Copyleft – is it practical?

Ever since I first learnt about copyleft, and the general public license (GPL) along with the design science license (DSL), probably 10 or more years back, I’ve wondered how practical it is to use. It would be nice if knowledge could be shared to enable and empower, and computer software enables many more people to put complex mathematical models to use. It is a mistake to assume that just because someone does not understand a mathematical expression that they also do not have a qualitative understanding of the relationship between the characteristics modelled by the mathematics. With respect to practicality of copyleft the problem concerns the specifics of the resource being shared and the possibility of making a living from producing such resource.

Time and effort, that is life, needs to be expended to produce a software application: once produced digital products are easy to replicate and distribute. Those who are familiar with the source and have the appropriate tools can also easily modify such source and produce a new digital product. Barring those who have a job elsewhere, or who get upfront payment from a publisher/distributor, most creators expend their own resources and expect to recover the costs of production from sales. Actually probably not so much an expectation of recovering costs but supporting current and future endeavours. Put another way if they cannot sell what they have produced then they cannot produce anything else, and more importantly won’t live to produce anything else. A financial transaction of some description is required somewhere in the process to get the money, necessary to buy the food and shelter necessary to support life, necessary to allow production. {NB: Tax is strange. Companies are taxed on profits, whilst workers are effectively taxed on total income. If owned a work horse, feeding it would be an expense. Keeping humans alive, fit and healthy and able to work apparently isn’t an expense. What would happen if living expenses were subtracted from personal incomes before tax applied?}

So creator has an end-product, so how do they release it to others? An important point that seems to keep being missed elsewhere is that there is the creator and then there are others. The creator typically owns the copyright or other so called intellectual property rights, the users don’t have any such rights. The creator releases their digital product, that product may or may not be in a form that is easy to modify. A book released as a plain text file is easy to modify. A photograph released as an image file can also typically be easily modified. An application program however released as a binary executable is not easy to modify. An executable program is not the direct product of the creator, the source code the creator wrote to generate the executable is their direct product. Without such source, modifications and derivatives of the original work are difficult to produce. However the executable is still digital, and easy to copy and distribute. If the creators have no control over copying and distribution then they need some other way of making an income, of making a living. Such as selling time, or more preferably providing a service.

A Simple License

Consider a simple scenario, where by each buyer is permitted to sell the software to no more than two other people to recover their costs. So the creator sells the software to one person for say $1000. That person sells to two other people for $500, each of them sells for $250. And so forth, until the cost to recover is less than $1 and not worth the effort, each person then gives away to two other people. Now this is different than several people pooling funds to buy one item, as all people have their own copy of the software. However only one user has paid for the right to consume the creators time to answer questions regarding what they consider to be defects in the product. All other buyers have to ask questions of the sellers who are little more than retailers. These retailers are only supplying the product, they are not providing training, assistance, nor fixing defects or addressing user preferences.

Cars, Houses and Entertainment

If buy a house can typically make changes to it. If buy a car, can typically make changes as long as it does not impact on the engineering, though even then it may still be possible to implement a change. These are the two most expensive items that people are likely to buy, and they can be sold and resold many times over. Few of the designers are known to the public, and even fewer are known to be rich.

Come to entertainment products and have many public figures who are rich, from what appears to be doing very little. These public figures, or at least their publishers are the ones who seem to spend the most time complaining about infringement of intellectual property rights. They could be seen as selling unnecessary junk. Do people really need to own a DVD? What about people who work in the theatre? People go to the theatre they watch a play, and then its little more than a memory. They attend a second performance and they may not consider as good as the first, or they may consider it better. Each additional performance is different, and eventually performed by different people. The people in the theatre are doing work, there and then during their performance, it is that current work that people are paying for. The DVD however is something else. The DVD allows the one performance to be seen over and over again, and can allow that viewing to be seen around the world, and see the performance long after the performers themselves have died. Or at least as long as there are no digital rights management (DRM) devices preventing sales and viewing in a given country or region. But what exactly are they protecting?


Brand as little to do with quality. Take towels for example. One textile mill produces towels, some towels get the mill label put on them, others get labels for hotel chains, shipping cruise liners, and others get high brand labels. All are the same product but with different labels only. The low quality stuff, is sold through the works store as seconds and at significantly reduced price. Now protection is understandable if a low quality substitute is passed off as being the real thing. But protection is not understandable when a lower priced, alternative is made available, and is clearly an alternative. For certain some items have a design, and from a distance cannot tell the genuine brand item from an alternative substitute and that may therefore damage the reputation and status of the original. However most copy protection issues do not appear to be of that nature. With the digital world the copies are exact or deliberately modified. In many cases the copy protection seems more aligned with denying access, a restriction of freedom, a political action rather than a business need.

Copying beneficial to business?

From a business perspective it seems that allowing copying could be beneficial. Consider have two DVD’s one from the original and one a derivative. The derivative is a lower price. The difference between the two is in the packaging and the contents of the DVD complementing the main content. Only purchase of one of the DVD’s will support the original artists. The original artists oppose the derivative because they don’t generate any income from it, but the derivative sells more copies and attracts a greater audience. However even more derivatives can be produced from the derivative and sold at still lower prices. From a quality perspective the issue is who is supplying the right goods at the right time in the right condition. Those producing the derivative are clearly on the right track to producing the quality the greater public requires. However, the original creators are not recovering their costs through the sales of the derivative. On the other hand the original publishers typically do a lot more than recover their costs from the sales of their product. So the loss of sales is not exactly a hardship. But assuming a small player in the game is not recovering their costs, then they will not be able to produce any more. If the creator no longer creates, then the producer of the derivative work also has a problem. They can only stay in the market so long, simply selling the derivative work, they will eventually need something new to sell. The producers become new publishers in the market place in need of something to publish. Can see why the publishers are more vocal about copy protection than the artists. With copyleft a new set of publishers will emerge and eventually these publishers will need to pay the creators.

Now with the Internet there is no need to package a DVD, but a digital movie or audio file still needs to be packaged some how. A music track can be presented with a large variety of visual imagery. Some people like blogs with comments, personally I prefer articles free from all the clutter of comments. I don’t like wasting time for comments to load, nor wasting time for advertising to load. Youtube is good, but it is not a reliable source to return to, its like a one-off theatre performance, but for some things that is good enough.

Copy Protection

For new creators, copy protection seems like a lot of hassle and typically dependent on expensive and unreliable technology. More importantly intellectual property rights are not and never have been real protections to the creators. The creator needs to track, and seek out infringer’s of the rights, they then have to prove infringement, if they do not have the resources to support such endeavours then its not worth the effort. Not the least of which, is the issue of what is actually protected.

Intellectual Property Rights

Typically intellectual property (IP) rights do not protect ideas, nor are such rights granted for things which can typically be produced from readily available materials using readily available tools. In other words some one with access to the same resources and encountering the same problem as another is likely to come up with the similar invention to tackle that problem. One person may want to sell such invention for profit, one person simply wants to implement and use for own purposes. It is not the intent of IP rights to prevent people or business from doing what they need to do. The primary purpose is to protect recovery of investment in research design and development carried out to produce a product for commercial purposes.


However there is another issue, and that is goods need to be fit-for-purpose and that is typically demonstrated using applied science. Problems occur when the science is hidden behind proprietary barriers. That is why I liked the idea of the DSL, unfortunately I’m not certain what the license really has to do with science or design. The creative commons licenses seem more appropriate for sharing and distribution of knowledge, when not in the form of an executable program.

Getting Information to the People

Copyleft for example is important for United Nations publications supposed to assist developing countries, as there is little point to a printed publication which people in developing countries cannot afford to buy. Permitting derivatives can get the part that people really need to those people in a form that they can afford. A nice book that sits on a book case collecting dust is not the requirement, the information inside the books is what people need. If that information is best distributed as a plain text file that can be read on a mobile phone, then that is the way it should be distributed. For others a photocopy of a given page, obtained from a local store where the book is held, may be the best means of distribution. The objective is to get the information out there, by any means possible. It is a different game than that played by the entertainment industry. Not the least of which entertainment is not essential.

Protecting Copyright

All up it does seem that copyleft is not beneficial for creators, on the other hand copyright isn’t all that much value to them either unless they have the resources to pursue infringement. Further more if can prove infringement what compensation can be claimed? The infringer offered at a price the public was willing to pay, the creator didn’t, so if the infringer wasn’t in the market place the creator would not have gained any extra sales. At best can only fairly claim some percentage of sales not a fixed fee per unit sold. That is it would be unjust to claim compensation greater than the infringer made in profit.

So assuming that for most new creators that copyright is not practical to defend, is there any benefit in deliberately releasing some of the rights bestowed by copyright? As far as I can tell the most useful licenses are:

  1. Creative Commons licenses
  2. MIT type license
  3. GPL

On the GPL

The GPL seems to lack practicality. Sure the creator of a work can sell the work, that is the usable executable version of the work. If it is licenced under the GPL then the buyers can request access to the source code, and no additional fee is permitted to be charged for that code. The buyers can then modify the code and then sell their version of the program. At which point it starts to seem a crazy idea, as the improved program can be released at a lower price and undercut the original. Alternatively it is an improved program so it can be sold at a higher price and still rip the market away from the original source of the application.

But if users were able to write the program why didn’t they do so in the first place? One reason is that it requires too much time and effort, therefore rather than make they choose to buy. Buyers are therefore typically users, they want the capabilities of the software, they are not developers, builders or distributors. But they may well be capable of adding extra functionality or fixing bugs. So just because someone is able to modify the code doesn’t mean they want to get into supporting and distributing such software full-time.

The problem with the GPL is that once people get the software, they then seem to be able to give the software away. Fundamentally should have no right to the source code unless bought license to use the application. Further more should have no rights to sell or give away the original application, distribution and sales should be limited to derivatives only. But that does not appear to be the case. So once released under the GPL have a potential problem. However, the original author and only the original author has the rights to distribute the application under any license that they wish, all others have their freedom restricted by the GPL.

Two versions of an application can exist on the Internet, one free from payment (gratis) and one for a fee. The gratis version will only get more downloads if it can be found more readily than the paid version. The free download will only get more actual users if there are resources available that enable people to put the application to use. If there is no documentation, no way to get errors fixed, no way to get features added, then the gratis version is likely of little value. Sure the users are required to have access to the source, but that doesn’t mean they have the ability or desire to modify the source. Just because someone can understand the programming language used doesn’t mean they want to expend time becoming familiar with the source code for a specific application and what exactly that code is doing and why.

The issue for the creator is: can they provide better support than others? The answer may be not, but that may not be a problem. The creators main skill may be creating new stuff, they will be the go to resource for new and original, whilst others support and maintain their creations. Such creations are not available unless the creator releases them under the GPL, and no release will occur unless someone buys the software. The first buyer or buyers may be software developers, who could see that they can make it better: but still they may not be interested in being distributors and providing support. More likely the first buyers will be users.

Motive for Giving away something which have bought

Now why would a user give away something they have paid for? It is likely that those who break copy protection devices are not buyers but only users employed by buyers. It is also likely that some buyers need more licenses than they can afford. So one issue is simply the challenge of breaking the copy protection. The other issue is making the software available at prices that are affordable to both individuals and business. Individuals need to learn how to use software, may be a 30 trial allows them to do so. Both business and individuals need to know that the software suits their needs, business needs enough licenses to cover its workers needs. Business doesn’t necessarily require all its workers to have the same functionality. With respect to digital drawings for example, people on the shop floor only need to be able to view the drawings, others need to create drawings, whilst others need to be able to edit or at least comment on such drawings. Each can have the drawing in a different digital format to be used by different tools, and each of those tools can have varying complexity and cost.

Application Software versus Data

The biggest problem is not so much the software, but the format of the data files. More than software being open source, it is the data files being open. People want or at least need engines which permit reading and writing data files without being constrained to specific software. Without such, a creator can release new software using a different file format than a previous release under the GPL. The previous releases cannot read the new file, but that may not be a problem, unless the new release has features wish to have.

Upgrades that aren’t

That highlights an issue with proprietary software, they keep changing the interface of the software and the file formats, and contending it is an upgrade of the previous product, when in reality it is a new product. People don’t necessarily like or want the new product. But they are coerced into getting the new software to stay compatible with clients, or on the basis of security holes. Most of the security holes are only a problem if connected to the Internet, and are otherwise a consequence of moving an application away from the primary task its meant to perform. Does notepad have the same security vulnerabilities as MS Word, if not why? What unnecessary bloat is placed in a word processor, that the typical user does not need, and which otherwise causes the presence of the security hole? Small tools which perform a specific task and which can be plugged together to perform more complex tasks, is typically better than complex tools which confuse access to the simple task actually want to do. As software becomes more flexible it then requires more options to be set before can get on with the simple task need to do: instead of saving time the newer software causes delays.

Creators and Users

Which brings us back to creators and users. Creators want to create, users just want to get their specific job done, with out unnecessary hindrance. Software released under the GPL has the potential to retain its original form for longer. Whilst there may be people who want to add unwanted features, there will be those that don’t. Programmers and developers will most likely want the challenge of adding extra features. But users and those supporting them will want to stick to the features actually wanted and actually used. So the software can branch out in different directions, and whilst one branch may cease development, it doesn’t mean that branch of the software will cease to be in circulation and cease being used.

Dependency on Software

With proprietary software, businesses can become dependent on such software, even have a commercial advantage for a short time whilst they have the software and others don’t. But they loose that advantage when the software otherwise ceases to be available in the market. With engineering software for example dependent on national codes of practice, the software may cease to be available and once the code changes then the software is no longer valid. If design software can have codes of practice plugged in following a common interface, then such application can be kept up to date simply by buying the plug-in for the new standard. Unfortunately no engineering software is currently of such nature.

Availability of Engineering Software

Whilst engineering software does not support plug-in extensions, then the GPL provides a means of keeping the software in circulation and compliant with current codes: someone somewhere will pick up the code and modify it.

More over when it comes to certain calculations, especially those that can be set up in SMath, FreeMat and LibreOffice Calc, just about anyone who knows how to use the software and perform the calculations can set up the required calc sheets: in the main it only takes a little longer than using pencil/paper and pocket calculator. Two people using pencil and paper will produce different presentations for the same sequence of calculations. Therefore expect that calculations produced by electronic worksheet will also be different.

Once an electronic worksheet (eWorksheet) is created time is saved on future projects, as no longer need to work through a common sequence of calculations, do not need to write out with pencil, and do not need to push numbers through calculator. That saving of time, allows the calculations to be made more complete, and the eWorksheet to be made more flexible. So the capabilities of the eWorksheet increase with each usage. That can then cause problems to others as they start from scratch, and take hours to complete calculations others are completing in minutes.


It is a matter of scheduling, do we put the effort in on the project, or do we become proactive and put the effort in prior to any project, so that can tackle and complete the project faster? Releasing eWorksheet under copyleft gives others the benefit of the creators proactive work. However whilst it saves them time creating the eWorksheet, users still need to spend time assessing the validity of the eWorksheet, and otherwise making the calculations their own: that is adding extra notes, explanations and otherwise giving it personal style.

Regulatory Approval of Technology

A problem is the difference between designers, fabricators and regulators. Whilst designers and regulators may put time and effort into producing calculations as quickly as possible for common structural forms, the regulators do not appear to. So with respect to nail plated timber roof trusses, manufacturers may be able to produce calculations in a few minutes, but several hours are required by certifiers using general purpose tools. The regulators did not pursue the creation of rapid checking tools. Software spewing out paper or pdf files for regulatory approval is both a waste of time and storage space. The regulators and certifiers need rapid electronic assessment tools, not a pile of documents to review.

Technical Calculations

Just about anyone can read a book and and set up calculations to complete a task, most people however won’t and don’t. Most people just want the usable results of calculations, not the calculations themselves. So other people provide services, interpreting codes of practice and conducting the appropriate calculations. Calculations can be hidden behind a user interface, so that typical users can see required inputs and useful outputs but never see the behind the scenes calculations.

Therefore software that crunches numbers isn’t all that big a deal. Sure many can crunch the numbers, but they won’t automate the process, but if automation is available without fee they are likely to exploit and use. But if they do so, part of the value of the service they provide disappears, since their ability to understand and evaluate complex mathematical expressions is no longer relevant: a brain dead unimaginative block of silicon can crunch the numbers. Consequently they have to provide real service with respect to the reason for such calculations.

User Interface (UI) and User Experience (UX)

A “to do list” is a simple product, and there are hundreds of different printed versions and equally a multitude of software applications providing such functionality. It is the presentation and relevance to the individual that matters, not the actual function. With calculations it is how we get from the inputs to the outputs that matters and how that is presented. To put another way releasing calculation engines under a GPL, will put the engine to work behind the scenes of a multitude of different user interfaces and produce a variety of different outputs, from screen only output to printed reports.

Cutting off Own Source of Income

However the issue still remains that once the creator has released their creation under copyleft, they potentially cut off their own source of income. It is only if end-users return to them for assistance, for some kind of service that they can potentially retain some form of income.

That poses a problem, as it suggests the author needs to release their creation at the highest possible price. The problem with the highest possible price is that it will likely encourage heavy promotion of a zero fee version. It therefore seems preferable to keep the creation under a proprietary license until achieved desired level of return on investment and then release under copyleft: but that is likely to require expensive copy protection.

So back to an earlier point someone has to find the gratis version more readily than the paid version and it has to meet their needs. The creator can always check how easy it is to find gratis versions of their product, and they can ask for it to be removed. They can allow the gratis version to remain, to provide a benchmark, as to what they have to do, to provide something which people value enough to pay for.


For any other product in the market place retailers sell at vastly different prices. Some people make a profit on a given product, others give the product away as a gift. Retailers however don’t produce the product, but they do have to pay someone to get the product. Retailers pay different prices from wholesalers, and wholesalers pay different prices from manufacturers. Differences in prices typically concern such factors as economic order quantities (EOQ), product mix, and transportation costs. Product mix, along with combination of goods and services, is probably the greatest determinant of price from any given supplier. The profit on an individual item, is only of importance if the buyers shopping cart only ever contains a single item. If the basket contains a mix of products, then the issue is: which products contribute the greatest percentage to the total profit.

The low cost sweets get the family into the store, but it is the lounge suite that makes the profit for the store. Without the sweets however, there would be few people in the store. The sweets are more of an operational expense, a production cost, than a profit centre.

Manufacturers design and make a product, but unless wholesalers and retailers stock the item, few people will know about and few people will buy. Wholesalers and retailers purchasing decisions censor products. If manufacturers can sell direct to the end-users then have more potential for their product to see the light of day. The problem is capturing the publics attention, and keeping their attention long enough to become aware of the product. Simply having a product available isn’t good enough to make an income from its sales.

The point is that there is no reason why the same digital product cannot be supplied side by side at vastly different prices. They may all be supplied through the swampy marshes of the Internet, but they are not all equal in value. The most valuable one being, the one the customer actually finds and is then able to buy and receive. The importance of the local store is that they have the goods you need, when you need them, and within walking distance.

So the failing to make a living releasing creations using copyleft, may not be so much an issue of copyleft, but more an issue of the value of the end-product which is provided. Such problem still exists even if go to the trouble and expense to try and protect intellectual property rights. If the product has value and is at the wrong price, then the challenge to break the protection will arise. If it has little value, then little effort will be employed to break the protection.

No one will bother breaking protection if it is easier to produce an alternative which is equal or better than the original.

With an ever increasing number of software libraries available to do most things via computer, more and more people will be enabled to write the software that they want. Programming will be little different than reading and writing, nearly everyone will be doing it. Plugging software applications together will become increasingly viable. Under such circumstances little effort will be required to create and therefore no investment to protect: intellectual property rights therefore should be irrelevant and implementation of such seen only as a means to monopolise and stifle supply.

Copyleft is no less practical then copyright. Release something under copyright and a few people will ignore such rights, most won’t care one way or the other. Release something under copyleft, giving people the rights to create and distribute derivatives, most people won’t care.


  1. [28/01/2016]Original freewriting
  2. [30/01/2016] Added subtitles, and divided into more paragraphs.