean that the need to rigorously defend the free software has decreased. Unhappily, I get the impression that this is not the case.

#39 Matthew Aslett on 12.21.11 at 12:53 am

@Grigor,

Interesting point about the significance of the projects. As I noted above, while I am aware of some vendors “dumping” code using permissive licenses, this only accounts for a few projects, not the enormous growth in the use of permissive licenses.

Meanwhile I am reminded of the question that encouraged us to examine the growth in permissive licenses in the first place: “name one popular community open source project created in the last 5 years that uses the AGPL or GPL?”

http://blogs.the451group.com/opensource/2011/06/06/the-trend-towards-permissive-licensing/

#40 Grigor Gatchev on 12.27.11 at 4:01 pm

The catch here is what means “important”. Name one popular community open source project created in the last years that uses a permissive license? You will probably be able to. But look at the scale of the projects you name. Aren’t there as important community projects of the same scale under a copyleft license, created during the last 5 years?

Right now we have a great comparison opportunity. The code of OpenOffice.org is inherited by two products: a copyleft-licensed one (LibreOffice, under LGPL) and permissively licensed one (Apache OpenOffice). Should we wait further to see which one will thrive, and which one will be forgotten?

In fact, I am curious about the origin of the “great proliferation” of permissively licensed software projects. What is the percentage of these started and supported by a community among them? Really. It may turn out that this proliferation is actually a result of the commercial companies starting to evaluate the advantages of the free software (but not really grokking its principles). Or, it may turn out that not only companies, but also disillusioned individual programmers dump their stalled or abandoned projects under a permissive license, under the impression that this will attract more developers. Is there a reasonably easily available way to make some stats on this? For example, to check the number of new permissively-licensed projects that are under active development, have at least eg. 5 active developers, etc.

#41 Art Protin on 12.20.11 at 5:36 pm

What misdirection.

In the feeding frenzy as Open Source lays waste to proprietary practices, the other licenses getting more of the projects than is GPL. However, at both a first order and second order approximation, GPL is forever! (It is usually easier to start over with nothing than to try to convert a project from GPL to something else) GPL will continue to grow (eating both proprietary and OS licensed projects) even as the proprietary license goes completely extinct. I expect GPL to be the last one standing.

#42 Matthew Aslett on 12.21.11 at 1:04 am

“GPL will continue to grow (eating both proprietary and OS licensed projects) even as the proprietary license goes completely extinct. I expect GPL to be the last one standing.”

Never going to happen. That would need the GPL family to be growing faster than all other OSS licensed software, let alone all proprietary licensed software. When 70%+ of all OSS was GPL family, and OSS was growing so rapidly there was a vague outside chance of the situation you describe coming to fruition at some distant point thousands of years into the future. That is why the comparative decline of the GPL family is significant.

#43 P2P Foundation » Blog Archive » GPL, copyleft use declining faster than ever on 12.20.11 at 9:50 pm

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#45 Matthew Aslett on 01.04.12 at 7:00 am

Thanks all for your comments.

There are all manner of things Black Duck’s data does not tell us about an open source project, including how many lines of code it has, how often it is downloaded, its popularity in terms of number of users or developers, how often the project is being updated, how many of the developers are employed by a single vendor, and what proportion of the codebase is contributed by developers other than the core committers.

However, I was more interested in what the data does tell us, rather than what it doesn’t, and that is that the proportion of projects using the GPL family of licenses is decreasing and has been for at least the last three years. While the data might be limited in scope, the rate of decline is significant and noteworthy.

It is absolutely valid to describe this trend as the decline of the GPL, just as we as an industry also talk of the decline of Internet Explorer compared to other browsers despite that fact that the number of users is growing in real tearms thanks to the overall expansion in Internet usage. The ‘market share’ and therefore the significance of the GPL family is clearly in decline, with regards to the number of open source projects.

There might be all manner of reasons for this comparative decline, including the dumping of code and projects using permissive licenses by companies and individuals that don’t understand software freedom, however no one has offered any actual evidence for that or any other suggestions made in the comments to this post.

A study that took into account how many lines of code a project has, how often it is downloaded, its popularity in terms of number of users or developers, how often the project is being updated, how many of the developers are employed by a single vendor, and what proportion of the codebase is contributed by developers other than the core committers *might* provide an answer to that question.

However, there will always be people who would find a flaw in that study, if it failed to deliver results that agreed with their perspective. Such is life.

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