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A Tale of Two Licenses

By Katherine Noyes
Sep 1, 2011 5:00 AM PT

Well the wild ride that was August appears to have tapered off a bit as the month drew to a close, so Linux bloggers have finally had a few days to stop and catch their breath.

A Tale of Two Licenses

Bartenders throughout the blogosphere have had a chance to restock their supplies, and conversations have, for the most part, returned to normal volumes.

The one exception in that last respect, however, has been a debate that's actually been gaining momentum over the past few weeks since the Free Software Foundation's Brett Smith published a little piece entitled, "Android GPLv2 termination worries: one more reason to upgrade to GPLv3."

'Make the Switch to GPLv3'

"When we wrote GPLv2 in 1991, we didn't imagine that a free software project might have hundreds of copyright holders, making it so difficult to get a violator's rights restored," Smith wrote.

"We want it to be easy for a former violator to know that they're still allowed to change and share the software; if they stop distribution because of legal uncertainty, fewer people will have free software in the long run," he explained. "Hence, we created new termination provisions for GPLv3. These terms offer violators a simple method to earn back the rights they had."

Because of that and for other reasons, "we urge developers who are releasing projects under GPLv2 to upgrade to GPLv3," Smith concluded. "Companies that sell products that use Android can help out by encouraging the developers of Linux to make the switch to GPLv3."

'Is It Fair to Use FUD?'

Smith's piece sat quietly for several days before Linux bloggers noticed it. Once they did, however, there was no stopping them.

"FSF uses unproven compliance issue to promote GPLv3," was the charge over at ITworld, for example. "Is it fair to use FUD to promote GPLv3 over GPLv2?"

"New GPL licence touted as saviour of Linux, Android," was the wry observation at The Register.

Linux Girl's Debate-o-Meter started screaming soon afterward, so she headed straight for the blogosphere's Punchy Penguin Saloon to learn more.

'Inviting Abuse'

"GPLv3 Linux for Android? That's so bad it's not even wrong!" began Barbara Hudson, a blogger on Slashdot who goes by "Tom" on the site.

"Mobile phone manufacturers don't make different silicon for each market -- instead, they customize the device's software so that the phone can be type-approved by each country individually," Hudson explained.

A GPLv3 Android phone, however, "with all the decryption keys available to any user on demand, is just inviting abuse," Hudson opined. "No manufacturer would make such an insecure-by-design device, and no telco would put the stability of their network at such risk."

'You Automatically Receive a New License'

In addition, "despite the article's claim of 'permanent termination,' it's very easy to get a new license to redistribute a GPLv2 program -- just download or otherwise get a new copy, as per section 6 of the GPLv2, and you automatically receive a new license grant, which is valid as long as you are in compliance," Hudson pointed out.

"While this doesn't 'whitewash' any problems that arose under the old license grant, it's clear that the new license cannot have additional restrictions, such as a past license termination, imposed on it," she added.

Hudson actually went so far as to contact Smith, the article's author, to point out "these and other issues," she told Linux Girl. "He insists that once a license is terminated, that's it.

"However, the law is clear: in all 'take-it-or-leave-it' contracts such as the GPL, the contract must be interpreted in the recipient's favor (contra proferentem)," Hudson pointed out. "Companies in compliance have the legal right to rely on the grant provided by section 6 of the GPL."

'People Acting Like the GNUstapo'

Ultimately, "this is not about Android and Linux licensing, but about pushing an agenda," Hudson concluded. "The usual suspects have made Android and Linux licensing a hot issue. The last thing we need is people acting like the GNUstapo and adding fuel to the fire."

Meanwhile, "it's a safe bet Google is working on a BSD-hosted version of Android as a fallback," she added. "If I were them, that's what I'd be doing."

Roberto Lim, a lawyer and blogger on Mobile Raptor, saw a different problem with GPLv3.

The Anti-Tivoization Effect

"I do not see anything wrong with the new termination clauses in GPLv3," Lim told Linux Girl, "but there is one issue in GPL version 3 which I think should be considered seriously."

Namely, whereas companies that make devices running GPL software "can use digital rights management technologies to make sure that the device will only function with its official software" -- known as "Tivoization" -- "GPLv3 wants to prevent Tivoization and force Mr. Manufacturer to allow end users to modify the software installed on the appliance or device for their own purposes without restriction," Lim pointed out.

"This is effected by requiring that the source code be accompanied by any activation keys or methods which would allow the end user to run modified software on his device," he added.

'GPLv3 Will Place Them at Risk'

"Maybe a few years ago that would have been a good idea -- that was back when we would pay full price on our hardware," Lim suggested. "But we are moving into an area where manufacturers are now also service providers. Like Amazon's coming tablet, they might subsidize the cost of new hardware in exchange for the profits they expect to make from after-sales profits from software and services."

GPLv3, then, "will place them at risk of having their subsidized hardware used for purposes other than intended and may make Linux adoption harder," he asserted.

"Is the point of GPL to allow others to build on your achievement and make entirely new things, or is it to allow users to tinker with the devices themselves? I think it is the former," Lim concluded, "and GPLv3 benefits a very small, but very noisy, segment."

'Simply Too Much Work'

Consultant and Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack saw yet another problem.

"The FSF forgets that for many cases, changing the existing license is impossible," Mack said.

"To switch the license, each contributor with code still in the project must agree to a change, and some projects are now so large that it's difficult to find everyone," he pointed out. "Replacing the code of everyone who can't be found is simply too much work. In the case of some projects, some of the original authors are even dead."

Chris Travers, a Slashdot blogger who works on the LedgerSMB project, didn't see anything new in the FSF's pro-GPLv3 effort.

"They have been doing this since the GPLv3 came out," he explained. "Anyone who bought the FSF's line has probably already switched. Those of us who don't like things in the GPLv3 will stick with the GPLv2 and ignore them."

'They Better Hope Oracle Wins'

For Slashdot blogger hairyfeet, however, the FSF's effort is too little and too late, he told Linux Girl.

"The FSF and even Torvalds don't own FOSS anymore -- Google does," hairyfeet explained.

"If Google were to fork the kernel tomorrow, how many developers do you think would follow it?" he asked. "Sadly, as much as FOSS users like to go, 'boo hiss' at Oracle, they better hope Oracle wins against Google.

"If they lose? Well, it's not a mystery why Google doesn't allow GPLv3 anywhere near Android," he added. "As one of the guys at Google said, 'Android is open FOR OEMS'; the unspoken part of that is, 'and not for you, silly user!'"

'FSF Is Right to Push for GPLv3'

Indeed, "one of the few differences I have with Google and Android/Linux is the crummy license Google chose," blogger Robert Pogson told Linux Girl. "They could have dashed off a typical platform of GNU/Linux with the GPL but chose other software just to avoid the GPL.

"Now look what's happened: They've closed a lot of the source on Android 3.x and no one knows where they stand," Pogson explained. "Can Samsung trust Google now that Google's bought Motorola? How open is the Open Handset Alliance now that some of the code is closed? This is a huge mistake, and FSF is right to push for GPLv3 or better."

In fact, "we should be making software and hardware, not fighting over the code," Pogson opined. "By forking Linux and closing the code, Google is making the old guard look good. At least they were consistent."

Pogson "can forgive Google for not thinking this through from the beginning," he added. "Who knew how big Android/Linux would get?

"The world needs good IT, but this is not the way to do it," Pogson concluded. "Being consistent and sticking with FLOSS would have prevented so many problems no one needs."

Katherine Noyes has been writing from behind Linux Girl's cape since late 2007, but she knows how to be a reporter in real life, too. She's particularly interested in space, science, open source software and geeky things in general. You can also find her on Twitter.

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