GNU GPL and Open Source Definition

Seth David Schoen schoen at
Wed Apr 28 03:44:26 UTC 1999

Jeff Alami writes:

> I hope this isn't off-track for this mailing list, but I've stumbled
> across a part of the GPL (and the explanations thereof) that might in
> fact prevent it from being conformant with the Open Source Definition.
> Now, before you drop your coffee and send me flames telling me I'm
> crazy, the first thing you need to know is the GPL is completely and
> unequivocally compatible with the Open Source philosophy.
> AT, in Article 3, the
> GPL states that you may sell binaries and executable code at any
> price you see fit, without corresponding source code. If you do so,
> you're required to provide source code at a subsequent request.
> However, unlike what's said in the Open Source Definition, you may
> also charge for the source code (to a reasonable extent, of course).
> The Open Source Definition Article 2 states that "there must be a
> well-publicized means of downloading the source code, without charge,
> via the Internet."

Actually, the OSD doesn't forbid you from charging a reasonable fee for
the source code; it just says that you _also_ have to put it on the
Internet at no fee.  So the GPL is consistent with the OSD, but doesn't
go far enough for OSD compliance on this point.

> Theoretically, a commercial software product licenced exclusively
> under the GPL could violate Article 2 of the OSD. I don't think this
> is a major problem, because as soon as one person buys the source code
> for the product, they could redistribute it without charge via the
> Internet. But technically the two parts are contradicting each other.
> Has anyone else noticed that inconsistency? I'm sure it's not a
> huge problem with the GPL (I can see the headline now: "GPL Does
> Not Conform to OSD"). But is it something to consider when the next
> versions of the GPL and/or the OSD are drafted?

Richard Stallman stated an intent at one point to allow Internet
accessibility as a valid means of distribution in version 3 of the GPL.
But that hasn't happened yet, and he didn't say he was going to _require_
it, just allow it (instead of always requiring distributors in such cases
to send physical source code media through the mail, as the GPL does now).

You're right about the inconsistency; the GPL requires that there must be
a means of getting the source code _at all_, and the OSD requires that
there must be means of getting the source code _on the Internet_.

This actually means that, under the current OSD, every widespread
GPL-covered piece of software is Open Source (because they all either come
on physical media with source code or have it on the Internet somewhere),
but that the GPL itself is not an Open Source license.  Eek.

(This is not really trivial to reconcile; consider Richard Stallman's point
at "":

   The one exception is in the case where binaries are distributed
   without the corresponding complete source code. Those who do this are
   required by the GNU GPL to provide source code on subsequent request.
   Without a limit on the fee for the source code, they would be able set
   a fee too large for anyone to pay--such as, a billion dollars--and
   thus pretend to release source code while in truth concealing it. So
   in this case we have to limit the fee for source, to ensure the user's
   freedom. In ordinary situations, however, there is no such
   justification for limiting distribution fees, so we do not limit them.

The GPL's attempt to prevent this practice is "to limit the fee for source"
when binary-only distributions are made.  The result is a highly specific
set of rules which are typically not relevant to most software distributors,
who do choose to include source code.  But the specific thing that GPL
prescribes here has run up against the specific thing that the OSD prescribes
for the same purpose.)

This raises the question of whether the OSD is supposed to be about
distribution _terms_ (i.e. licenses), distribution _practices_, or some
combination of the two.

                    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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