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Monday, December 04, 2006


GPL Philosophy

My part of the Unlocking IP project is obviously the technical perspective. Well, I've already talked about the accessibility issues of the GPL and other software licences from a technical perspective in my conference paper (link to original draft, though it's been much revised since). So today I'm going to tackle the philosophical perspective, not because it's technical as such, but because it's non-legal. Normally I like to keep quiet on this kind of thing because I don't like to inflame anyone, but today I'll make an exception.

Okay, so I can hear you asking already what's my view on the GPL. Should more people use the GPL? Do I think the new draft is doing a good job of improving on version 2? Well, here's my standpoint straight up: before you can discuss the pros and cons of the GPL, you need to figure out where you stand on the philosophy. If you don't agree with the philosophy of free software, you can argue all day with someone who does and never get anywhere.

So when someone says to me "hey Ben, do you think this anti-tivoisation bit's right," I say "do you mean do I think it will stop tivoisation, or do you mean am I happy it's in the new draft?" If they mean the former, I remind them I'm not a lawyer. If they mean the latter, the answer is that I'm not willing to state a view on the philosophy. That's right, I'm a fence sitter.

Okay, the momentum of blogging is carrying me... I will say this much. I am happy that there is such a licence. I am happy that there exists a licence that people who believe in software freedom can use if they choose to. Writing your own on the electronic equivalent of a scrap of paper and shipping it with your software is not a good idea by anyone's estimation.

Andrew Tridgell, who recently won the Free Software Foundation Award for the Advancement of Free Software, said in no uncertain terms at our symposium last week that the GPL is not for everyone - it's not for people who want to restrict the freedom of their software, even if they have a valid or even vital reason to do so. I have to wholeheartedly agree.

And before I go, one last point. Some people out there in law land might think 'What does it matter about the philosophy? If you like what the licence says, that's enough of a reason to use it.' Well, that's not entirely true, because most licensors use the words "General Public Licence version X, or any later version" (emphasis added), and the licence itself clarifies what that means. If you licence like this, you're allowing the licence to be changed based on the underlying philosophy (which the Free Software Foundation strives to stay true to in drafting new versions), so you better be happy with that philosophy. If you're not happy with that philosophy, you can specificly licence under the current version only, but you may as well choose one of the other hundred or so Free and Open Source Software licences out there.

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Anonymous Anonymous said:
The 'or later' clause doesn't really work the way you've described. What happens is that the software can be redistributed as _either_ the original GPL version, or any later version.

If some people choose to go with the new version and some people do not, then what happens is that there is a 'fork' at that point of the source development. The old source code doesn't and cannot retroactively become licensed exclusively under the terms of the new license.

In other words, the source that was under the old GPL version can still be licensed under the old terms, but the source+additions as a whole will be licensed under the terms of the new GPL.
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