“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.

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

  1. while i think its disingenuous for the open source community to constantly (collectively) refer to the movement they branched off from as “zealots,” it sounds like you found some. as it happens, you have not quoted anything from the “attack” so i cant tell you if it sounds more like an attack or a simple disagreement based on principles.

    of course the free software ideals (as in ideal situation) promote copyleft licenses over permissive licenses in most cases.

    as it happens, im on your side in this matter. im very fond of permissive licensing, and i use it whenever possible, though the arguments for copyleft are not entirely foolish. naturally, i use copyleft licenses when i am required to.

    i was an open source advocate, and then a card-carrying member of the fsf, and consider myself a “free software” advocate. most of the code i write (including my own programming language) is cc0-licensed. (technically a waiver, but acts like a license in all other instances.) it doesnt get more permissive than that– you can take the code and relicense it under mit/x11, gpl 2 or 3, or hey, write your own (not recommended, but entirely possible.)

    i know free software advocates frame things in terms of ethics, while open source re-frames things in terms of practicality. but there are really practical arguments to be made for both permissive and copyleft licenses– which is why the fsf uses both (and also why i prefer permissive.)

    1. I’ve been an advocate of the GPL in the past, too, and I agree that name-calling in general is not very helpful. But sometimes there are people who will simply ignore your points and write things like “Then you’re deliberately agreeing to be exploited by corporations such as Microsoft – or in short: You’re an idiot.” They have found their salvation and if they are happy with the GPL I’m fine with it. However I cannot accept it when demand that everybody else totally has to go all GPL, too.

      I can understand the intention behind copyleft and I don’t think that it’s “evil” or something. And if somebody chooses to go with it instead of permissive licensing I totally respect that (that’s one aspect of personal freedom after all). I think that permissive licensing is better in many cases but I certainly wouldn’t want to push anybody for it. That’s why I intend to write a mostly defensive post for permissive licenses next – it’s meant to be more of a response to people who condemn BSD/MIT/etc in total and I’ll try to argue why a lot of points against those licenses are in fact not entirely true (or at least not the last word that can be spoken on the topic).

      Ethics vs. practicality is an excellent point. However I’m also going to be arguing for permissive licenses from an ethical perspective. In the end a little blog post probably isn’t going to convince people, but if some readers understand that permissive licensing is neither against common benefit nor necessarily “foolish”, it should be well worth the effort. In the end we all want the same thing: FOSS to thrive (whether we put an additional “L” in there or not). And the hardliner’s wars are pretty much absurd.

      CC0 is great, BTW. I’m a resident of a country where dedicating something to the public domain is not legally possible. For such cases it’s really helpful that it can also act as unconditional license. I’ve also used it on a few occasions.

      1. “But sometimes there are people who will simply ignore your points and write things like”

        oh i know– this is most of the internet. its not just the art of conversation thats missing– its the integrity to speak on fair or honest terms with people you disagree with. its really rare!

        certainly dont want to pry, but very curious what country youre referring to. the only one i know of like that is finland.

    2. I totally agree with you – where there once was a culture of discussion (and people were interested in exchanging ideas and thoughts), on the net today we have but a horde of sociopathic narcissists acting like their opinion was the only one valid. They’ve never learned that dissent can actually be valuable and that there is something called decency… But well. The more squallers you encountered, the more you appreciate it when you meet sane people, I guess. 😉

      The country I referred to is Germany (and in this regard Austria, too, BTW). The German term “Urheberrecht” is almost always translated with “copyright”, but while that’s probably the closest thing, it doesn’t quite mean the same. Just looking at the word, “author’s rights” would be a better translation. However we have a fairly different legal tradition and there’s no English word that really matches it. Basically there was no such thing as a separate copyright because the “right to copy” is part of the author’s rights. And since you cannot stop being the author of something, there’s no opportunity to surrender the “Urheberrecht”. For books etc. it will expire 70 years after your death (during that period of time surviving dependants may benefit from your work) and whatever you created becomes public domain. This is an automatism and there’s no way to accelerate things (there is ongoing discussion about this still making sense in the electronic age or not, though).

      1. thank you very much. its very good to know that cc0 is as potentially important in germany as it is in finland (or at least useful in a similar way.)

        i left the fsf because i got tired of receiving printouts that were cc-by-nd licensed, and i hate the way that the fsf promotes that license for most writing other than software on their website. and i REALLY hate the way that fsf-associated sites lap up the tone-deaf “verbatim copying” permissions on their sites. what could there possibly be on the trisquel website for example, that requires verbatim copying over say– providing a translated version? so i withdrew my funding, but i still support probably 99% of their views on software.

        though that support is coloured by the fact that i consider writing in english to be software, and i consider hardware to be software (which it increasingly is.) though i understand the difference between hardware and firmware, it is a technical difference. philosophically, not so different. it bothers me that the fsf does not seem to fully grasp free culture, but as to how i feel about open source– i probably feel exactly like bruce perens, who co-founded osi and also left osi.

  2. In this age of “I await some issue(s) to be sorely offended by”, being the subject of hostility due to something as earth-shattering as software licenses (as interesting as the subject can be –and thank you for your take on it) is frankly absurd — but not unexpected. I am sorry you had to endure it; these evangelists of the Church of RMS want your guilt displayed on a (autographed for $50) pewter platter alongside your FSF donation. Hope they’ll get neither.

    1. *haha* No, they surely won’t. In my youth I was pro GPL, but I’ve been cured of Stallmanism entirely, trying to be a reasonable guy who can live with various different opinions. 😉

      For me “freedom” includes the freedom of defining the term “freedom” differently (though it should of course always be possible to point at it when some definitions are massively flawed philosophically).

      1. Yeah!
        DruLavignism — with a smaller dose of George Neville-Neilism can surely be good for you. (Did you catch the lengthy G N-N interview, Bryan Lunduke show via youtube? RMS surely received a proper backhanded swipe, very entertaining, amongst other more serious stuff). Cheers.

    2. Really like your humor! If taken seriously, though, I’d doubt that either Dru or GNN “deserve” their own “-ism”. But “George Neville-Neilism” is a gorgeous (pun intended) term that totally needs to be used more often! If just it didn’t sound so much like nihilism… 😀

      Yes, I found the Lunduke show with GNN by accident a while ago and watched it even though I was short on time at that moment. It was both interesting and entertaining.

      1. Found some more FSF lit in my mailbox, with some horrifying news regarding some dastardly plot to mass-enslave yet more people under the polished-like-glass jackboot of villains X and Y, this week. Containing the standard U.S. world-blindness (write to YOUR Congressman about the infringement/impeachment of our Little Leaguers TODAY — (I live in brexiteer Britain)), I had a good think about what really interests me about the movement and what it reminds me of, however convoluted the thought process.
        Neo-Manicheaism. To quote vocabulary com:

        “To be Manichean is to follow the philosophy of Manichaeism, which is an old religion that breaks everything down into good or evil. It also means “duality,” so if your thinking is Manichean, you see things in black and white.”
        Now, Mani, the prophet, espoused a very early kind of socialism (sort of) in Eran, during the House of Sasan times. Both courted and eventually topped-off by the Shahs (whose priests, the Mazdayasnan/Zoroastrian Mowbedan had finally had enough), his voice attracted great attention by the populace at large. “Share and share alike” was the creed; property, women, donkeys and your land must be communal! As defined above, the wicked world was with you or against you.

        Now that’s been transmitted, I shall resume any medication and look forward to your further posts.

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