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FSF's Star Turn in the Android FUDathon, Part 4

FSF's Star Turn in the Android FUDathon, Part 4

Sharing source code benefits everyone involved. However, heavy-handed attempts to impose further restrictions on end-users beyond the license, or to ask people to harass developers to switch, just come off as "sturm und drang" by nitpickers. Hopefully this doesn't presage the rise of the GNUstapo.

By Barbara Hudson LinuxInsider ECT News Network
09/09/11 5:00 AM PT

FSF's Star Turn in the Android FUDathon, Part 3

"Strike while the iron is hot" -- and the usual suspects have made Android licensing a hot issue. However, the title of the FSF article, "Android GPLv2 termination worries -- one more reason to upgrade to GPLv3," gives the game away. This is about politics, not licensing. About pushing a specific agenda. About promoting the GPLv3 license at the expense of the GPLv2, Linux, Android and reality.

It's natural that there will be people and organizations engaging in bit of opportunistic profile-raising when they see an opportunity. Sometimes, as with the FSF GPLv2 FUD, they overreach and need to be called on it. And sometimes they really put their foot in it, as the Linux Foundation's Jim Zemlin did when he recently labeled businesses that don't contribute back code as "idiots."

One Size Does Not Fit All

If the GPLv3 were so wonderful, there would be no need to post articles saying, "Companies that sell products that use Android can help out by encouraging the developers of Linux to make the switch to GPLv3." Especially when the reality is that releasing the decryption keys to unlock mobile systems would kill Android on Linux, and the developers are already on record as saying they have no problems with the current license and have better things to do with their time.

The social and political objectives of the FSF (and by extension, gnu.org) are not always the same as other members of the community. In a world with various shades of grey and different needs and goals, the reality is that one license does not fit all projects, and zealotry is ugly.

What Isn't Free Software?

When I go to the Free Software Foundation home page, I see this:

you deserve to use software that is:
free from restriction
free to share and copy
free to learn and adapt
free to work with others

you deserve free software.

Critics have rightly pointed out that by this definition, the GPL does not meet these standards. This doesn't make it a bad license -- sharing source code benefits everyone involved. However, heavy-handed attempts to impose further restrictions on end-users beyond the license, or to ask people to harass developers to switch, just come off as "sturm und drang" by nitpickers. Hopefully this doesn't presage the rise of the GNUstapo.

Some Takeaways

  1. If you are a coder, do not give up your control over your work by assigning copyrights to an organization that says "trust us." They may decide at some future date to "leverage" your code in ways you never intended;
  2. Remove any references to "or any later version" of the license. If you wouldn't give them a blank check, don't give them the license equivalent;
  3. Keep in mind how a magician will always try to get you to focus your attention on one hand, so you don't see what the other hand is doing. The original article overemphasizes section 4 of the GPL to make a case for "permanent" risk, in the hope that you won't notice the ease of obtaining a new license without encumbrances in section 6, or ignore the fact that take-it-or-leave-it licenses are always interpreted in the recipients' favor;
  4. Don't believe everything the license says. The GPL says that you have no rights if you do not accept the license, which is simply not true. The GPL (any version) only applies to the extent that copyright law currently allows it. Post-Feist, there are more restrictions on what is actually copyrightable. There is no "sweat of the brow" copyright, nor other material that fails to meet, even slightly, the constitutional basis for copyright -- to "promote the progress of science and useful arts," aka encouraging creative expression;
  5. If someone is particularly nasty, keep in mind that courts have also held (Assessment Technologies v. Wiredata) that even the copying of complete copyrighted programs without the copyright holders' permission is allowed if the only way to extract non-protected data is to do so, and that abusive copyright holders can lose their rights;
  6. There are always alternatives, whether it's a particular program, a toolchain, or an operating system.

The Ultimate Consequences

Casting doubt on Android and Linux licensing has two easily discernable effects. Manufacturers, for their part, will be more likely to consider other platforms, and who can blame them?

And it's a safe bet that Google is working on a BSD-hosted version of Android as a fallback. I know if I were them, that's what I'd be doing, just in case.


Barbara Hudson's daughters and her dogs are a large part of who she is. As for computers, she's been writing code for longer than she really wants to admit. Now that she's returned to independent development, her current focus is on creating simpler and more secure code libraries. Her dream project? Creating the ultimate chess program.


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