GPLv2 'web-app loophole'

David Johnson david at
Tue Aug 7 06:38:30 UTC 2001

On Monday 06 August 2001 08:42 pm, Rod Dixon, J.D., LL.M. wrote:
> This sounds like "much ado about nothing." As is well-known, software is
> not an easy fit within copyright doctrine. I am unsure whether there is a
> relevant distinction between "use" and copy as far as software is
> concerned. Copyright interests are invoked when one "uses" software as long
> as the prevailing view is that a RAM copy is a *copy* as that terms is
> defined and understood by reference to the Copyright Act. Hence, I doubt
> whether an ASP or a "web-app" presents a case for a loophole in the GPL.

If using the software constitutes copying, and thus regulated by the GPL, 
then does this mean I have to release private modifications I have made 
within my own home? I distinctly recall RMS arguing strenuously against this.

The GPL clearly states that the execution of the program is outside of the 
bounds of the license. And copyright law allows for the execution of the 
program in RAM by the legal owner of the copy. I don't see how anyone can 
argue that what I do in the privacy of my own home on my own computer with my 
own legal copy of GPLd software is the legal jurisdiction of the author.

Public performance is another matter, and is unfortunately not covered by the 
GPL. Abe wanted to "feel out people's attitudes regarding this 'web-app 
loophole'", so I offered up my attitude. Regardless of what the authors' 
rights may be by law, I don't believe that Open Source / Free Software should 
make any attempt to restrict public performance.

But I don't think that web-apps even constitute public performance! When a 
book is read aloud or a film shown for public performance, the audience will 
actually receive a copy of the copyrighted materially aurally and visually. 
But such is not the case for a web application. The software will only be 
copied to the legal owner's servers, and the only thing the user receives is 
the output of the program, not the program itself.

An analogous situation would be for an attorney using copyrighted law books 
to prepare a brief for a client. The law books have not been performed 

I myself have had one of my applications converted to a CGI program with a 
public interface on a public server. I could not in good conscience refer to 
my program as "free" if I placed restrictions on that type of usage. To me it 
would be beyond the bounds of propriety. If I wanted to restrict the program 
in such a way, then I would not make it Open Source, and instead lease it out.

David Johnson

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