Where did this “you are permanently barred from distributing” stuff originate? In digging around, I found a post titled “A Practical Guide to GPL Compliance” at the Software Freedom Law Center dated August 26, 2008, written by the team of Bradley M. Kuhn, Aaron Williamson and Karen M. Sandler.
If you have redistributed an application under GPLv2, but have violated the terms of GPLv2, you must request a reinstatement of rights from the copyright holders before making further distributions, or else cease distribution and modification of the software forever. Different copyright holders condition reinstatement upon different requirements, and these requirements can be (and often are) wholly independent of the GPL. The terms of your reinstatement will depend upon what you negotiate with the copyright holder of the GPL’d program.
Since your rights under GPLv2 terminate automatically upon your initial violation, all subsequent distributions are violations and infringements of copyright. Therefore, even if you resolve a violation on your own, you must still seek a reinstatement of rights from the copyright holders whose licenses you violated, lest you remain liable for infringement for even compliant distributions made subsequent to the initial violation.
In the context of a GPL violation, and particularly under v2’s termination provision, the copyright holder may have a range of requests in exchange for reinstatement of rights.
This completely overlooks the fact that section 6 of the same GPLv2 states that a new GPLv2 license is automatically granted with every copy of the program received. Any products that would be infringing would be limited to those that were shipped under a previously terminated license. Another issue is whether such a lopsided interpretation is copyright abuse and could nullify the license restrictions (see Assessment Technologies v. Wiredata).
But let’s take a break from the legal mumbo-jumbo.
How Do People Get F/LOSS Software Nowadays?
I find mine on the Net. If you’re reading this, there’s a good chance you do too. Now consider section 4.1.1 of the same SFLC article, which states:
GPLv2 refers to the various storage mechanisms as “medi[a] customarily used for software interchange.” While the Internet has attained primacy as a means of software distribution where super-fast Internet connections are available, GPLv2 was written at a time when downloading software was not practical (and was often impossible). For much of the world, this condition has not changed since GPLv2’s publication, and the Internet still cannot be considered “a medium customary for software interchange.” (emphasis added)
Seriously? It was possible to find three people who still believed that in 2008? And put their names to it? 1991 called, and they want their AOL and Compuserve back. The Internet is definitely “a medium customary for software interchange.” It has become the most popular medium of software interchange for open source projects, as well as how most people receive updates for proprietary software.
Arguing that the Internet is not a customary medium for exchanging software because some people can’t access it makes as little sense as arguing that DVDs aren’t an acceptable medium because people with netbooks or tablets don’t have DVD drives.
There’s a history of using this “on the Internet doesn’t count — it must be on a CD or DVD” argument to try to encourage distributors to ship the source side-by-side with the program itself, rather than just an offer of the source. That sort of coercion is not acceptable.
Throwing a CD in every box is bad for the environment. In embedded devices such as TVs and routers, embedding the source in the device wastes memory and increases costs to consumers. Memory might be cheap, but it’s not free, and designers of embedded applications frequently find themselves fighting for every bit of RAM. It’s why they ship busybox instead of the individual utilities.
Today, exchanging software “on the Internet” is as valid as “on a DVD,” and certainly better than “on a floppy.”