Well And Truly Told Off

See this comment by the moderator and founder of Groklaw.  Ouch.  The original post I was commenting on is here.

I really don’t think I was being silly.  I’m perhaps not incredibly well informed on the subject matter, but well enough (I’d have thought) to have a valid viewpoint.  I certainly wasn’t trolling – I hope those on the other sites/newsgroups I frequent would agree that while I may occasionally be lighthearted, I never argue dishonestly.

My feelings are hurt, to be honest.

I’ve suggested that my comments be removed, so I’m going to put them all here instead.  If anyone can explain to me how I might have presented my opinions less offensively, please feel free to comment.  These are not chronological but in thread order.

GPL Feature Creep
Authored by: Anonymous on Monday, August 15 2011 @ 07:03 PM EDT
FWIW, GPL “feature creep” is a genuine concern for some of us.

… first they came for the kernel plugins, and I didn’t speak out because I don’t write kernel plugins. Then they came for the WordPress extensions, and I didn’t speak out because I don’t write WordPress extensions. Then they came for the apps and there was noone left to speak out for me … 🙂

Explaining the analogy
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, August 16 2011 @ 09:17 PM EDT
“Surely we all agree an app developer for Linux is _not_ bound to distribute under the GPL”

Maybe, but once upon a time is was widely agreed that a kernel plugin developer wasn’t bound to distribute under the GPL either. If the freedom software community has changed their minds about that, what will they change their minds about next year?

Another example is the way changes made in GPLv3 impacted TiVo. RMS wasn’t shy about admitting that this was deliberate. TiVo was following the license, but it got screwed over anyway. Personally if I was selling something based on open source software from a third party, I’d feel a lot safer with a BSD license.

Explaining the analogy
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, August 16 2011 @ 09:54 PM EDT
Oh, by the way, I don’t *really* think anyone is ever going to claim that you’re not allowed to run non-GPL-compatible apps on a GPL operating system. I’m just exaggerating for effect. (On the other hand, if RMS could find a way to make that illegal, I’m sure he’d be keen to do so.)
Explaining the analogy
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, August 18 2011 @ 08:32 PM EDT
“And if I remember correctly from all the talking at the time, TiVo did something he *thought* the GPL already stopped them doing […]”

That’s fair enough from the FSF perspective, but from TiVo’s perspective, what they were doing was perfectly reasonable. Then the rules got changed from underneath them.

“[…] he’s not willing to compromise with people who start with unreasonable positions […]”

Ummm … thing is, from my POV, he’s the one taking an unreasonable (and irrational) position. And somehow (again from my POV) “infecting” lots and lots of other programmers with it … perhaps I’m wrong, and they’d have come up with the same idea themselves, but it smells to me of a cult of personality.

Anyway, we’re getting off topic. If you want to continue the discussion, feel free to visit my blog post on the same subject.

Tivo problem real, RMS strawman argument not so much
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, August 18 2011 @ 08:46 PM EDT
“I appreciate your explanation of the analogy, assuming the same Anonymous is involved on all posts.”

Yes, I just haven’t gotten around to creating an account. I can be found here.

“However I can’t understand what excuse you feel this gives for gratuitously bashing RMS,” […]

I didn’t think I was. His position seems clear enough: non-open-source software (and also Tivo-ized software) is evil and should be eliminated. If this seems like an exaggeration, I apologise, but that’s my best understanding of his beliefs.

“Tivo suffered no retroactive penalty, as you seem to complain.”

They’re no longer able to use the latest versions of any software that has migrated to GPLv3, including security updates. The impact of this is mitigated by the fact Linux itself hasn’t done so, although there remains the risk that it might do so in future. IIRC, TiVo was obliged to formally warn investors that GPLv3 presented a risk to their business, although I don’t know whether there was any actual loss to stock value.

“You are free to use (or license) BSD software as you wish.”

And I would encourage businesses to do so. That’s all I’m saying.

“clever minds keeping the letter and not the spirit of the GPL.”

The problem is that the “spirit of the GPL” isn’t terribly clear to many of us. I for one wouldn’t have been able to guess in advance that anyone would object to what TiVo was doing.

And that explains alot
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, August 16 2011 @ 09:29 PM EDT
“It is very interesting that some people are so afraid of the GPL, and yet no one is forcing them to use it (or even to use software that is covered by the GPL).”

The point is that we have (I think) legitimate concerns. No, we aren’t forced to use it, and my advice is not to do so for anything important.

“Frankly, it is none of their business.”

If we need to decide whether to use GPL code in a particular context, it is certainly our business to be aware of any issues it might cause.

“Ergo, they must simply want to rip off someone else’s code without contributing back.”

Personally, I would want people to contribute code for the good of mankind, rather than in order to promote what seems to me a rather odd philosophical viewpoint. Nobody is going to force you to do so, but if you do, please don’t get defensive if some people don’t want to use your code as a result.

Odd philosophical viewpoint…
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, August 18 2011 @ 08:49 PM EDT
Not to the best of my knowledge. Have you ever heard of a scientist complaining that a company used the knowledge in a scientific paper to build a product but didn’t distribute a copy of the paper along with the product?

(I think I’m missing your point.)

Odd philosophical viewpoint…
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, August 18 2011 @ 11:49 PM EDT
Seriously, I don’t see any connection or analogy between the copyleft philosophy and the philosophy of science. I’m not trying to be difficult, I just don’t get it. – Harry
Re: I don’t understand
Authored by: Anonymous on Tuesday, August 16 2011 @ 09:51 PM EDT
“It is very simple to negotiate a GPL license. Read the license, do it like they say, and bingo. You are good to go.”

The problem is that what you are or are not allowed to do seems to keep slowly changing over time. TiVo obeyed the license, but they got screwed over anyway by the changes in GPLv3. The folks developing kernel plugins and WordPress extensions didn’t think the GPL would require them to release source, but, well, copyright law is stranger than you might expect, so they got screwed over too.

BSD licensing, in contrast, seems to be easily understood and stable.

“I think it would be *somewhat* harder if you wanted to use a piece of Microsoft or Oracle or Apple Code.”

Sure, but they have a sensible reason to protect their code. The GPL requirements, from my perspective, are just selfishness. (Not my original point, and not worth discussing IMO, but since you mention it.)

“All you Anti-GPL shills want is to be able to STEAL the code. Like with BSD.”

Others have already pointed out that STEAL is a silly word to use in this context. But, in any case, I’m not suggesting that anyone should use GPL code without following the license. I’m suggesting that (where possible) folk should avoid using GPL code, in favour of BSD or similar licenses.

Personally, I would prefer that people used the BSD license instead of GPL when releasing their own code to the public, but nobody is going to force you to do so. It’s your choice. But please don’t get rude about it (“shill”???) when, as a result, some of us recommend against using your code.

Re: I don’t understand
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, August 18 2011 @ 09:00 PM EDT
“TiVo *gamed* the licence. They did something they *knew* to be against the spirit of the licence, ”

I disagree. They didn’t *understand* the spirit of the license, which is a quite different thing.

I for one would not have guessed in advance that anyone would object to TiVo’s approach, and keep in mind that many GPL developers (such as Linus) don’t.

“Recommending BSD over GPL is, from my perspective, just selfishness.”

I accept this as a fact, but cannot comprehend the thought processes that lead you to feel this way. Is my opinion equally opaque to you? (I think it is very similar to most BSD-license developers; I disapprove of duplication of effort, and BSD is the best way to avoid that.)

I think we’re getting off topic. Please feel free to go to my blog post on the subject if you want to continue a discussion with me, although I’ll also be checking in here for a few more days.

Re: I don’t understand
Authored by: Anonymous on Thursday, August 18 2011 @ 11:56 PM EDT
It seems to me that it is a lawyer’s job to understand the letter of a contract, not the spirit of it.

Of course, I don’t work for TiVo. I’ve never even owned one. So I certainly don’t know whether they were acting in bad faith or not – but it seems to me that you are jumping to the conclusion that they were, with no particular evidence, and I don’t understand why. – Harry


2 Responses to “Well And Truly Told Off”

  1. Kuba Ober Says:

    I really don’t know how one can consider a given version of GPL to have feature creep. It’s a constant body of text. Legal interpretations of contracts can and do change over time – that’s why we have appellate courts, there’s nothing special about GPL-as-a-contract in this respect.

    An aspect of Non-Tivoization is fairly prominent in GPLv2:

    “The source code for a work means the preferred form of the work for making modifications to it. For an executable work, complete source code means all the source code for all modules it contains, plus any associated interface definition files, plus the scripts used to control compilation and installation of the executable.”

    If you digitally sign your linux kernel executable, you better include the private key. It’s like, duh. Which part of “the scripts used to control compilation and installation” and “any associated interface definition files” is so hard to understand?

    • harryjohnston Says:

      The main problem, as I see it, is when activities that were previously widely considered to be acceptable under the GPL are suddenly prohibited. I think feature creep is a reasonable description. I’m not claiming that the GPL is unique in this respect, but it’s the only example I’m aware of that affects programmers per se.

      The Tivo case it a bit different, because it was an issue that had never come up before, at least not in quite the same way, but I don’t think that it would have been obvious to a reasonable person that developers using the GPL would object to Tivoization.

      Your interpretation of the GPLv2 in this regards is interesting, but I don’t think it holds water for two reasons: firstly, a private key is not source code, a script, or an interface definition file. Secondly, if this interpretation was legally sound, the FSF would have used it to sue Tivo, and they didn’t.

      … doesn’t your interpretation also mean that you’d also be obliged to include a copy of the compiler you used?

      It should be noted that what Tivo released was in fact everything you needed to use and to modify their code. You couldn’t use the modified code on their hardware product (as shipped) but you could use it in any other way. How is this any different from a hardware product in which the firmware is located in ROM?

      By comparison, the BSD license has exhibited no feature creep, is easy to follow, and there has been little or no disagreement on interpretation. Advantage: BSD.

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