UnitedLinux controversy (RMS & GPL)

Bill Bogstad bogstad at pobox.com
Sun Jun 2 22:58:52 EDT 2002

Derek Martin wrote:
>At some point hitherto, John Abreau hath spake thusly:
>> It would appear to me that Caldera and the others want to ensure that 
>> commercial applications will explicitly depend on the "naughty bits" 
>> that can't be redistributed, with the goal that these applications won't 
>> work properly (or at all, perhaps) on any distribution that doesn't adopt 
>> the UL brand with its per-seat licenses and all.
>I don't believe this is the case at all.  I do believe that this is
>all about making money.  A quote from Ransom Love:
>    As far as licensing, the only issue that we're doing there
>    is that we'll make the source code freely available in
>    complete compliance with the open source community and open
>    source efforts. The binaries will not be made freely
>    available, for a variety of reasons, because again we are
>    focusing more to the business customer.
>It appears to me, rather than as you suggest, that there
>will be no "naughty bits" which are part of UnitedLinux.
>They will be distributing all of the source code for
>UnitedLinux -- they simply will be charging for binaries of
>the software which comprises UnitedLinux, which they are
>perfectly entitled to do under the terms of the GPL.  In
>fact, about 3 years ago I heard RMS, while speaking on NPR,
>advocate doing exactly that as a way to make money off of
>free software.  He went so far as to say that he's done this
>himself to support himself...  At the time his only
>insistance was that the source code to such software should
>be provided at no additional cost to the purchasing party.
>Funny, he now seems to have changed his tune.  It used to be
>that he advocated only software which was free as in speech.
>It strikes me that now that he does not need to rely on the
>sale of such software for his income, he is outright
>*demanding* that it also be free as in beer.  Now, whenever
>someone tries to use this business model that he himself
>advocated not more than 3 years ago, he comes out publicly
>in staunch opposition.  He has done so recently in another
>prominent case...  (I believe it was Lindows, but it may
>have been someone they were working with.  The story made
>Slashdot and a number of other linux-related sites.  My
>memory controller is broken.  :)

I believe Lindows was a case of the vendor distributing binaries under
a license that disallowed people distributing those binaries to
others.  Initially, they were also not giving people access to the
sources.  Both of those actions may be violations of the GPL.  The
second action certainly is.

You are right that RMS has suggested charging people money for
binaries as a way to support development of Free Software.  In fact, I
believe he's always been okay with you charging as much as you want to
give somebody media with binaries on it.  It's the 'per-seat
licensing' that is the problem in this case.  Why should RMS care
about how much someone can charge for binaries if a recipient can turn
around and give it to his friends for free?  (Or charge just enough to
recoup his costs?)  Certainly, I'm not aware of any distribution of
binaries that RMS or FSF every put out had ANY restriction of this
sort.  The FSF does, however, offer a 'deluxe distribution package' of
binaries for the platform of your choice for $5000:


I don't think anybody really argues that the GPL doesn't allow you to
place additional restrictions upon others when you give them the
source to a derivative work of a GPLed program.  The issue seems to be
whether or not you can place additional restrictions on copying/use of
binaries derived from those GPL'ed sources.  I'll point out a few
relevant sections of the GPL Version 2 (unchanged since 1991!!):

	 4. You may not copy, modify, sublicense, or distribute the Program
	 except as expressly provided under this License.  Any attempt
	 otherwise to copy, modify, sublicense or distribute the Program is
	 void, and will automatically terminate your rights under this
	 License.  However, parties who have received copies, or
	 rights, from you under this License will not have their
	 licenses terminated so long as such parties remain in full

Please note this section doesn't refer to 'source code' it says
'program'.  I take this to mean it covers the program in any form
whether binary or source code.  I think this means that any attempts
to place additional restrictions on copying of the SOURCES or BINARIES
violates the GPL and terminates your rights under this license (at
which point you probably have little or no right to copy it at all).

	0. This License applies to any program or other work which contains
	a notice placed by the copyright holder saying it may be distributed
	under the terms of this General Public License.  The "Program", below,
	refers to any such program or work, and a "work based on the Program"
	means either the Program or any derivative work under copyright law:
	that is to say, a work containing the Program or a portion of it,
	either verbatim or with modifications and/or translated into another
	language.  (Hereinafter, translation is included without limitation in
	the term "modification".)  Each licensee is addressed as "you".

	Activities other than copying, distribution and modification are not
	covered by this License; they are outside its scope.  The act of
	running the Program is not restricted, and the output from the Program
	is covered only if its contents constitute a work based on the
	Program (independent of having been made by running the Program).
	Whether that is true depends on what the Program does.

In this section, GPL itself places no significant restriction on
execution of a GPL'ed program.  And from section 4, I conclude you
can't add them yourself.

	6. Each time you redistribute the Program (or any work based on the
	Program), the recipient automatically receives a license from the
	original licensor to copy, distribute or modify the Program subject to
	these terms and conditions.  You may not impose any further
	restrictions on the recipients' exercise of the rights granted herein.
	You are not responsible for enforcing compliance by third parties to
	this License.

And just in case you were still wondering, here it's explicit.  You
can't add additional restrictions when you redistribute it.

Thus I conclude that 'per-seat licensing' violates the GPL.  Even if I
turn out to be wrong about this legally, I feel that I've at least
demonstrated that RMS can be seen as being completely consistent with
the GPL written in 1991 and with his and the FSF's previous

>IMO, if you look at the historical tactics of rms, he
>changes his tune rather often, apparently to suit his whims
>and self-serving motives.  While I agree with most of the
>points of his movement, he does seem to forget that the
>society we live in is based on commerce and the accumulation
>of wealth.  If businesses can not make money selling free
>software, soon they will cease to exist, and there will be
>NO choices...

Free Software was around long before any companies hired people to
write it and the bits will still exist if all those companies go out
of business.  Maybe it won't be developed as fast or meet your
specific needs right now, but it won't disappear.  You may be right
that people won't be able to make a lot of money on Free Software if
they can't impose 'per seat licensing'.  However, money has never been
the motivating concern for RMS.  Personally, I've been waiting for a
viable Free Software system since I first learned about the GNU
project back in the mid 80's.  It's clearly here and has been for a
number of years now.  It's not always the best system for a particular
job, but it's often good enough and sometimes spectacular.  I see no
reason to believe that for any generally useful category of software
that a Free Software version won't eventually become available if it's
legal to write one.  (Given what happened with DVD playing software
for Linux, maybe even if it is illegal to write one...)

>I respect the work that rms has done for the free software
>community, and I agree with a lot of the FSF's goals.
>However, I think his tactics are offensive, and he is
>himself a hypocrite.  Overall, I think he now does more harm
>than good to the free software community.

And I'm more and more offended of people who seemingly won't give the
author(s) of Free Software programs the common courtesy of reading the
license under which the programs are distributed to them.  The GPL is
not a boilerplate licensing document that you have to click through to
get to run the software.  There are legal restrictions that were put
in there for a reason and it covers a lot of contingencies.  'Per-seat
licensing' can arguably be considered another one of them.  I admit
that it is long (about 6 pages, but only about half is the actual
license).  In addition, it hasn't changed in over a decade!

Of course, there's always something new to learn about it.  For
example, I recently learned that unlike many software license, the GPL
doesn't try to do its work by taking away rights that people might
normally have under the copyright law.  Instead it offers you
additional rights that that you don't normally have in return for some
restrictions on your behavior when you exercise those additional
rights.  Don't agree to those restrictions and your rights default to
the standards of copyright (can't copy whether in verbatim or modified
form).  The FSF's lawyer feels that's why he's never had to test the
GPL in court.  If for some reason the courts were to decide it was
unenforcable, they would probably decide it was completely null and
void and you didn't have any rights to make copies under normal
copyright law.

			     Bill Bogstad
			     bogstad at pobox.com


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