Misunderstanding GPL's terms and conditions as restrictions (was: Re: Why is Fedora not a Free GNU/Linux distributions?)

Alexandre Oliva aoliva at redhat.com
Sun Jul 27 22:41:53 UTC 2008

I'm changing the Subject: header because some people who are not
reading the thread seem to have inferred, from the unchanging subject,
that the original huge thread was all about a single topic.

Although this particular topic would probably be a better fit for
fedora-legal, I believe most of its subscribers are sufficiently
familiar with Free Software licensing to tell that Les' theory is
flawed, whereas many Free Software users in this list operate under
the same false assumptions and the influence of FUD against the GPL,
so I think this sub-thread will remain more useful here.

For those who somehow got the impression that this list was supposed
to be limited to technical matters, please update your kill files to
ignore this thread as well.

On Jul 26, 2008, Les Mikesell <lesmikesell at gmail.com> wrote:

> A lawyer can't change what it says.

Indeed.  But a lawyer you trust could be able to convince you you've
misunderstood it.

> If the FSF doesn't not believe that the work-as-a-whole clause
> actually means the terms must cover the work as a whole,

It does.  The terms are permissions, the conditions are requirements
for the exercise of the permissions.  It doesn't take away any other
permissions you might have.  That it does is the incorrect assumption
that's misleading you.

Consider this scenario:

John A. Hacker develops, from scratch, a program that contains two
source files: lib.c and main.c.  lib.c was developed to be released as
a separate library, under the modified (3-clause) BSD license (so
these are the headers it carries), whereas main.c was developed to be
released under the GPL (so these are the headers it carries).  John
A. publishes the whole, named gnothing, under the GPLv2+, and never
publishes lib.c in any other way.

Wanda B. Foreman downloads gnothing, and notices lib.c would be really
useful in his project, linstall.  She thus modifies gnothing by
removing main.c and the build scripts, and then adds lib.c to her
version control system, along with changes to the build machinery to
have lib.c built and linked into his own program.  She then publishes
linstall, under the GPLv3+.

Ken C. Farsight has access to Wanda's VCS repository, and sees lib.c
show up there.  It provides just the feature he wanted for his bsdown
Free Software program, that he's always distributed under the 3-clause
BSD license.  He copies lib.c into bsdown and releases a new version
of bsdown.

Evelyn D. Scent maintains a non-Free fork of bsdown called macrash, so
she takes this new release containing lib.c, merges the add-on
features she maintains, and publishes a new release, under the usual
restrictive EULA, known to be compatible with the 3-clause BSD

Please ask your lawyer questions such as:

- Has any party had his/her license to distribute gnothing or lib.c
  automatically terminated?

- Can John A. Hacker stop any of the other 3 from distributing lib.c
  in linstall, bsdown, or macrash, under the licenses given or implied
  by the description above, or even by itself under the modified BSD
  license, without a copy of the GPL?

- Can Evelyn be stopped by any of the other 3 from distributing this
  version of macrash containing lib.c, under the usual EULA?

then let us know how he justifies the answers.

> Would this imaginative interpretation also permit sharing of
> GPL-covered components modified to link with proprietary libraries
> among people who otherwise have the right to do so

AFAIK the GPL doesn't stop anyone from adding dependencies on
non-GPLed libraries to GPLed programs.  In fact, this is very common,
in the particular case of system libraries on non-Free operating

It doesn't grant permission for the GPLed program be distributed in a
form that contains the library or derived portions thereof, without
also offering the corresponding sources of the library under the GPL,
but if you distribute the GPLed program in source code form, you're
covered, and if you can create an object form of the program that does
not contain code derived from the library, and then distribute it,
you're also covered.

Now, if you split things up into a separate library, as a means to
circumvent the GPL, and distribute both the library and the GPLed
program that you modified so as to depend on it, you might still face
a lawsuit on the grounds that the library is actually a derived work,
or even that it is part of a single work, and the separation is just a
trick to try to circumvent the license.  A judge or a jury might
actually side with the copyright holder of the program you modified,
in this case.

Alexandre Oliva         http://www.lsd.ic.unicamp.br/~oliva/
Free Software Evangelist  oliva@{lsd.ic.unicamp.br, gnu.org}
FSFLA Board Member       ¡Sé Libre! => http://www.fsfla.org/
Red Hat Compiler Engineer   aoliva@{redhat.com, gcc.gnu.org}

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