making money off your GPL-ed code

Clark Evans clark.evans at
Thu May 20 20:07:20 UTC 1999

Bruce Perens wrote:
> Clark:
> > I feel that if anyone is trying to make money from
> > software that is GPL'd, then they obviously do not
> > believe in the GPL, thus they really should not be 
> > using the GPL.
> Clark,
> Please, please consider that I have written or collaborated on more GPL-ed
> software than most people you know, and the GPL is still my primary license.
> I also am the originator of the Open Source Definition, and I deliberately
> wrote it to be congruent with the FSF definition of _free_software_.

First, I'm sorry to offend.  Obviously you are the person from Debian who 
is credited for the Debian definition, which was assumed by OSI.  Certainly 
no dis-respect was intended.

Second, (as we are dropping qualifications), I'm a 27 year old 
second generation programmer who has been coding since i was 12.  
I've been a corporate database programmer for about 5 years, I have 
a BS in mathematics, am one of the founders of, and I am 
working on a bookkeeping system for distributed development, see  I also have some limited experience with 
software legal disputes, and have studied it over the last year.  
I'm now deeply involved with bookkeeping study, which, IMHO, is how we 
are going to turn "scratch-an-itch" development into "professional" 
development. Unfortunately, I can't claim to be a full-blown "hacker", 
and have little  experience with making GPL software, although I have
made minor contributions to a few open-source efforts.  I hardly think 
this should disqualify my very real concern.

Seth David Schoen wrote what I should have said:

| I think you should amend this to "to make money from applying a proprietary
| license to software that is GPL'd".  I've made money from software that
| was GPL'd -- just not by trying to put it under a proprietary license.
| With that addition, it's still imaginable that someone believes in the
| practical benefits of the GPL, but not in the activist program it implements.

This was more my intention.  Anyway,

> The reason I say this is to point out that you err in 
> questioning my belief in the GPL. 

For the record, I did't think that I was questioning your belief.

> FYI, while I work actively for free software, I am not convinced
> that _all_ software everywhere should be free. 

I am not convinced either.  I just see it as a great ideal, free
(as in "free speech") seems like a great goal.  I'm just not happy
with the OSI definition that bundles the free (as in "free beer")
requirement, (point #1).     

> But this is a more complex issue, and not one for this list.

This list seems like the only appropriate place to discuss this
item, since the open-source is as much about phlisophy as it
is about a practical license requirement.  After all, each clause in
each proposed contract is compared with the phlisophical goals of OSI.

Thus, to question the philisophical goals of OSI seem to be
a very fair and reasonable thing do to, considering that OSI
is now making decisions which very strongly affect the marketplace.

Frankly, I was *so* estatic when first appeared ...
untill I read requirement #1, which is free-of-charge.  This, IMHO,
bends the license more towards "free beer" rather than addressing
the key issue of "free speech".   I was very happy when I thought 
that someone was "untieing" those two aspects of "free" -- so I 
could go back to coding. However, as it turned out I was wrong, 
which I why I've dropped coding for the last few months and
I put up  Which, BTW, I'd love 
to hear your comments on it...
> There is an awful lot of dual-licensing with the GPL. The most common examples
> would be the LGPL (which includes the GPL by reference) and Perl, but there
> are lots of others. I suggest you study their reasons for dual-licensing
> further before comdemning them.

You arn't very clear here.  Are you talking about a dual open-source
license, ie, like "expat" (, which 
is both released as GPL or Mozilla, or a dual open/proprietary
license mechanism like kaffee (

If you are referring to the former, then I don't object at all, 
since it is the only way to get license composeability since we
everyone wants to make their own license.

If you are referring to the latter, then I do object.  Not beacuse
the people doing it are bad, in fact I have great respect for
Tim and Company, I just don't think that that's the answer.

As for me studying their reasons for dual-licensing, I'd like to 
say it is hard to find examples who have explained their intent
and have clearly detailed how/why they did it.  Most dual 
free/proprietary licenses are not publicly discussed.  They 
seem to be the "black sheep", if you don't mind me saying 
so.  In fact, OSI touches on it, when it talks about a "Loss 
Leader", but really doesn't go into any more depth than that.  

As for Transvirtual/Kaffe's situation, you can see clearly that
their licensing decision is a key issue for them, they have
the whole FAQ dedicated to it.  And I believe firmly
that these dual type licenses have problems:

1. Composeability

Suppose that I spend 5 days reseaching an rare, obscure bug in Kaffe
that happens to be severe when it occurs.  As it turns out, it
is only a missing comma.   Now, I check-out the code, fix
the bug, and check the code in, my changed being GPL.

Now comes the question.  Does Transvirtual have a right to 
that bug fix?  Afterall, I've copyrighted a different version
of the do-while loop that is a derivitive but slightly different.
Thus, Transvirtual needs to completely re-write that do loop,
perhaps turning it into a while loop for their commercial product.
Otherwise, I'll sue for copyright violation.   So, this is just
a minor change hunh?  What happens if 20 peoeple subit 5 patches
over a 6 month period?  Can Transvirtual sell their product still?
Oooh... ic, they can 'rewrite' the patch.  On their site they
hint that they might buy substantial patches.  Hmm. This kinda 
changes the ball game alot doesn't it?   

2. Conflict of Interest

Let's take the case of Zope, with Digital Creations.  They 
have code that is "above the line" (proprietary) and code
that is "below the line" (opensource).  Lets suppose that
I'm competing with their company for bids, and I make
a "big improvement".  In fact, it's a great improvement
and lots of people like it.  However, this improvement 
duplicates what Digital Creations has in their "above 
the line" source code.   Thus, when I submit the addition,
they refuse the patch, since it would de-value their
proprietary tool set.  If I pushed hard enough, enough
people on the list may start to complain.  Then, rather
than approving my addition, they would just move their
version in to CVS instead.  Thus, all of my clients
then become "non-standard" where their clients 
stay "standard".   This is also bad news.  More 
symtoms that a dual-license is not good.

Ok.  I've given two reasons why open-source/proprietary
dual-licensing is bad news.  I've also given a well thought
out discussion on what a reasonable alternative 
at   This paper answers
the question: "Who should own the software".  I contend
that it is the community of users, not the origonal 
developer, and not 'nobody' (open-source software). 
I also contend that the product's trademark, Kaffee 
or Zope, is part-of the product since it names
a standard which the user community invests in and
becomes dependent upon.  Thus any software ownership
model will have to seriously address product trademarks.

I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Best wishes and no dis-respect intended,

Clark Evans

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