Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

I happen to appreciate GPL v3

After a long discussion the new GNU General Public License was released. It would be safe to say that version 3 has met far more discussion than version 2. The Jem Report even claims that GPL 3 could be the end of GNU.

I’ve no doubt that this is the beginning of the end for GNU, and it will prove the strength of the larger free software world. The Free Software Foundation has dumped a load of restrictions on us with GPLv3 and told us that restrictions lead to freedom and that it is good for us. That’s a little too Bush administration-like for me. In fact I fully expect someone, somewhere, to claim that I “hate freedom” for speaking out about this abysmal license — that would make the irony complete. That a license as restrictive as the GPLv3 should be mostly written by and wholeheartedly supported by someone who speaks out against the Patriot Act puts it a step beyond irony, and into hypocrisy. Further mimicking Bush political rhetoric, Stallman even claimed recently that restrictive software licenses are evil. So does that make him an “evil doer” for promoting a license that attempts to restrict hardware, software, software licensing, and patent licensing choices that should remain in the hands of software developers, or does that make people who are against it “evil doers” and “freedom haters” for not supporting it? If we aren’t with you, Richard, are we against you?

Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols predicts an even worse fate for the GPL v3: to be ignored by most.

They need to work more on representing the needs of the majority of open source developers, not in following their own agenda and launching noisy pointless attacks on the iPhone.

This last statement kind of got my attention and I simply disagree with it. Why would the Free Software Foundation represent the needs of the open source developers? Maybe I am wrong but didn’t GPL v2 pre-date the release of the Linux kernel and lot’s and lot’s of free and open source software? Isn’t the GPL v2 not credited for setting down a vision of software development along the four freedoms?

When open source developers did and do not agree with the GPL v2 (or v3) they either designed or used other open source licenses. There are many different licenses from the very free MIT and BSD licenses to more limiting licenses, which could still be called open sources. Yet none of those licenses made a similar impact like that of the GPL. GPL never accomodated to the needs of the open source developers, it created the environment in which open source development could thrive.

GPL v2 is sixteen years old and it’s vision has held up for all that time. In fact, the core principles have not changed. The Free Software Foundation felt it necessary to update the license to adress modern developments that -according to the FSF- threaten the fabric of the developement of free software.

One of those developments is called “tivoization

One major danger that GPLv3 will block is tivoization. Tivoization means computers (called “appliances”) contain GPL-covered software that you can’t change, because the appliance shuts down if it detects modified software.

In my own terms, GPL v3 wants to prohibit you from using free software,  modify it, say you can use it anyway you like, but then locking it in a big vault without the keys. You can do anything you want with the software, but taking the keys is illegal.

Richard Stallman is not convinced by the argument that in a properly working market the amount of competition should be enough to offer the user the necessary choices and prevent the vaults from becoming too big.

Freedom means you control what your software does, not merely that you can beg or threaten someone else who decides for you.

The FSF wants the consumer, the user to control the software, not the market place. And I happen to agree with that. The market place has never been and will never be working in the way economic theory describes it. There are always factors that prohibit free competition like import/export legislations, trade barriers, monopolies and “confuse-opolies” etc. etc.

The GPL v3 also wants to deal with the patent threats and Richard Stallman is honest about his intentions:

The explicit patent license in GPLv3 does not go as far as we might have liked. Ideally, we would make everyone who redistributes GPL-covered code surrender all software patents, along with everyone who does not redistribute GPL-covered code. Software patents are a vicious and absurd system that puts all software developers in danger of being sued by companies they have never heard of, as well as by all the megacorporations in the field. Large programs typically combine thousands of ideas, so it is no surprise if they implement ideas covered by hundreds of patents. Megacorporations collect thousands of patents, and use those patents to bully smaller developers. Patents already obstruct free software development.

The only way to make software development safe is to abolish software patents, and we aim to achieve this some day. But we cannot do this through a software license. Any program, free or not, can be killed by a software patent in the hands of an unrelated party, and the program’s license cannot prevent that. Only court decisions or changes in patent law can make software development safe from patents. If we tried to do this with GPLv3, it would fail. (emphasis is mine)

Of course, the Free Software Foundation would like to have as many programs as possible to migrate to GPL v3, but won’t enforce it on anyone. GPL v2 still remains valid. All the other licenses remain valid and can be used side by side.

Fortunately, license incompatibility only matters when you want to link, merge or combine code from two different programs into a single program. There is no problem in having GPLv3-covered and GPLv2-covered programs side by side in an operating system. For instance, the TeX license and the Apache license are incompatible with GPLv2, but that doesn’t stop us from running TeX and Apache in the same system with Linux, Bash and GCC. This is because they are all separate programs. Likewise, if Bash and GCC move to GPLv3, while Linux remains under GPLv2, there is no conflict.

For the layman reader: Linux isn’t a monolithic system, it is a wide collection of larger and smaller pieces of software. All those pieces come with their own license and can happily co-exist on your box. It becomes a problem when you are a developers that wants to merge or link two different programs into a new program.

Back to this quote from the Jem Report:

So does that make him an “evil doer” for promoting a license that attempts to restrict hardware, software, software licensing, and patent licensing choices that should remain in the hands of software developers, or does that make people who are against it “evil doers” and “freedom haters” for not

supporting it?

What restriction is there? The vision to create a free software world is by definition restrictive to all attempts that block the realization of that vision. I was attracted to Linux about five years ago not because of it’s technological superiority, but because of the ideological underpinnings of the GPL v2.

Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

  • – The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • – The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • –  The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • –The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

In a world that I feel is sorely lacking true visionaries when it comes to fighting injustice and inequality, I find it refreshing that Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation continue on their own course and promote software freedom in any way they can. Yes, the GPL v3 blocks the freedom to lock yourself up or lock yourself out, but that restriction I gladly accept in exchange for the other freedoms that I get in return.

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8 thoughts on “I happen to appreciate GPL v3

  1. FreedomGuy on said:

    Here’s my problem… in order to gain 4 little freedoms (freedom 0 to 3), we are supposed to be justified in denying others theirs.

    Freedom means freedom, for one and for all. You’re either for freedom or against it, not certain degrees of freedom. Unless you’re okay with enjoying your freedom while simultaneously denying others theirs.

  2. “Freedom” is never an absolute term. Once your freedom leads to limiting the freedom of others or actually hurting others that is always wrong. The four “little” freedoms you refer to are the founding principles of the free and open source software movement. That’s not “little”. The GPL v3 limits parties from locking up free and open source software. Under the GPL v3 Tivo could use all the software they like and modify it to their hearts extent. They just can’t lock it up anymore and then prohibit you to open the box by other means. Allowing that to continue and to spread is the true corruption of freedom. The FSF is in justifiably trying to put an end to it.
    It’s actually quite simple, if you want to play on the FLOSS playing field you have to play nice according to the rules. Leechers and parasites are never welcome.

  3. Hi,

    I read your blog and I’ve read the ones you link to as well, what I’ve come to realise is that most of the people who are complaining arent the ones with the rights over the software which is planning to switch.

    Like you said, you can pick and choose, it’s your choice. What I also found out during a email conversation with RMS is that what he wants is thus:

    HIS software, which HE created using the talents of OTHER people, who ALL agree to what licence THEY use. NOBODY is forced to use THEIR software under THEIR choice of licence but if you do use it, you are under obligation to abide by THEIR terms.

    Thats pretty much it, if you dont like it, dont use it, if you dont agree with it, tough, it’s not your choice and it’s not your decision, because you dont have any rights to make any decisions, you didn’t contribute, you just use, therefore you take what you are given and if you don’t like that, change it.

    All these people complaining about it are mostly without any rights other than those people give to them.

    chris

  4. Robert Devi on said:

    “Freedom means freedom, for one and for all.”

    By your definition, freedom doesn’t exist at all, since by your definition, I should be able to kill (or paralyze you) you and divide up all your property with everyone else since I have the freedom to do so. You’re free to respond, in turn, but of course, you’re dead so tough luck. Similarly, what goes around comes around so I might get the same treatment you got, and my freedom would be gone too. Similarly, my murderer may meet the same fate. Etc. Following the “law of the jungle” to the conclusion leads to just one person having freedom and when that person eventually dies, all freedom would be gone.

    All freedom has boundaries — whether they be responsibilities or physical laws or societal rules or rights or just plain karmic consequences. You can’t escape this law of life. Deal with it.

    The GPLv3’s basic freedoms attempt to define some freedoms that the original *developers* want to provide in return for publishing their code. They chose these freedoms of their own free will and users of their software chose use the software (and thus to abide by those rules) of their own free will. It’s an easy choice for users to make since, effectively, they don’t have any restrictions unless they modified the source code. And if they did, they did so of their own free will and chose to reuse *other people’s work* under the conditions that *other people provided them for it*.

  5. > … in order to gain 4 little freedoms
    > (freedom 0 to 3), we are supposed
    > to be justified in denying others theirs.

    You wish for me to not deny you the freedom to install your own locks on the doors of my house, and charge me and my friends for the privilege of entering.

    You’re right – I will certainly deny you that “freedom”.

    You are more than welcome to enter my metaphorical house and share in its delights. In other words, I will gladly share with you the same freedom as everyone else enjoys, _as long as you don’t try to restrict that freedom from others_.

    But to grant you the freedom to take the software I have written, and lock it up in a proprietary product inaccessible to me and all others?

    Not a chance.

  6. “In a world that I feel is sorely lacking true visionaries when it comes to fighting injustice and inequality, I find it refreshing that Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation continue on their own course and promote software freedom in any way they can. Yes, the GPL v3 blocks the freedom to lock yourself up or lock yourself out, but that restriction I gladly accept in exchange for the other freedoms that I get in return.”

    Couldn’t have said it better myself!
    Kick-ass write-up man!

    Richard Stallman always looks in the long term of things, and don’t surrender his ideals to temporary short term practical advantages. Like a wise man once said: “Those who would give up Essential Liberty to purchase a little Temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.”,
    Richard Stallman clearly represents that view point in software terms.

  7. Ramon on said:

    This description is so good that Im gonna use it from now on (with proper attribution of course 😉 ):

    – – –
    For the layman reader: Linux isn’t a monolithic system, it is a wide collection of larger and smaller pieces of software. All those pieces come with their own license and can happily co-exist on your box.
    – – –

    I got around to donating my time to a few open source projects because of the GPL.
    I like the Linux kernel as I do other libre and gratis software but what pushed me to offer my time was the collaborative effort would be put to good use.
    If the Linux kernel was using the BSD license, it would never had the roots support it gathered.
    Linus second best move was choosing his license. As great as his coding was, the licence is what got people involved. To paraphrase another line which I liked ” GPLv2it created the environment in which open source development could thrive.”

    Am I a purist? No.
    I dont believe my Mac friends and Windows developers are evil, it is not a religion as so many try to make it out to be supporters of the v3.
    Most people that I know that are positive (I dont want to say support because we all have a few things we probably dont like…which is good and normal) towards the GPLv3 such as this article are usually very analytical and well thought out.

    Having worked in R&D for over 25 years I know fully well how the open source collaboration methodology can be beneficial to the rapid growth of said field.

  8. rupe on said:

    “It’s actually quite simple, if you want to play on the FLOSS playing field you have to play nice according to the rules. Leechers and parasites are never welcome.”

    Well said!

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