Thursday, May 11, 2006

GPL enforcement

A very interesting article on enforcing the GPL. In our book, one of the issues considered is the question of whether free software licensing schemes are enforceable - it would be a weakness if the interests of the free software community were left at the mercy of a non-enforceable constitution. The article points out that GPL enforcement is tough, but also makes the interesting point that most violations seem to have been inadvertent. And that GPLV3 might make enforcement more difficult. Read the piece; the issue is crucial to the long-term sustenance of the free software community.


Anonymous Benjamin Mako Hill said...


The GPL is not the Constitution of the free software movement. It is the most commonly used license but licenses themselves are purely instrumental.

This commonly repeated phrase betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the way that free software principles are defined and enshrined in the community.

I wrote an article at NewsForge that engages with this question directly.

It says:

"One the one hand, those who have called the GPL "the Constitution of the free software movement" have overstated the importance of the license. A constitution is a legal document that sets the fundamental political principles of a government; it is a law to which all other laws are held.

"The free software movement has such a document but it is not the GNU GPL. It is the Free Software Definition (FSD). In the FSD, free software is defined as software that satisfies Richard Stallman's now-famous four freedoms: the freedoms to use, examine, distribute, and develop software as a community. The FSD embodies the principles to which any free software license must be held -- even the FSF's own licenses and even the GPL must satisfy the FSD."

3:17 AM  
Blogger Samir Chopra said...


Great to see you on the blog. Thanks for the comment.

I am not so sure that the GPL is *not* the constitution of the free software community. Its a legal document; its enforceability is what holds a large part of the community together; adherence to its principles is vital if the community is to be sustained; it talks of reciprocity, and works to ensure it. The FSD is not a legal document - how can it meet the basic requirement that you state? While other licenses can meet the FSD, the GPL does so in such a way that the FSD can actually be made functional, and sustained. The GPL in some sense, includes the FSD, and sets out legal protections for it; much like a constitution takes the basic political principles of a government, states them, and then by its standing, grants them legal protection. The FSF certainly thinks the GPL is the constitution for the free software community (see, for instance); perhaps you think they overstate their own importance, but there is no doubting that the FSD is not an enforceable document - it does, however, as you point out, set standards that people must conform to in order to be termed 'free software' - but it is not a legal document, and no one could use it in a court of law to say that something that was not free software; when something threatens the principles of the community, its a license that steps in.

9:33 PM  
Anonymous Benjamin Mako Hill said...

A constitution is not just a law. It is a law to which other laws at held. It sets the limits of what is and is not legal. A constitution lays out the principles.

The GPL does not do that. The FSD does.

The GPL does not just "include the FSD and set out legal protections for it; much like a constitution takes the basic political principles of a government, states them, and then by its standing, grants them legal protection." The GPL is most famous for enshrining copyleft which is by no means necessary for free software!

There are older free software licenses than the GPL. There are more permissive and more restrictive free software licenses. There are many GPL incompatible free software licenses. There are even some free software licenses specifically designed to be incompatible with or oppose ideas in the GPL (like copyleft, section 2c, and others)! The reason they are all free software licenses is because they all passed the FSD (or DFSG, or OSD). Not because they have anything to do with the GPL.

The author of that particular GPLv3 document overstated his point. I brought this up with him at the GPLv3 launch event and he agreed.

3:33 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home