license and patents and stallman, oh my!

Posted on Tue 08 August 2017 in misc

I love Linux and open source software to death. Anyone who has moved from Windows or Mac to this unassuming open source operating system knows exactly why: freedom.

“Oh hey, I need to make a Powerpoint, but I don't actually own Microsoft Office… Oh wait, I am on Linux and can just search my distribution repositories for an office suite!”

“Egads, I need to calculate the boolean matrix product of these two truth tables! Oh wait, I can just feed the data into /bin/genius!”

The sheer power that Linux and open source software puts at your fingertips can be staggering at times. But to quote dear, old Uncle Ben, "With great power comes great responsibility.”

Just like anything else, open source has its flaws. Having your code available free-of-charge to whomever cares enough to looks for it means that you can't rely on having “special” un-duplicatable features as the driving force behind your profit margin. Another company can easily just look for your code and copy it. This is the nature of the beast itself, and many companies have worked around it by selling support or other sorts of services that cannot be duplicated.

However, a very heated debate is, and has been, raging in the world of open source; licensing. And one of the most controversial licensing debated is regarding the GPL.

For those of you who don't know, GPL stand for the GNU Public License. It is one of, if not THE most, ubiquitous licenses currently being used is the world of open source. Now the crusade of the GPL is, I personally believe, a noble one. The creator of the GPL, Richard M. Stallman states,

“The simplest way to make a program free software is to put it in the public domain, uncopyrighted. This allows people to share the program and their improvements, if they are so minded. But it also allows uncooperative people to convert the program into proprietary software. They can make changes, many or few, and distribute the result as a proprietary product. People who receive the program in that modified form do not have the freedom that the original author gave them; the middleman has stripped it away.”

People of course, will be people; give an inch, they'll take a mile, etc. I do personally believe the GPL has done wonders for the entire industry, and one could argue, the world. But the latest revision of the GPL, dubbed GPLv3, is not one I personally feel comfortable using by default.

The GPLv2 is, in my opinion, a wonderful document. It very simply states that you may use this source code free-of-charge, as long you propogate your changes upstream. Of course these are a few more intricacies to this, as is always the case when dealing with legalities, but this is the general gist of it. You, as the software developer, can understand this easily, without having to spend hours worrying about what exactly your responsibilities are when using this code.

There are no patent clauses to worry about, no subtleties about what you are required to do with the end product itself, just simple terms that are part of a simple license. The GPLv3 on the other hand, is a far more complex beast.

I honestly have yet to meet a software developer who has confidently asserted to me that they understand the GPLv3; what use is a license which is so complex that none of the people it was designed to protect understand it? And with this uncertainty comes hesitance to adopt, splitting the community into those who use it and those who despise it.

This is made even worse by the fact that the GPL, by nature, is what is unadoringly refered to as a “viral” license. In short, this means that if your product uses code that is GPL, even if it is simply linking against a shared library such as the ubiquitous GNU readline, you are forced to license your entire product under the GPL.

As you can imagine, developers are not jumping for joy at the fact that they may very realistically have to license they entire project under something as all encompassing as the GPL.

Linux itself is license under the GPLv2. Linux Torvalds, the creator of the Linux kernel, states:

“For example, the GPLv2 in no way limits your use of the software. If you're a mad scientist, you can use GPLv2'd software for your evil plans to take over the world ("Sharks with lasers on their heads!!"), and the GPLv2 just says that you have to give source code back. And that's OK by me. I like sharks with lasers. I just want the mad scientists of the world to pay me back in kind. I made source code available to them, they have to make their changes to it available to me. After that, they can fry me with their shark-mounted lasers all they want.”

“[GPL] version 3 was not a good "here we give you version 2" and then we try to sneak in this new rules and try force everyone to upgrade; that was the part I disliked. The FSF did really sneaky stuff, downright immoral in my opinion.”

Just doing the research for this post itself was horrible in and of itself; trying to figure out the GPLv3 patent clause just about drove me mad. I had to eventually give in and bug one of my lawyer buddies to give it a good read-over before I finally understood that the patent clause, thankfully was the soft one, where it only applied to patent lawsuit related to that software, instead of a hard one such as the one that Apple uses which states that you cannot file ANY patent claims whatsoever; included ones completely unrelated to the project itself.

So I have to petition the reader to ask him or herself: “Is all of this complexity and unnecessary madness really worth it?” When companies would rather pass over your code for something else instead of work with you due to the fact that it is GPLv3, is this really benefiting the open-source community? When you are FORCED to use a specific license just because you link against something that is essential to any programs in that specific field of programming, can you really say that this is what freedom tastes like?

I won't, and can't, force you to have an opinion on these issues; at the end of the day however, if I've persuaded you to think about simpler, yet vastly important questions like these, then I can sleep soundly, knowing my job here is done.

Sources:
Kernel developers' position on GPLv3. (2006, September 22). Retrieved August 11, 2017, from https://lwn.net/Articles/200422
Linus Torvalds says GPL v3 violates everything that GPLv2 stood for. (2014, September 04). Retrieved August 11, 2017, from https://youtu.be/PaKIZ7gJlRU
The Torvalds Transcript: Why I 'Absolutely Love' GPL Version 2. (2007, March 19). Retrieved August 11, 2017, from http://www.informationweek.com/the-torvalds-transcript-why-i-absolutely-love-gpl-version-2/d/d-id/1053128