Problems in Open Source Licensing

Bruce Dodson bruce_dodson at
Mon Feb 17 19:39:52 UTC 2003

For cases 2 and 3: who is to say that I haven't, in the past, distributed 
the code to someone else and they happened to distribute a copy back to me?  
For that matter, did I really get it directly from you, or did I get it from 
someone else, who was redistributing it under the GPL?

If you're trying to un-GPL something that you have previously GPL'd, you're 
going to have a very hard time suing anyone who has a copy of the code from 
before you did that.  Best you can do is stop distributing it, and hope that 
your software was unpopular enough that no one else will bother to 
redistribute it either.

- Bruce - IANAL -

>From: John Cowan <cowan at>
>To: Jeremy Malcolm <Jeremy at>
>CC: "C. Hamacher" <chamacher at>, license-discuss at
>Subject: Re: Problems in Open Source Licensing
>Date: Mon, 17 Feb 2003 00:26:45 -0500 (EST)
>Jeremy Malcolm scripsit:
> > [L]et's take
> > the simpler case of releasing my own code under the GPL.  Do you see
> > anything that would prevent me from withdrawing those licensing terms?
> > Short of contract or estoppel, and assuming that I adequately
> > communicate the revocation of licence to my users, how can I be
> > prevented from changing the licensing terms whenever and however I like?
>I think there are three cases:
>1) Users who have already relied on the GPL to distribute or modify your 
>2) Users who are at present relying on the GPL to distribute etc.
>3) Users who intend in the future to rely on the GPL to distribute etc.
>As to case 1, I think you are pretty clearly estopped from doing anything
>about their existing distributions or modifications; they relied on your
>licensing terms in good faith.  Case 3 users, OTOH, are screwed.
>Case 2 is obviously intermediate.
> > Licence conditions have to be reasonable, contract conditions don't.
>Excellent.  That means the infamous MSOSL, which I bruited about onthis
>list a few years ago, can be freely dismissed.  (This was a putative
>Open Source license which required the licensee to consume moose
>by-product as a condition of the license, for those of you who have
>mercifully forgotten.)
>John Cowan               cowan at
>To say that Bilbo's breath was taken away is no description at all.  There
>are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the 
>that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful.
>         --_The Hobbit_
>license-discuss archive is at

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