Technology

SugarCRM's Sweet Taste of Freedom


The software provider's adoption of the latest version of the GNU General Public License is a ringing endorsement of the free software movement's charter

A momentous event occurred in the history of software this week—though some may have been too consumed with the stock market malaise or hand-wringing over Apple's (AAPL) iPhone sales to notice. For anyone who missed the news, a company called SugarCRM, a provider of software that helps companies manage customer relationships, threw its weight behind the latest version of the GNU General Public License, which governs the use of freely distributed software.

SugarCRM said it is adopting version 3 of the GNU General Public License (known throughout the global IT industry as GPLv3) as the copyright license for its flagship customer-relationship management software. It's a crucial endorsement of the first update in 16 years of what has become the charter of the free software movement, and SugarCRM is to be applauded.

Broad Industry Consensus

GPLv3, recently completed by the Free Software Foundation, is a copyright license for computer software and related works and it uses the structure of copyright law to ensure that users of software get freedom along with the code. Specifically, GPLv3 is intended to ensure several things for the businesses that depend on software for critical operations: They're free to study and understand the human-readable source code of the programs; they are free to employ anyone they choose to make changes, improvements, and fixes to the software they use; and they're free to copy those improvements and share them with any one they want—or keep them secret—so long as they don't limit any other user's rights in the code they choose to share.

This insistence on freedom as the central concept in dealing with computer programs has often marked the Free Software Foundation in the public mind as a radical or intransigent advocacy organization. Microsoft (MSFT), whose revenue model depends on not providing freedom to users, has done everything it can to enhance that view of the FSF and the GPL.

But the lengthy process of open, public deliberation that produced GPLv3—carried out by the FSF with the assistance of my nonprofit legal services organization, the Software Freedom Law Center—belies this caricature: GPLv3 is the result of a careful and successful attempt to build a broad industry consensus behind the rules that define how software can be born free and remain free to share.

Debunking the Antibusiness Myth

The parties that participated in making GPLv3 include some of the world's most successful IT vendors, such as IBM (IBM), Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), and Sun Microsystems (SUNW). Other participants include gadget manufacturers such as Nokia (NOK), Motorola (MOT), and Apple; the world's largest investment banks and securities houses, which are among the most intensive and demanding users of IT; and companies such as Red Hat (RHAT) and Novell (NOVL), which make prosperous businesses out of selling services and software people can freely share.

Now SugarCRM, a classic example of a software startup made successful simply by making good software, is choosing to cast its lot with GPLv3, which puts the last nail in the coffin of the myth of the antibusiness GPL. SugarCRM CEO John Roberts and his colleagues are experienced businesspeople and technologists who understand that the way to prosperity in the 21st century software sector is by making the best possible shared software that draws a community of committed voluntary contributors—users who have a stake in improving the program for themselves and everyone else—to make the best even better.

The management of SugarCRM is switching licensing terms as a business decision—one that's about how to optimize the community that drives their business. Their decision shows that the industry consensus the FSF built for GPLv3 is the way of the future for software startups that want to become the next generation's giants.

The Value of "Free"

English-speaking businesses often choose to call free software "open-source," because the word "free" in English is confusing: these businesses respect users' freedom, but they don't give their software away. But whether the programs are called open-source or free software, the rules that permit everyone to copy, understand, and improve code as long as they share and share alike—the rules that establish respect for users' freedom—are increasingly transforming the software industry. The overall model of "platform management," based on locking your customers in, is being transformed to a model based on setting your customers free—free to improve your product and to help your business grow.

What's sweet for SugarCRM is what turned out to be sweet for all the businesses that cooperated in making GPLv3—and for the many other business-oriented, open-source software startups that are going to follow their lead in adopting GPL. The sugar here is the model of building community around your product by respecting users' rights, thereby freeing your customers to increase your product's value and expand demand for the services and knowhow that make the software's value real in the enterprises that use it. That's the software industry's future: the sweet taste of freedom.

Moglen is chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center and a professor of law and legal history at Columbia University Law School.

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