GPL Violations Are Still Pretty Common, You Know?

Monday 17 September 2012 by Bradley M. Kuhn

As I've written about before, I am always amazed when suddenly there is widespread interest in, excitement over, and focus on some particular GPL violation. I've spent most of my adult life working on copyleft compliance issues, so perhaps I've got an overly unique perspective. It's just that I've seen lots of GPL violations every single day since the late 1990s. Even now, copyleft compliance remains a regular part of my monthly work. Even though it's now only one task among many that I work on every day, I'm still never surprised nor shocked by some violation.

When some GPL violation suddenly becomes a “big story”, it reminds me of celebrity divorces. There are, of course, every single day, hundreds (maybe even thousands) of couples facing the conclusion that their marriage has ended. It's a tragedy for their families, and they'll spend years recovering. The divorce impacts everyone they know: both their families, and all their friends, too. Everyone's life who touches the couple is impacted in some way or other.

Of course, the same is true personally for celebrities when they divorce. The weird thing is, though, that people who don't even know these celebrities want to read about the divorce and know the details. It's exciting because the media tells us that we really want to know all the details and follow the drama every step of the way. It's disturbing that our culture sympathizes more with the pain of the rich and famous than the pain of our everyday neighbors.

Like divorce, copyleft violations are very damaging, but failure to comply with the copyleft licenses impacts three specific sets of people who directly touch the issue: the people whose copyright are infringed, the people who infringed the copyrights, and the people who received infringing articles. Everyone else is just a spectator0.

That said, my heart goes out to ever user who is sold software that they can't study, improve and share. I'm doubly concerned when those people were legally entitled to those rights, and an infringer snatched them away by failing to comply with copyleft licenses. I also have great sympathy for the individual copyright holders who licensed their works under GPL, yet find many infringers ignoring the rather simple and reasonable requirements of GPL.

But, I don't think gawking has any value. My biggest post-mortem complaint about SCO was not the FUD: that was obviously wrong and we knew the community would prevail. The constant gawking took away time that we could have spent writing more Free Software and doing good work in the software freedom community. So, from time to time, I like to encourage everyone to avoid gawking. (Unless, of course, you're doing it with the GNU implementation of AWK. :)

So, when you read GPL violation stories, even when they seem novel, remember that they're mundane tragedies. It's good someone's working on it, but they don't necessarily deserve the inordinate attention that they sometimes get.

Update, morning of 2012-09-18: Someone asked me to state more clearly how I felt about Red Hat's GPL enforcement action against TwinPeaks1. I carefully avoided saying that above last night, but I suppose I'm going to get asked so often that I might as well say. Plus, the answer is actually quite simple: I simply don't know until the action completes. I only believe that GPL enforcement is morally legitimate if compliance with the GPL is paramount above all other goals. I have never seen Red Hat enforce the GPL before, so I don't know the pecking order of their goals. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and the proof in the enforcement is whether compliance is obtained. In short, if I were the Magic 8-Ball of GPL compliance, I'd say “Reply hazy, ask again later”2.

0 Obviously, there's a large negative impact that many seemingly “small” GPL violations, in aggregate, will together have on the entire software freedom community. But, I'm examining the point narrowly in the main text above. For example, imagine if the only GPL violation in the history of the world were done by one company, on one individual's copyrights, and only one customer ever purchased the infringing product. While I'd still value pursuit of that violation (and I would even help such a copyright holder pursue the matter), even I'd have to readily admit that the impact on the software freedom community of that one violation is rather limited.

Indeed, the larger policy impact of violations comes from the aggregate effect. That's why I've long argued that it's important to deal with the giant volume of GPL violations rather than focus on any one specific matter, even if that matter looks like a “big one”. It's just too easy sometimes to think one particular copyright holder, or one particular program, or one particular product deserves an inordinate amount of attention, but such undue focus is likely an outgrowth of familiarity breeding a bit too much contempt. I occasionally temporarily fall into that trap, so it makes me sad when others do as well.

1 What bugs me most is that I have yet to see a good Twin Peaks parody (ala Twin Beaks) of this whole court case. I suppose I'm just too old; I was in high school when the entire nation was obsessed with David Lynch's one hit TV series.

2 cf15290cc2481dbeacef75a3b8a87014e056c256a1aa485e8684c8c5f4f77660

Posted on Monday 17 September 2012 at 20:30 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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