GPLv2 'web-app loophole'

David Johnson david at
Tue Aug 7 02:08:36 UTC 2001

On Monday 06 August 2001 04:01 pm, Abraham Ingersoll wrote:

> We (Dajoba, LLC) publish web-based software under the GPL. We recently
> ...we simply want to feel out people's attitudes
> regarding this 'web-app loophole' 

Cool! I have some attitudes and opinions on this, and since you asked, I'll 
dump them on you. Remember, you asked!

When one makes a modification to GPLd code and distributes it, who has the 
right to demand the sources? The recipient. When Alice gives a copy to Bob, 
it is Bob that demands the source from Alice, and not the other way around. 
It would be nonsensical if Alice gave a copy to Bob and then demanded the 
sources from Bob. Ridiculous.

Yet that is what demanding the modifications for the web-app implies. You are 
asking your competitor for the modifications, yet it was you that distributed 
the program to them. You have things backwards. What of those that make use 
of your competitor's web-app? If they have received a copy from your 
competitor, then they can indeed demand the sources. But they have NOT 
received any copies of the program from your competitor.

If a friend comes to my home and I give him a copy of a modified emacs, then 
I have to give him the sources if he asks. But what if he merely came over to 
use my computer? What if he said "now that I've used your copy of modified 
emacs, you must now give me your modifications"? I would tell him to shove 
off! The web-app "loophole" is the exact same situation, but in a larger 

I have heard the argument that the user has less freedom when they use a 
closed web-app. But I have never understood how. With normal software, the 
user would have less freedom with a closed application because they are not 
in control of their own property (their copy of the software). But in the 
case of the web-app, the software is not in the possession of the user. To 
make an analogy (apologies to Bob Young), I do not want to own a car with the 
hood welded shut. But I could care less if Avis or Hertz welds their cars' 
hoods shut. Those aren't my cars.

Regulating the public performance of software is a very dangerous thing for 
any Open/Free license to do, because it would be for the first time 
regulating how an application can be *used*.

David Johnson

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