Monday, August 14, 2006

Viral software licenses strike back

One might expect FSF guru Richard Stallman to support the "no military use" variation of the GPL. But no!

Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software movement and author of the GPL, says that while he doesn't support the philosophy of "open source," neither does he believe software developers or distributors have the right to try to control other people's activities through restricting the software they run. "Nonetheless, I don't think the requirement is entirely vacuous, so we cannot disregard it as legally void."

The claim that he does not believe in controlling people's activities might appear to be somewhat strange given the restrictions RMS himself seeks to impose.

What seems to be his real concern here is the idea that people might start attaching their own ideological constraints to code and not just the ones that fuel his own personal obsessions. The pacifist GPL is joined by the animal rights GPL, the pro-life GPL, the pro-choice GPL, Socialist, Reactionary, Libertarian, a GPL for every part of the political spectrum.

What happens when some of that code starts finding its way back into projects such as Linux? We will end up with code that can only be used by Straight male lesbians who have had at least three abortions and are pro-life, support gun control and carry an assault weapon at all times.

What we need is to realize that software needs the equivalent of a 'fair use clause' or more precisely an 'inadvertent infringement' clause. The systems available to track provenance of software are poor. Any body of a million or more lines of code is certain to have some lines that are not correctly licensed.

The correct legal remedy is not to create a cause of action for every possible infringement however inadvertent but to look at the work as a whole. If 80% or even 10% of a work is either unlicensed or has a defective license that is not acceptable. But I have a hard time seeing how a few hundred lines of code should give the owner the right to seek full royalties over a software product containing millions of lines of code as if they had written the whole thing.

(via Slashdot)

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