hypothetical(?) GPL problem

Marc Eberhard m.a.eberhard at aston.ac.uk
Thu Jun 21 16:33:58 UTC 2001

Hi Alessandro!

On Thu, Jun 21, 2001 at 03:54:01PM +0200, Alessandro Rubini wrote:
> Sorry for the delay, I'm expected to do real work sometimes, though rarely

Me too.

> :( It looks like this might turn in the usual BSD/GPL flame war, but
> unless it gets hot it might be constructive as well.

Let's keep it constructive. :-)

> > Does anybody have any statistics or experiences which
> > approach was more effective in the long run? I could imagine, that it is
> > more tempting for a company to use a library, if it is BSD-free. And that
> > they might consider sending their modifications to the original developers,
> > for whatever reason.
> They "might consider". But they have no reason to, actually. And there
> are a lot of case where they don't.

True, but even a single company can make a real difference.

> It is more than none, but is it better or worse? You must remember
> that in your case you have helped further several proprietary programs.
> In the (L)GPL case you only helped free software. (Sure, in the LGPL
> case they could do, but your condition included the "being scared off").

Well, it's in some way a question, if we believe, that free software will
win anyway in the long run or not. If we are convinced, that it will win, we
can opt for the most possible freedom. Yes, we might help some closed source
programs at the moment, but they will disappear anyway on a long time scale.

If we think, that this is not going to happen, then of course we need to go
along a different path. And that might be to forbid closed source programs
to use free software. I just wonder, if this isn't somehow in contradiction
to the aim of keeping free software as free as possible? I too like the
"take and give" approach very much, but the goal is free software, isn't it?
So the big question is: How can we achieve that in the most effective way?

> No, they are allowed to use it, and to not give source to the user
> because the user doesn't run the program. And, in any case, nobody is
> interested in telling how did they accomplish the result. The result
> must look "new millennium technology", this is how the world goes.

I'm not too sure about this. I do like to know, how a result was achieved.
But I might not be that representative for the average internet user.

> > On the other hand, if linking your lib into their program would be
> > legal, why would they want to hide this fact from the end user?
> Because if all users know, some of them will get the free library and
> not pay for the service any more.

This depends upon which part of the problem is solved by the free library.
If it is only some part of the problem, it would still be too much work for
most users. If the library provides almost all functions and it is easy to
replace the proprietary part, because it adds just some trivial extensions,
then I would expect to see a free implementation of the whole thing very
soon. And then there is no market anymore for the company anyway. So they
need to supply a solution, that is much more then just using a library. And
in that case, they don't loose anything by acknowleding the free library
they use.

> > It could be even a plus for them to tell their users, that they use
> > a known good lib for their program.
> This only works in a few cases. Apache is a good example. When I was
> questioning with an Apache developer that lives in my town, he showed
> me how nobody has interest in forking a proprietary versio of Apache,
> and most companies contributed back. But Apache has a huge developer
> community; any fork would suffer from continuous resyncing with the

That's exactly the situation, that I anticipated, and why I didn't see a
reason for restricting the free library to free software programs.

> original product. But for almost every project, a company would take
> huge advantage in forking the product and become the leader, putting
> the original out of market. This applies to *everything* that I am
> doing. I *must* use the GPL to protect myleft from what I would call
> "theft".

OK, so we have to distinguish between projects. What are the criteria, why
it works for Apache and not for your projects? Is it just the huge
developer/user base? Or is it something else? Is it possible to copy the
Apache approach for other projects? What are the main ingredients to achieve

> Yes. My problem is with "proprietarisation by remotisation" (not
> English, but I can't find a better way to state it). If someone
> extends GCC and sells a "compile on demand" service, this *is* against
> user's freedom. You may have a CPU whose compiler is not free yet it
> is GCC.  It would be legal, because who has the compiler doesn't
> distribute it but only uses it internally. 

OK, I see that point now. This problem has emerged, because the internet is
becoming more and more easy to access for more and more people. So companies
can use it as a medium to provide services. Of course the consumers still
have a word to say. If they don't want to depend on such a remote service,
they will not buy the product. It's probably a very good item for the FSFE
watch list: Which companies do try this strategy to get around the GPL?
Informing users and other companies of this strategy of a company will
probably ruin their business quite quickly. Just tell them, that there is a
company, that wants to make them dependant, so that it can later ask for any
price for their service. That's probably pretty scaring to most users.

> It doesn't make sense to me, either. The point I was making is that
> for some kind of resctrictions you *must* have the user sign the
> agreement.  You can't control everything via implied agreement. You
> can't restrict use of the software without having the users know about
> it, or they will behave illegally without even having a chance to know
> it.

I'm not sure, if this is really necessary. You can't claim, that you didn't
know, that it is forbidden to kill someone else and get away with it. I
think, the same principle applies to software. If you use it, you have to
make a reasonable effort to find out about the conditions and terms under
which you are allowed to use it. I don't think, that you need to insist on
signing an agreement for this.

> Yes. I can run GCC on Windows (if I had one), and this is good. But
> proprietarization, as allowed by BSD/MIT licenses, cannot help
> spreading of free software as much as it helps spreading proprietary
> software. I'm told that Microsoft uses a BSD-derived TCP/IP stack.
> I'm told (maybe on this list, I don't remember) that most IP utilities
> they ship are berkeley derived (run "strings" on them and check).

Well, even if they don't tell you, it is well known nowerdays, isn't it?
People know, that the good stuff is not coming from them. They just did
everything that broke parts of it. :-)

> > And it brings me back to my original comment: Why should we want to do
> > anything against it?
> They are circumventing the GPL. It reminds me of the "Ethics of
> Circumventing OS" thread (march and april, here).

Yes, true. If an author explicitly wants to enforce this restriction, the
company trying to use it, would violate/circumvent the GPL.

> Sorry for the length, thanks for getting that far :)

No problem, I like the discussion very much too.


email: marc at greenie.net
email: m.a.eberhard at aston.ac.uk, web: http://www.aston.ac.uk/~eberhama/

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