Is Your Support of Copyleft Logically Consistent?

Monday 15 March 2010 by Bradley M. Kuhn

Most of you are aware from one of my previous posts that It's a Wonderful Life! is my favorite film. Recently, I encountered something in the software freedom community that reminded me of yet another quote from the flim:

Picture of George Bailey whispering to Clarence at the bar

Look, uh … I think maybe you better not mention getting your wings around here.
Why? Don't they believe in angels?
I… yeah, they believe in them…
Ohhh … Why should they be surprised when they see one?

Obviously, I don't believe in angels myself. But, Clarence's (admittedly naïve) logic is actually impeccable: Either you believe in angels or you don't. If you believe in angels, then you shouldn't be surprised to (at least occasionally) see one.

This film quote came to my mind in reference to a concept in GPL enforcement. Many people give lip service to the idea that the GPL, and copyleft generally, is a unique force that democratizes software and ensures that FLOSS cannot be exploited by proprietary software interests. Many of these same people, though, oppose GPL enforcement when companies exploit GPL'd code and don't give the source code and take away users' rights to modify and share that software.

I've admitted that the copyleft is merely a strategy to achieve maximal software freedom. There are other strategies too, such as the Apache community process. The Apache Software Foundation releases software under a permissive non-copyleft license, but then negotiates with companies to convince them to contribute to the code base publicly. For some projects, that strategy has worked well, and I respect it greatly.

Some (although not all) people in non-copyleft FLOSS communities (like the Apache community) are against GPL enforcement. I disagree with them, but their position is logically consistent. Such folks don't agree with us (copyleft-supporting folks) that a license should be used as a mechanism to guarantee that all published and deployed improved versions of the software are released in software freedom. It's not that those other folks don't prefer FLOSS; they simply prefer a non-legally binding social pressure to encourage software sharing rather than a strategy with legal backup. I prefer a strategy with legal strength, but I still respect non-copyleft folks who don't support that. They take a logically consistent and reasonable approach.

However, it's ultimately hypocritical to claim support for a copyleft structure but oppose GPL enforcement. If you believe the license should have a legal requirement that ensures software is always distributed in software freedom, then why would you be surprised — or, even worse, angry — that a copyright holder would seek to uphold users' rights when that license is violated?

There is great value in having multiple simultaneous strategies ongoing to achieve important goals. Universal software freedom is my most important goal, and I expect to spend nearly all of my life focused on achieving it for all published and deployed software in the world. However, I don't expect nor even want everyone else to single-minded-ly support my exact same strategies in all cases. The diversity of the software freedom community makes it more likely that we'll succeed if we avoid single point of failure on any particular plan, and I support that diversity.

However, I also think it's reasonable to expect logically consistent positions. A copyleft license is effectively indistinguishable from the Apache license if copyleft is never enforced when violations occur. Condemning community-oriented0 GPL enforcement (that seeks primarily to get the code released) while also claiming to support the idea of copyleft is a logically inconsistent and self-contradictory position. It's unfortunate that so many people hold this contradictory position.

0There are certain types of GPL enforcement that are not consistent with the goal of universal software freedom. For example, some so-called “Open Core” companies are well known for releasing their (solely) copyrighted code under GPL, and then using GPL enforcement as a mechanism to pressure users to take a proprietary license. GPL enforcement is only acceptable in my view if its primary goal is to have all code released under GPL. Such enforcement must never compromise about one point: that compliance with the GPL is a non-negotiable term of settling the enforcement action. If the enforcer is willing to sell out the rights that users' have to source code, then even I would condemn, as I have previously, such GPL enforcement as bad for the software freedom community. For this reason, in all GPL enforcement that I engage in, I make it a term of my participation that compliance with the terms of the GPL for the code in question be a non-negotiable requirement.

Posted on Monday 15 March 2010 at 09:29 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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