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10 Miscopnceptions about the GPL August 31, 2006

Posted by rjdohnert in Opinions, Tech News.

IT Managers Journal has an article on the 10 misconceptions of the GPL. In it they discusses “misinformation” that has been spread about the GPL and attempt to clean it up a little.

Link to article

My Thoughts; Well Im going to roll through them here and tell yopu what I think.

1. The GPL is viral

The idea that any software that comes into contact with GPL-licensed software also becomes subject to the GPL seems to have originated with Craig Mundie, a senior vice president of Microsoft, in a speech delivered at the New York University Stern School of Business in May 2001. Since then, David Turner reports, many people have come to believe that even having GPL software on the same computer brings other software under the license. In extreme cases, Turner says, this belief has lead to bans on all GPL software at some companies.

This misunderstanding stems from section 2 of the current GPL, which states only that modified versions of GPL software must also be licensed under the GPL. However, the section clearly states that if a program “can be reasonably considered independent and separate works in themselves, then the GPL does not apply to it” and that being on the same “storage or distribution medium does not bring the other work under the scope of this License.” As Fontana points out, the definition of a derivative work could be clearer — and should be in the third version of the license — but the general principle is unmistakable.

Actually that didnt come from Craig Mundie that came from you guys. Eben Moglen to be exact With comments such as this: “If the kernel were pure GPL in its license terms…you couldn’t link proprietary video drivers into it, whether dynamically or statically,” and among other things. They are the ones who pretty much said it. There was even talk at one point about including a clause in the GPL that if your code is compiled using the GCC that your code would automatically be under the terms of the GPL, it never came to pass and its not a term of the GPL but this is the stuff they put out, and nobody else.

2. The GPL is unenforceable

At the opposite extreme from the idea that the GPL is viral is that it is unenforceable — or, in Turner’s words, “It’s just a bunch of hippies. How are they going to force us to do anything?” Turner attributes this misconception at least partly to the Free Software Foundation’s preference for helping violators come into compliance rather than resorting automatically to lawyers and the courts. Yet this preference can also be reversed; the fact that violators consistently prefer compliance to a legal battle strongly suggests that they believe the license would be enforced. More importantly, in the few cases where the GPL has gone to court, such as Welte v. Sitecom in Germany or Drew Technologies, Inc. v. Society of Automotive Engineers, Inc. in the United States, the license has been indirectly or directly upheld.

No company likes litigation, no one likes court. Its easier to try and settle your differences than go to court. Ultimately, it all falls onto a judge and what he/she thinks. The GPL in the states has never been upheld in a court of law, thats a fact. We will see what happens when/if anyone actually grows the balls and attempts to take it on.

3. You can’t charge for GPL software

Some of the first words in the GPL are, “When we speak of free software, we are referring to freedom, not price.” Yet despite repeated reminders from the Free Software Foundation, including one on its home page, even some members of the free software communities believe that charging money for GPL software is illegal. Dozens of companies, including Red Hat and Novell, who continue to charge for free software, daily prove otherwise.

The only mentions of price in the GPL come in section 1, which states that, “You may charge a fee for the physical act of transferring a copy, and you may at your option offer warranty protection in exchange for a fee,” and section 3b, which states that source code must be provided “for a charge no more than your cost of physically performing source distribution.”

Seems redundant, but if you offer the source code of your product for download and recompile, someone takes the code, creates their own version and distributes for free than whats the point of selling anything? You arent going to be successful with it. So while the GPL doesnt restrict you from selling GPL’ed code, you really arent going to be successful selling it. The only sustainable business model surrounding Open Source seems to be the subscription based offering.

4. The “liberty or death” clause applies absolutely

Section 7 of the GPL is sometimes tagged as the “liberty of death” clause because it states that conditions imposed by court orders or allegations of patent infringement do not release users of the license from following its conditions. Instead, if they cannot meet both the imposed conditions and the GPL’s conditions, they must stop distributing.

According to Fontana, many users interpret section 7 far too rigorously. Although the section applies only to patent licenses that prohibit users from passing on full GPL rights, Fontana says, “Some read the section as prohibiting distribution of GPLed code under the benefit of any non-sublicensable patent license.” In addition, “some have worried about the existence of a possibly-applicable patent, or of some law or regulation that might potentially be applied to everyone in a particular jurisdiction is enough to trigger this jurisdiction.” Neither reading is supported by the actual text of the license.

I love it when people contradict themselves. This term says that if you cannot distribute every peice of code you cannot redistribute. So I think its pretty clear and its pretty likely the FSF is going to put you in the hotseat if you distribute a binary and not the source code
5. Distributors only need to ship the source code they alter

Section 5 of the GPL states that “by modifying or distributing the Program (or any work based on the Program), you indicate your acceptance of this License to do so, and all its terms and conditions.” These conditions include the obligation to provide the source code of the works distributed. However, many maintainers of software derived from other works conveniently believe that, so long as the distributors of the original work are distributing source code, they only need to provide the source code for the works that they modify. As mentioned in a recent NewsForge article, this assumption seems especially widespread among maintainers of derivative GNU/Linux distributions. Unfortunately, while the need for all distributors to provide source code sometimes seems redundant and often onerous, the GPL does not allow any provisions for exceptions. Nor is it likely to in the future, according to Turner.

The Simply MEPIS project fell into this rat hole and was unable to pull itself out. Other Linux distributions probably are not totally in compliance. To me there was no misconception to this rule, after the ass raping the FSF gave SimplyMEPIS, it was more than painfully clear.

Im not going to go through the list because some of these are contradictory or are just common sense, but the one thing that sticks out to me is that the FSF and others in the fold have lead to the misconceptions of the GPL, no more no less. Mostly them. With their continuing crusade to get all proprietary modules banned from usage in the Linux kernel you can be rest assured that their continued language of illegal and unethical will cause more misconceptions and be a hinderance more than helpful



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