GPL context

Seth David Schoen schoen at
Thu Apr 15 05:49:50 UTC 1999

qmail seems to think this thread is too long, so I'll at least take a hint
and try to trim down my rejected message.

Derek J. Balling writes:

> >The author of the GPL, as far as I can infer from his writings and talking to
> >him, does not believe that "alteration of a copyrighted work is a PRIVILEGE,
> >not a right", because he does not believe that software should have any owners
> >at all.
> The author can believe whatever he likes. Unfortunately, he's placed his
> work under the laws of the US, where I'm forbidden because of his wording
> from altering his writing. Ideologies aside, I cannot break the law.

Since the purpose for which you want to alter his writing is also a purpose
of which he disapproves, it makes sense that he doesn't want to help you
that way. :-)

> If he wanted to grant freedom to people, he should not have explicitly gone
> out of his way to remove those freedoms.

He didn't go out of his way to remove freedoms, though:

- If intellectual property exists, then Stallman was perfectly entitled to
control the future use of his license by copyright. :-)

- If intellectual property doesn't exist, then Stallman's restrictions are
(with a few interesting exceptions) only statements of pre-existing facts,
and don't really add much in the way of new restrictions.  Stallman
basically forbids licensees under the GPL to claim any proprietary rights in
intellectual property -- because he doesn't think that anyone _has_ any
proprietary rights in intellectual property in the first place!

Stallman thinks the US law is unjust and restricts people's rights.  He found
a clever way (consistent with the law) to create a set of restrictions which
forbid people to do things that he thinks take away rights.  Obviously, you
and he have a pretty big difference in what you think are rights and what
you think are privileges.  Again, that doesn't mean that his position or
actions are inconsistent.

> >The philosophy of the GPL,
> >which you don't have to accept in order to use it, and which accounts for
> >Stallman's decision to copyright the GPL itself, presupposes that users have
> >the right to use and copy software, and that software owners do not have the
> >right to stop them: in other words, that IP does not exist.
> Right, which means that for all intents and purposes, the GPL is not
> practical, because very few commercial entities are going to be willing to
> live strictly and without change within the GPL model.  And, since
> alteration is verboten, a new license must be created which accomplishes
> the same goals as the GPL, BUT allows alteration for the real-world
> conditions which exist, so that the REST of the world can take the parts
> that work for their business model and alter/delete the rest, but leaving
> intact a "trail" so that users can be familiar with the "parent" license,
> and look for changes between generations.

Well, you're right that the GPL isn't practical for everyone (though the GPL
was definitely not intended to be practical for everyone).

If you want to preserve some of the goals of the GPL, but make concessions
to other factors, you still have the problem of how to tell when you've
thrown away too much of the original sense of the GPL.  The OSI is one
attempt at that, as is license-discuss.

Everyone here has _some_ concept of what free software or Open Source software
is, or else they wouldn't be here to discuss it.  So there always remains a
question of how to be sure that "practical" licenses actually remain Open
Source, since there are no doubt people who'd like to be able to use the term
and associated interest and goodwill without retaining any of the freedom or
openness that it was supposed to connote.

The immutability of the GPL has a definite advantage in automatically
preventing people from excising its many good points; there is very little
danger of any kind of corruption or confusion.  This property isn't essential
(there are other free software licenses, including some that aren't immutable
this way), but it does provide some benefits.

> >As Martin Pool just wrote in another message:
> >> The text of the GPL is not licensed to you under the GPL: you may think
> >> that's inconsistent, but it makes sense in terms of the FSF's goals.
> >(And, of course, it doesn't make sense in terms of goals which are at odds
> >with the FSF's goals.)
> >
> Agreed. Unfortunately, most of the rest of the commercial world is at odds
> with the FSF's goals. *I*'m at odds with the FSF's goals.

So I see.  But given that, I think you might want to talk about how the GPL
and its terms are not useful for what you want to do, or not readily
acceptible to industry, rather than "inconsistent".

> Heck, after the GNU code got co-opt'ed out from under him to get used in
> Linux [NOT GNU/Linux] I'm surprised that Stallman isn't against the FSF's
> goals. :)  I bet he wishes, secretly deep down in his heart of hearts that
> he had just a LITTLE say in how the code was used so that he could try and
> get some recognition for all the work. :)  That's not bad, its a natural
> thing - to want recognition for your work. FSF (and company) have put a lot
> of effort into GNU, and their license allowed people to take all the work,
> call it something else and package it up as Linux.

The GPL's a document that comes from elder days, when circumstances were
very different.  The conditions people face today are very different from
what they were when the GPL v. 2 was written, and I think you could also say
that Stallman probably wishes he knew then what he knows now.

                    Seth David Schoen <schoen at>
      They said look at the light we're giving you,  /  And the darkness
      that we're saving you from.   -- Dar Williams, "The Great Unknown"  (personal)  (CAF)

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