Robin Bloor Grokking the GPL

Saturday, April 03 2004 @ 07:23 PM EST

Contributed by: PJ

Robin Bloor has written a clear description of the GPL for IT-Director, "The GPL: A Simple Guide". This is the first article I have read by anyone not part of the free/Open Source community writing about the GPL who actually understands basically how it works and, more importantly, what it is: It is a license, not a contract. [1]

Here's just a snip, but I recommend you take a look and you might want to pass it on to your PHB:

"Consider the situation where you own land which includes a river bank. You can charge a fee to fishermen to use that portion of your land for fishing in the river - in other words you can grant them a paid license to fish - or you can simply give them permission - so long as, say, they do not stray more than a few yards from the river bank into other areas of your land. In either case you would be issuing a license, with various conditions attached.

"In the same way, you can happily license intellectual property, whether its ownership is covered by copyright or by patent, either by charging a fee or by simply giving permission. This does not give rise to a contract. The giving of permission for such property usage well established everywhere, either with or without a fee being attached. A writer, for example, will sometimes grant permission for the free use of some article he or she has written - as long as it is not used out of context. In those circumstances, a caveat is usually attached to the permission, to preserve the writer's editorial control. Alternatively the writer may impose a charge for usage. In either case, the right stems from holding the copyright.

"So it is with the GPL. It is a copyright permission that allows for the use of the source code . . . .

The important legal point is that the GPL is not a commercial contract. If it were a contract then it would have associated guarantees that define the exchange of value involved. It is a permission."

One small issue, but I think it's just a matter of wording, is that he says the use of source code is protected, whereas it's modification and distribution that is affected, but in the context where Mr. Bloor uses the word "use", that's what he means, because he is discussing a distribution setting. And, of course, Apache isn't under the GPL. But his readers have already abundantly let him know all about that. Even one of our old trolls feels called about to answer Mr. Bloor in the comments. You may find what he wrote, while legally wrong, interesting to read, along with the answer someone provided by another reader, because he may well know what the SCOfolk are up to, since he seems to carry their flag and getting things wrong doesn't seem to stop them from making assertions. All in all, it's a refreshing read and it's also, I believe, an indication that our message is getting out, Groklaw is worth doing, and more and more decent people now understand what SCO is up to.

You might want to check out Dan Gillmor's column on the Sun-MS deal. Open Office seems to be a conceivable vulnerability. It's time to think and plan a workaround or a strategic solution. UPDATE:

A reader has posted a fabulous article by a solicitor, Dr. Ben Kremer, who appears to be associated with an Australian firm, on the GPL. He confirms that the GPL is a license, not a contract. Here's a small taste:


"There is nothing, however, to stop the copyright owner from permitting others to do one or more of those acts. There is also nothing to stop that permission being granted on terms. A grant of permission to a person to do something that that person is otherwise forbidden to do is quite common. In legal terms, that is the precise definition of a licence.4 Licences can come about by contract, or by oral permission (subject to any applicable statute), and can be simple or convoluted, and narrow or broad, but all share the same basic form: a person who otherwise has the power to exclude another from an act, and who has the power to authorise that other person to do the act, does so."

He then explains the GPL and how it works, and sums up the requirement that if you modify and distribute in an aggegated work you must do so under the GPL like this:

"To some people, this seems to be a novel use of copyright law. It isn't really: replace 'accompany the work with source code' with 'pay the copyright owner $x per copy', and you have something approaching a standard royalty contract. However, the elegant simplicity hides much power: remedies for breach of copyright are often more powerful than remedies for simple breach of contract. There are many subtle areas involved in open source law and the GPL, but the basic point is quite simple: 'it's the copyright, stupid'."

Nice, huh? He can write for Groklaw any day he likes.

[1] I have corrected the article to reflect my understanding, after prompting, that the original wording could be misleading. I wrote, "This is the first article I have read by anyone not part of the Open Source community". I received the following statement from Richard Stallman. He is correct that what I wrote was conceivably literally correct, but misleading. So I have rewritten. The IP issue he raises is a deeper, more difficult conversation, because "intellectual property" is now a general legal term of art, describing a category of owned copyrights, patents, or trademarks, unfortunately, meaning the umbrella term that includes them all, etc., so to replace it, you'd have to come up with another umbrella term. I agree that it's another confusing term, depending on how it is used, however -- just look at how SCO misleads by using it -- but I can't think of a better umbrella term. Perhaps someone else will be able to.

Richard's precision of thought is admirable and no doubt it made emacs and gcc and the GPL possible. Here is the his email:

The article "Robin Bloor Grokking the GPL" says,

This is the first article I have read by anyone not part of the Open Source community writing about the GPL who actually understands how it works

What about me? I have been writing about the GNU GPL as part of the Free Software Movement since before the Open Source Movement was even started, and I am not a part of anything that labels itself "open source".

The community I belong to was built by the Free Software Movement, so it is really the Free Software community. (Advocates of Open Source are also members of this community, but their movement came later and did not build the community.)

Your statement may be literally correct if you have not read my writings about this, or that they don't count as "articles". But I'm afraid that people will read it as confirming the widely repeated claim that I am part of "the Open Source community". Would you please publish this note as a correction?

On a more substantial point, you quoted Bloor as speaking of "intellectual property" as if it were a kind of substance that could be "covered" by either copyrights or patents. This is highly misleading--it encourages people to think that copyrights and patents do similar things, which is not true. The term is used as propaganda by those who want the public not to think critically about copyrights, patents, or the various other disparate laws sometimes grouped together under the heading of "intellectual property".

We should not cite any statement using that term as an example of clear understanding!

Richard Stallman
President, Free Software Foundation
Author of the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL)