GPL & Karma — #_doing_it_wrong?


The debate on GPL in WordPress context is a vicious, volatile, inflammable debate. But time and again people have often quoted the work “Karma” in that context. And Karma is perhaps one of the most misunderstood and misused words.

Time and again the debate has turned ugly. It’s a never-ending debate. But I think it is because of personal expectations (and false expectations) that bring disappointment and discontentment. It is also due to the fact that people forget the GPL part when they judge others distributing GPL software. Or perhaps because they have no clue what GPL is and what law is. People see GPL from all colored glasses and regardless declare their judgement on whether exercising the GPL freedom is morally, ethically wrong or right.

What is GPL?

  1. GPL is a license or a set of permissions.
  2. GPL allows you the freedom to run the program, for any purpose.
  3. GPL allows you access to the source code, the freedom to study how the program works, and the freedom to change it to make it do what you wish.
  4. GPL allows you the freedom to redistribute copies of the original program so you can help your neighbor.
  5. GPL allows you the freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others. By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes.

When you distribute your software as per GPL, those who have access to your software enjoy the above freedoms. So what’s the problem?

  1. Derivatives of GPL software have to follow GPL.
  2. Some software developers build GPL software to make money.
  3. When these software developers sell their software, the customers can give it out for free.
  4. The software developers feel hurt because it hurts their revenues.

So what’s the problem?

Well the developers started hacking someone else’s GPL software at the first place. Or they built upon it, so their own software follows GPL. But, eventually these software developers expect to be paid for every copy. And if not, they tweet “Karma never loses” or something like “Karma is a bi***” etc.

What is Karma?

Karma (is pronounced “Karm” in the land of it’s origin unlike in the west) is a word that has it’s origin in the Sanskrit language. (I did read somewhere claimed that it’s a Buddhist word). Being a practitioners of Sanātana Dharma I can tell you that it’s not a Buddhist word; though it’s one of the core principals of Buddhism (which is an offshoot of Sanātana Dharma).

When people use Karma in the same sentence with an expletive, they typically mean to refer to a back-biting-scorpion that takes revenge without fail and at a time when you are least expecting it and delivers justice and takes revenge for you when you are incapable of taking revenge yourself.

Karma means “act” or “deed”. But even in Hinduism and Buddhism, it’s often used to refer to the justice accrued upon you against the karma you’ve done in your life. Though there’s another word to describe it and is unfamiliar because it’s more technical (unused in the spoken language and is always used in a spiritual context). The word is Prarabdha — and that’s the word that translates to: the justice accrued unto you against your deeds.

So it’s like when you distribute a GPL software that is actually paid and no one can stop you, the developer curses you and tells you “Karma will take care of you” or that you have done bad unto me and God will deliver justice (and may be break your head).

That’s where semantics come into play. A photographer places some food grains on the parapet and waits for a bird to come by so he can photograph it. A cat passes by and licks it up. The photographer pacifies himself saying “Karma will take care of the cat”.

The objections of free distribution of paid GPL work rise because of several reasons:

  1. That GPL forces itself on derivative works.
  2. For earning their bread, developers build upon GPL software and “expect to be paid for every copy”.
  3. Developers believe that distributing their software is a crime. And that the karma will take care of people who distribute their software for free.


Surprisingly there are a lot (and perhaps the majority of) of us who believe that distributing paid GPL software is wrong. Why? I don’t know. A person became a teacher to make a living. He’d only teach to those who could pay. Someone came and became his student. He decided to start teaching for free and spread the knowledge.

The concept of giving is innate to the Vedic religions (they don’t call themselves as a religion though law defines them as such). That’s where the concept of Karma and Prarabdha comes from. The virtue of openness, freedom and giving is perhaps why GPL was born. And the same values are core pillars of Vedic religions. Those who taught were gurus and they wouldn’t charge. An able disciple would offer them their wish or something that the disciple could afford. The guru in all his humility would decline. And in such modesty, humility persisted the idea of sharing and spreading freedom.

Sanātana Dharma is a long discussion, perhaps much more complex than GPL — good or bad. But again, what’s wrong with free distribution of paid GPL software? Honestly, I can’t figure out… but everyone has an opinion.

Further Reading:

It’s legal but unethical

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