Copyright Reform Bad for GPL/Open Source?

Ars Technica has a piece about Sweden’s Pirate Party pushing for copyright reform. Counterintuitively, this may weaken alternative licensing schemes (“copyleft”) such as the GPL. The GPL relies on strong copyright law to enforce its stipulation that derivative works also carry the GPL (“share-alike”), which keeps open source projects from going proprietary.

The Pirate Party’s plan, which proposes five-year copyright terms, would make it unnecessary for companies to conform with copyleft licensing requirements only five years after the code is published. This effectively guts copyleft as a vehicle for encouraging broader code disclosure and makes copyleft licenses such as the GPL behave more like permissive licenses.

If, after five years, you can do whatever you want with copyrighted/copylefted code, then you’re not bound by the GPL. Not only would free software be fueling proprietary projects without any code in return, but developers of proprietary code would be less likely to help develop the free version and more likely to just wait out the five years and simply take the code. As Richard Stallman notes:

Once the Swedish Pirate Party had announced its platform, free software developers noticed this effect and began proposing a special rule for free software: to make copyright last longer for free software, so that it can continue to be copylefted. This explicit exception for free software would counterbalance the effective exception for proprietary software. Even ten years ought to be enough, I think. However, the proposal met with resistance from the Pirate Party’s leaders, who objected to the idea of a longer copyright for a special case.

I understand libertarian inclinations, but this is a case where a stricter law actually leads to more freedom. Pirate party supporters, please give Stallman’s argument some serious thought.

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