“Permissive licensing is wrong!” – Is it? (1/2)

A few weeks ago I’ve been attacked by some GNU zealots on a German tech site after speaking in favor of permissive licenses. Unfortunately a discussion was not possible there because that would require the will to actually communicate instead of simply accusing the other side of vile motives. Since I actually do care about this topic and a reader asked for a post about it in comments a while ago, here we go.

This first part tries to sum up the most important things around the topic. I deliberately aim for an objective overview that tries not to be one-sided. The second part will then contain my points in defence of permissive licensing.

Why license software at all?

Licenses exist for reasons of protection. If you’re the author/inventor of some software, a story or whatever product, you get to decide what to do with it. You can keep it for yourself or you can give it away. If you decide for the latter, you have to decide who may use it and in which way(s). In case you intend to give it to a (potentially) large group of people, you may not want to be asked for permission to xyz by everybody. That’s when you decide to write a license which states what you are allowing and explicitly disallowing.

Most of the well-known commercial licenses focus on what you’re not allowed to do (usually things like copying, disassembling, etc.). Open source licenses on the other hand are meant to grant the user rights (e.g. the right to distribute) while reserving some rights or only giving permission under certain conditions – and they usually make you claim responsibility for using the software. For these reasons licenses can actually be a good thing!

If you got an unlicensed piece of code, you’re not legally allowed to do anything with it without getting the author’s permission first. And even if you got that permission, your project would be risky, since the author can withdraw it later. A proper license protects both parties. The author doesn’t get his mail account full of email asking for permission, he’s save from legal trouble if his code breaks anything for you and at the same time you have legal certainty when you decide to put the code to long-term use.

Permissive vs. Copyleft (in a nutshell)

In short terms, permissive licensing usually goes like this: “Here you are, have fun. Oh, and don’t sue me if it does something else than what you expect!” Yes, it’s that easy and there’s little to dispute over.

Copyleft on the other side sounds like this (if you ask somebody in favor of Copyleft): “Sure, you can use it, it’s free. Just keep it free, ok?”. Also quite simple. And not too bad, eh? Other people however read the same thing like this: “Yes, you’re free to use it. Just read these ten pages of legalese and be dead certain that you comply. If you got something wrong, we will absolutely make you regret it.”

The GNU Public license (GPL)

The most popular copyleft license in use is the GPL (in various versions). It got more and more complex with each version – and to be fair, it had to, because it was necessary to react to new threats and loop holes that were found later. The GNU project states that they are committed to protect what they call the four freedoms of free software:

  • the freedom to use the software for any purpose
  • the freedom to change the software to suit your needs
  • the freedom to share the software with your friends and neighbors
  • the freedom to share the changes you make

These are freedoms that every supporter of open source software should be able to agree with. So what’s the deal with all the hostility and fighting between the two camps? Let’s take a look at a permissive license, too.

The BSD license

Unlike the GPL, the BSD family of licenses begun with a rather simple license that span four rules (“original BSD license”). It was later revised and reduced to three (“modified BSD license”). And the modern BSD license that e.g. FreeBSD uses is even just two (“simplified BSD license”).

Did you read the GPLv3 that I linked to above? If you are using GPL’d code you really should. In case you don’t feel like reading all of it, at least take a look and grasp how long that text is. Now compare it to the complete modern BSD license.

What’s the problem?

There are essentially two problems that cause all the trouble. The first one is the question of what should be subject to the freedom that we’re talking about. And closely related, the second one is where that freedom needs to end.

Ironically both camps claim that freedom is the one important thing and it must not be restricted. The GPL is meant to protect the freedom of the software and enforces the availability of the source code, hence limiting the freedom of actual persons. BSD on the other hand is meant to protect the freedom of human beings who should be able to use the software as they see fit – even if that means closing down former open source code!

The GNU camp taunts permissive licenses as being “lax” for not providing the protection that they want. The other camp points out that the GPL is a complex monster and that it is virulent in nature: Since it’s very strict in a lot of areas, it’s incompatible with many other licenses. This makes it complicated to mix GPL and non-GPL code and in the cases where it’s legally possible, the GPL’s terms will take precedence and necessarily be in effect for the whole combined work.

Who’s right?

That totally depends on what you want to achieve. There are pros and cons to both – and in fact we’re only looking at the big picture here. There’s also e.g. the Apache license which is often deemed as kind of middle ground. Then you may want to consider the difference between weak (e.g. LGPL) as well as strong copyleft (GPL). Licensing is a potentially huge topic. But let’s keep it simple here because the exact details are actually not necessary to understand the essence of our topic.

In the next post I’ll present my stance on why permissive licensing is a good thing and copyleft is more problematic than many people may think.

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