Research Kit and the GPL

Apple released ResearchKit as an open source project on GitHub today. The project is complete with pull requests, a wiki, and a few sample projects to get started. While the project is great in its own right, it was the context of this tweet by Daniel Jalkut that caught my eye:

ResearchKit will probably save and improve more lives thanks to being unencumbered by the GPL.
Daniel Jalkut (@danielpunkass) Tue Apr 14 2015 12:36 PM CDT

Apple could have kept this to themselves, simply added ResearchKit along with AppKit and UIKit as another capability easily programmed into one of their platforms, but they didn’t. That’s not to say that Apple doesn’t have selfish motivations with ResearchKit. Putting the iPhone at the center of medical research at a time when the healthcare industry is just starting to feel the weight of the baby boomers is clearly a strategic move for Apple, but I’m not sure that’s entirely why they did it. Call me an idealist, but I think Apple created and released ResearchKit for the greater good. Which, finally, brings me to the license.

The license that they chose, the BSD license, permits the most “free” use of the code. If someone wants to port the code to Android, close it off, and sell it, they are perfectly free to do so, and Apple might even be ok with that. I think the spirit of what Daniel was saying is that, despite the ethical arguments on the side of the GPL, Apple is going to actually do more good for society with the combination of their devices and this liberally licensed open source code.

I’ve made similar arguments before. The GNU community far too often overlooks actual utility in pursuit of a utopian dream. But, trust is a complicated subject, and trust and control are at the heart of what the GNU project is fighting for. They believe that if you do not have access to the source code of an application or device, that opens you up to being manipulated, spied on, or otherwise harassed. The license is designed to prevent anyone from taking a GPL licensed code base and closing it to public access. They are correct, to a point. However, the same people who make that argument are more often than not consumers of free online services like Gmail and Google Docs.

The proponents of the GPL like to define different levels and explanations of “freedom”. Free as in beer, free as in speech, and so on. Apple released code today that is designed to make the world a better place, and left it on the table for anyone to do whatever they wish with it. Study it, change it, use it as the base for your next hit app, whatever you like. That is real freedom, all around.