Regardless of what you think of the Free Software Foundation, please sign this

! Warning: this post hasn't been updated in over three years and so may contain out of date information.

Windows 8 chained parody imageI don’t like particularly like the Free Software Foundation (FSF). My dislike of them stems from my dislike of the virus-like GPL license that they champion and their – to my mind at least – dishonest claim that the GPL is “free as in freedom”. Yet despite all this, I believe their latest campaign is one that everyone should read about and hopefully support.

The Gnu Public License (GPL) is a license that divides opinion. Many see it as a great bastion of defence against the actions of certain large corporations. Others see it as a virus-like license that all too easily catches out folk trying to make an honest living. How does it create this divide? There is a risk with any open source software that someone unscrupulous will take that code, modify it and then apply a new, restrictive license to it, possibly for their own financial gain. To protect against this, that source code can have the GPL license associated with it. The license requires anyone who modifies the code and uses it in any way must release that code back to the public domain, with the GPL license left intact. All well and good so far, and if that were the extent of the GPL, there would be little – if any – controversy surrounding it.

The GPL goes further than this though. It doesn’t just require that you make available the source of any existing GPL-based software that you use. It also mandates that any software that uses that GPL-based software must itself be covered by the GPL. You must make all your own work GPL-based, if even if only one line of code in one of the 3rd party libraries that you use is GPL-based. Thus the accusations of it being virus-like in nature as it “infects” all new software that it touches.

Of course the simple argument against the above it is “if you don’t like it, don’t use it”. However this can be easier said than done. The GPL can catch people out in three ways, two of which I have experienced:

  1. Using GPL-based software without realising. Say I use the open source library X. I build my application around it. Unbeknown to me, library X uses library Y, which uses the GPL. As a result, library X, and my code become covered by the GPL too. When library X’s author is told to update her license to reflect this, I’m stuck. I either rewrite my application from the ground up to avoid using library X, or I’m forced to make my own code GPL-based too.
  2. Switching Unix versions. I have an library of my own that makes heavy use of library Z in say Solaris. That library Z is binary only, with a simple problem-free license. Likewise my own library has a simple commercial license. I then port my application to Linux. Someone has helpfully written the equivalent of library Z for Linux. They have however applied the GPL to it. I therefore am forced to either again apply the GPL to my own library (which could cause no end of problems for my customers), or I have to replicate that person’s work by writing my own equivalent of library Z on Linux.
  3. Switching licenses between releases. I produce an open-source library that has a “do what you want” license associated with it. A seriously nasty bug is found in that library. So I release a new version, containing the bug fix, but change the license to the GPL. Other developers and companies that use my library now have an unpleasant choice: go GPL themselves or live with the bug whilst they come up with their own version of the fix that they then apply to an older version of the library.

Now you might regard the above as unlikely or extreme examples of problems with the GPL. As I previously said though, I’ve encountered two of these problems, so they can’t be that unlikely.

The FSF pushes the GPL heavily. It’s quite possible that the virus-like nature of the license is something they celebrate. After all their aim is to make all software open source and free from commercial constraints. I don’t agree with such an approach (as I pay my mortgage and feed my kids with the proceeds from closed-sourced, commercial software), However I can at least understand the motivation behind it. What annoys me is their claim that the GPL is “free as in freedom”. It most certainly is not; it is the absolute opposite. It is a highly restrictive license that, if allowed anywhere near your code, completely removes your own rights over the code you wrote. To call this “freedom” is disingenuous in the extreme. In fact I’d simply call it a bare-faced lie. It is this dishonesty, rather than the GPL, that results in me not liking the FSF.

Despite all I’ve said above though, I feel the FSF needs our support at the moment due to a potential risk that Windows 8 poses to those that choose to install anything other than Windows on PCs. Microsoft have a problem: people pirate Windows. It’s a commercial product that is the lifeblood of the company, and so – understandably – they’d prefer that people didn’t pirate Windows. Microsoft have tried various ways of addressing this problem in the past, but with Windows 8, they are going to try something new. As I understand it – and I admit to a limited knowledge of such things – Windows 8 will be digitally signed and only be installable on special hardware that has also been digitally signed. The hardware will only boot Windows if the keys are correct, ie it’s a genuine copy of Windows. The fear amongst Linux users is that hardware manufacturers may be “encouraged” by Microsoft to configure their hardware to only boot signed Operating Systems. Even if Microsoft do not behave this way, the manufacturers themselves might configure their hardware that way to make life simpler for themselves. Either way, this could prevent people choosing to install Linux on their PCs.

I have no idea how serious a threat this really is. It could be very real; it might be just a storm in a teacup though. To be on the safe side, I signed the FSF’s petition on the subject and would urge you to read the background information and to consider signing it yourselves.

7 thoughts on “Regardless of what you think of the Free Software Foundation, please sign this

  1. Yes the gpl is virus like and I’m sure it is designed that way but it is not entirely a bad virus.
    First I don’t buy the argument that making software free from commercial constraints means you cannot make money from it (Red Hat seem to do pretty well).
    It certainly stops people from being easily able to use free software in non free software. I understand the problems with this. If companies don’t think they can make money out of software they won’t pay developers to create the software. But the more free open libraries that there are the easier and quicker it is to develop new applications. So the gpl certainly has its down side but without it the current list of free software we all use everyday would be much smaller than it is now.

  2. Yeah, GPL is like a hippy commune. And probably nudist too.
    You can join and frolic on their terms OR KEEP OUT.

    It sounds idyllic, but if you’re part of the rest of society then its not viable.
    So that makes the rest of us a bunch of anoracks in the bushes, stealing their wares.
    Not sure about this analogy now…

    Maybe gypsies, not hippies. They dont get as much sympathy, claim support and dont pay taxes. They’re the GPL licensers then.

  3. It sounds like you feel that you shouldn’t need to check the license terms of code you incorporate into your programs, because doing so may take some care. However, you must check, regardless of what licenses are in use. The GPL is not special in this regard.

    Placing code in the public domain, as opposed to licensing it under the GPL, allows people to use it in two ways: they can use it and share the result, or use it and not share the result. As a developer, my personal feeling is that I don’t want my efforts to go to help the latter group of people — and so I use the GPL. It’s true that I have chosen not to help some people: those that have chosen not to help me. Must I be generous to people who will not reciprocate in kind?

    Furthermore, some (possibly small) subset of that latter group might be persuaded by my use of the GPL to go ahead and release their code under the GPL as well. So by using the GPL, I have caused a larger amount of sharing than would have happened had I released my code into the public domain. This is not just a theoretical possibility; I have known this to happen many times. Many groups aren’t too concerned about what sort of license they place on their software, and would tend to use a restrictive license simply because it’s common practice, but a dependency on GPL-licensed code leads them to choose the GPL as well.

    The Spaniel writes: “It sounds idyllic, but if you’re part of the rest of society then its not viable.” For what it’s worth, I’ve worked as a programmer since 1990, exclusively on Free software. For those twenty-one years, I have paid my bills, fed my family, and bought a decent house without ever writing software under a proprietary license. And I have many friends who have done the same, or better.

  4. I too think that Restricted Boot is a great danger, and am glad that even if you don’t like the GPL, you still choose to spread the news about this particular campaign, thereby protecting other users’ computing choices.

    I’d just like to note that the GPL fortunately doesn’t quite work in the virus-like way you described. 🙂 It is true that if you modify and distribute a program that’s under GPL, you are required to give the source code, to pass along the same freedoms to others. However, since the original program was not your own creation, this is understandable. Also, if you choose not to distribute your changes for some reason or another, then that is your own free choice, and you don’t have to share your code.

    Finally, and most importantly, plugging into someone else’s program or library that is GPL’d does not mean that your program has to be GPL’d as well. As a matter of fact, there are many non-free programs that run on, and depend on libraries in, GNU/Linux and are not under the GPL.

    In any case, thanks for taking the time to promote user freedom on this issue. If manufacturers fail to give their users choice in this matter, then I think everyone may feel the impact. I signed this statment too and encourage others to do so as well.

  5. Thank you for supporting the Free Software Foundation in this important matter. Restricted Boot obviously is a menace to users of the GNU operating system, among others.

    I hope that Windows users understand that this issue concerns them as well, because if they use Windows, it will be because they chose it. I choose GNU, and I will defend my freedom to choose.

    Just as a note: The Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project don’t want the software to be free from commercial constraints. Actually, they encourage people who redistribute free software to charge as much as the wish or they can [1], or to give it away without a charge.

    [1] https://gnu.org/philosophy/selling.html

  6. Much as I loath and detest Windows, I see absolutely no problem with Microsoft’s approach here. They are using a clever commercial approach to limit their loses from piracy. And the market will decide whether all the PC manufacturers start only supporting signed OSes. Given that many ‘enterprise’ organisations use Linux I don’t see how this can become an issue – unless RedHat and SuSE go down the ‘signed’ route.

    Of course, my love of Apple h/w might have skewed my judgement…

    @Joe – RedHat don’t produce much ‘free’ software these days. Try buying something like a Dell server with Win2008 or RHEL and compare the prices – the RHEL is often more expensive.

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