"viral" (was RE: Licensing options for firmware)

Benjamin Rossen b.rossen at onsnet.nu
Tue Apr 12 21:17:57 UTC 2005

On Tuesday 12 April 2005 19:59, Rodrigo Barbosa wrote:
> On Wed, Apr 06, 2005 at 06:56:21PM +0100, Alex Bligh wrote:
> My language skills are known to be flawed, but isn't reciprocal
> more like:
> "If I license my stuff to you on these terms, you agree to license
> your stuff to ME on the same terms".
> Even tho the politicaly correct people don't like the word "viral",
> you have to admit it is used widely everywhere. And so you should expect
> encountering it all the time. 
> There are many ways to describe that aspect of the GPL license.
> I don't mind viral. Even tho a not perfect descritive term, it gets
> close to the mark. 

No. It does not get close to the mark. 

Let us define what 'virus' means in English today (and not repeat the tiresome 
discussion about the Latin roots). What things does a virus do that are 
defining characteristics of viruses? 
(1) A virus infects its host. It does this actively. The host must either 
resist it when exposed to the virus, which the host must do actively, or 
become infected. 
(2) A virus sequesters the host's resources for its own purposes. Often, but 
not necessarily, this results in the destruction of the host. Even if the 
host is not destroyed, it is central to the notion of 'virus' that the 
resources of the host are sequestered in the interests of the virus, not the 
interests of the host. 
(3) A virus autonomously replicates, usually giving rise to identical forms. 
Errors may occur leading to evolution of the virus strain. Usually this 
replication results in very large number of virus particles. 

Does Open Source Software with GPL license do all of these things? 


Does Open Source Software with GPL license do ANY of these things?  


(1) People elect to use GPL software. The software does not infect them or 
their computers. 
(2) GPL software does not sequester resources in the interests of the GPL 
software. People use the software because it is in the interests of the 
people using it (or, at least, they believe it is).
(3) GPL software does not autonomously replicate itself. It may be copied by 
the people who are using it, and may be distributed by them. The people are 
the agents of the copying and distribution, not the GPL software. 

Viral a completely unsatisfactory term for any form of Open Source Software. 

> Maybe people  
> should focus on explaining why that aspect of the license is a good
> thing (like a few here did), instead of fighting the word. A rose
> by any other name ?

This is not an appropriate analogy. A name is a meaningless label - at least 
in its role as a name; it merely denotes. Describing a class of objects or 
individual objects of the class by using a term that employs functional 
properties of a meta-class in order to make it clear how the the class of 
objects work is not merely naming; it is describing. You cannot call GPL 
licensed software 'any other name' and avoid talking nonsense; otherwise, it 
would be just as good to call GPL software 'proprietary', or 'Bill Gates', or 
perhaps 'Open Source License' or maybe 'green cheese'. 

Thinking clearly and using language accurately are inseparable companions. You 
cannot call any specific thing any other specific thing and claim to be 
engaged in either or both of those. 

> Lets not mix GNU with GPL. GPL is only
> a license. FSF is not GPL either.

Yes, I wholly concur with you on this point.

Benjamin Rossen 


More information about the License-discuss mailing list