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krez

GPL for dummies?

25 posts in this topic

Anyone know of a good, simplified (yet thorough) explanation of the GPL? The legalese kills my brain... More specifically, how does it apply to server-side code? For example, say I write a PHP web app and license it under the GPL. Does letting people access it through a website count as "distributing" or "conveying" it (and as such, require me to distribute the backend code)?
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That's the main quirk of the GPL when it comes to networking. Suppose there's a board licensed under the GPL. If you deal with the source code directly (e.g. you're a maintainer), then the GPL applies for you. If you only use it as a client (e.g. you just are a member that uses the board interface), then the GPL does not apply to you. To get members be required to have those rights, the license should be AGPL (Affero GPL), not GPL.

Of course, you may want to recheck somewhere else, but that's how I'd understand it. You could e-mail the FSF asking about it as well, but they probably will tell you to use the AGPL and give the source code to everybody, regardless of what you actually want to do =P
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Original post by Sik_the_hedgehog
If you only use it as a client (e.g. you just are a member that uses the board interface), then the GPL does not apply to you.
Roughly speaking, the client's browser does not download the source code (which would constitute distribution), instead it downloads HTML code generated by the GPL code - and the GPL only covers the program source code, not the program output.

As always, IANAL [wink]
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Original post by krez
More specifically, how does it apply to server-side code? For example, say I write a PHP web app and license it under the GPL.

If you've licensed it under GPL, then you're required to make the code available. To whit: why did you license it under GPL in the first place?

Here's the question you should be asking: if you're writing a web application and happen to use a GPL component, are you required to distribute your own code once you make your application public? The answer is yes. By linking to, incorporating or in any way creating a derivative product from a GPL component, your derivative (your web application) falls under the GPL. And everything that falls under the GPL must have its code available on request.

If you are writing original code, avoid the GPL unless you fully understand its ramifications and agree with the ideological position it embodies. If you simply wish to make your code "open source" and available for others to use, look at the BSD, MIT and APL licenses first.
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IANAL

Quote:
Original post by Oluseyi
If you are writing original code, avoid the GPL unless you fully understand its ramifications and agree with the ideological position it embodies. If you simply wish to make your code "open source" and available for others to use, look at the BSD, MIT and APL licenses first.


The GPL is not only ideologist (the same can btw also be said about MIT, et al.). Instead, if you don't want your sourcecode to be used in other projects that don't open their sources for free use (i.e. proprietary software) or in projects that make actual money (alongside with other code) with your code, without giving you back anything, then the GPL or another copyleft license, can be useful, too.

That [copyleft license] it is only useful in ideology based environment is BS. The reason why I use it is exactly what I described: If I spend my precious spare time to code up something (read: when I am doing unpaid work), then I don't want others to profit from my benevolent coding without giving back any of the profit they made (may it be money, knowledge, or whatever) with the help of my unpaid work.

If I want to profit if my software is ever used, and want others to contribute back (e.g. the changes the made to my software, which is highly welcome), then MIT, common BSD, and the like, are not the right thing; instead, "Copyleft" + Dual Licensing works better.

If I want to give away my work for free after spending, maybe, man-years on it, and don't care what others do with it or how they profit from it, or if others claim it is their work, then maybe MIT etc. is the way.

For my part: nothing to do with being ideologist.


edit: To give an example of a project that was being idealistic about MIT license, but later switched to GPL:

Quote:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wine_(software)#Other_versions_of_Wine
TransGaming Technologies produces the proprietary Cedega software. Formerly known as WineX, Cedega represents a fork from the last MIT-licensed version of Wine in 2002. Much like Crossover Games, TransGaming's Cedega is targeted towards running Windows computer games and is sold using a subscription business model.


That perfectly conforms to my (and thousands of others spare time coders) reasoning.

[Edited by - phresnel on June 17, 2009 12:57:40 AM]
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Original post by Oluseyi
If you've licensed it under GPL, then you're required to make the code available.
I thought you only had to make the code available if you distributed the licensed work.

e.g. if I use a GPL library to make a tool, then my tool is GPL. If I only ever use the tool privately, I don't release binaries of it (even if I distribute it's output files) then I don't have to release the code either.

If I'm right about this, then a private web-app would be much the same as my hypothetical tool, assuming the binaries are kept private and only it's output is distributed.
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IANAL


Quote:
Original post by Hodgman
Quote:
Original post by Oluseyi
If you've licensed it under GPL, then you're required to make the code available.
I thought you only had to make the code available if you distributed the licensed work.


Yes. You could also purely distribute on ordinary CD-ROMS, via computer shops and the like. Then you don't even have to give away your work for free or via the internet, and must only include the sourcecode on the CD-ROM (it's about distributing the sourcecode in appropriate form, and if you only distribute via CD-ROM, then that's appropriate).

I like the analogy to buying a car: Nobody gives away a car for free (though they are allowed to, and except maybe for some TV shows :D), and anybody who buys the car has the right to tweak it (maybe as a virtual penis enlargement), to resell it, and to learn about the inner workings of your car. And if you decide to give away your car, you can't forbid that the new owner [uses,tweaks,learns from,resells] the car.

Quote:
e.g. if I use a GPL library to make a tool, then my tool is GPL. If I only ever use the tool privately, I don't release binaries of it (even if I distribute it's output files) then I don't have to release the code either.


Yes. But consider also that for libraries there is the LGPL.

[Edited by - phresnel on June 17, 2009 12:04:02 AM]
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Original post by phresnel
The GPL is not only ideologist...

I never said the GPL was the only ideologically motivated license. Don't refute claims that weren't made.

Quote:
Instead, if you don't want your sourcecode to be used in other projects that don't open their sources for free use (i.e. proprietary software) or in projects that make actual money (alongside with other code) with your code, without giving you back anything, then the GPL or another copyleft license, can be useful, too.

Which is an ideological motivation. If you want to give your code away for free, why must you compel others to do so, too? Particularly for someone who is unclear about whether he has to open his sources - suggesting that he doesn't already subscribe to the motivation of "ensuring openness" - this is a nonsensical discussion.

Quote:
That [copyleft license] it is only useful in ideology based environment is BS.

I never said Copyleft (in fact, I never referred to Copyleft, only to the GPL since the OP's question was explicitly about GPL) was useful only in ideologically-based environments. I said not to use the GPL unless its ideology was clearly understood and agreed with. Again, don't refute claims that weren't made.

Quote:
Original post by Hodgman
Quote:
Original post by Oluseyi
If you've licensed it under GPL, then you're required to make the code available.

I thought you only had to make the code available if you distributed the licensed work.

In the specific example, he was publishing the web application. That counts as distribution. If the web app is only privately used, then he doesn't have to make the code available. If the web app is publicly accessible, though, even if users only receive non-code data as the output, then he is obligated to provide the source code if asked.

Quote:
Original post by phresnel
You could also purely distribute on ordinary CD-ROMS, via computer shops and the like. Then you don't even have to give away your work for free or via the internet, and must only include the sourcecode on the CD-ROM (it's about distributing the sourcecode in appropriate form, and if you only distribute via CD-ROM, then that's appropriate).

That's not entirely correct. You don't have to include the source on the program CD-ROM, but you must make the code available on CD-ROM if a someone orders it, for which you are permitted to charge the cost of distribution.
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Quote:
Original post by Oluseyi
Quote:
Original post by Hodgman
Quote:
Original post by Oluseyi
If you've licensed it under GPL, then you're required to make the code available.
I thought you only had to make the code available if you distributed the licensed work.
In the specific example, he was publishing the web application. That counts as distribution. If the web app is only privately used, then he doesn't have to make the code available. If the web app is publicly accessible, though, even if users only receive non-code data as the output, then he is obligated to provide the source code if asked.
What if instead of publishing it to a web-server (where the general public can use the application) it was hosted on a private server. However, another non-GPL public web application is given exclusive access to the private GPL app.

This way the GPLed server is "in your own home" so to speak, but it's output is distributed by a separate public application.

What if this public server doesn't directly talk to the private GPL server, but requires human data-entry to connect the two? What level of connection counts as distribution of the GPL code?
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Quote:
Original post by Oluseyi
Quote:
Original post by phresnel
The GPL is not only ideologist...

I never said the GPL was the only ideologically motivated license. Don't refute
claims that weren't made.

That phrase was intended to have the meaning of "The GPL is not only used by idealists, and the license terms don't apply to idelogy alone". Sorry if it was confusing.

Quote:
Quote:
Instead, if you don't want your sourcecode to be used in other projects that don't open their sources for free use (i.e. proprietary software) or in projects that make actual money (alongside with other code) with your code, without giving you back anything, then the GPL or another copyleft license, can be useful, too.

Which is an ideological motivation. If you want to give your code away for free, why must you compel others to do so, too?

That's ideological, too.

It was maybe confusing to assume that the "ideology" you mentioned was specifically about "FSF Ideology".


Quote:
Quote:
That [copyleft license] it is only useful in ideology based environment is BS.

I never said Copyleft (in fact, I never referred to Copyleft, only to the GPL since the OP's question was explicitly about GPL) was useful only in ideologically-based environments. I said not to use the GPL unless its ideology was clearly understood and agreed with. Again, don't refute claims that weren't made.

I don't claim anything, but you mentioned "understand and agree some ideology" in the context of GPL only, twice, if I read correctly. But actually, you also have to understand and agree to the ideology of the often-so-called less restricting licenses. Otherwise you could wake up one morning, and wonder about how others have surprisingly taken all your code and plagiarise the product; which is exactly what happened to given example, where they obviously didn't take the potential consequences of their choice seriously.

Quote:
Quote:
Original post by phresnel
You could also purely distribute on ordinary CD-ROMS, via computer shops and the like. Then you don't even have to give away your work for free or via the internet, and must only include the sourcecode on the CD-ROM (it's about distributing the sourcecode in appropriate form, and if you only distribute via CD-ROM, then that's appropriate).

That's not entirely correct. You don't have to include the source on the program CD-ROM, but you must make the code available on CD-ROM if a someone orders it, for which you are permitted to charge the cost of distribution.

That's right. My GPL skills seem a little bit rusty :P
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Quote:
Original post by Oluseyi
In the specific example, he was publishing the web application. That counts as distribution. If the web app is only privately used, then he doesn't have to make the code available. If the web app is publicly accessible, though, even if users only receive non-code data as the output, then he is obligated to provide the source code if asked.

I supposedly left the forum, but someone linked me here, so I could as well reply if I read it...
That's patently untrue for GPL v2. It is a legal text which explicitly speaks of binary distribution, not of vague 'publishing'.

GPL v3 attempts to address the loophole, but is not retro-actively restrictive on v2 or even "v2 or later" code.
Most of the code is released under v2, and I only used and released GPL and LGPL v2 code. There's mushroom clouds on horizon which are the prime reason why I may feel like using v3.
GPL is a practical license. When I release code under [L]GPL I can be pretty sure if its used commercially, I'm paid back, either in $ for GPL-free version or in free code (fixes and other maintenance). v3 is here to keep it so in today's environment. With MIT or BSD, however, from prior history, I can be pretty sure any commercial company will fork it just because they can, and either not release code at all or release it under GPL-like license (see Apple).
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Quote:
Original post by krez
Anyone know of a good, simplified (yet thorough) explanation of the GPL? The legalese kills my brain...

More specifically, how does it apply to server-side code? For example, say I write a PHP web app and license it under the GPL. Does letting people access it through a website count as "distributing" or "conveying" it (and as such, require me to distribute the backend code)?

and to be useful:
Firstly, if you release your code under GPL, you can still use your own code as you please. E.g. you can release modified version of your own program in binary only. You can't do that if you use other people's code that is under GPL.
Secondly, for web applications, there's difference between GPL v2 or v3. v2 does not require to release code for web services etc. v3 supposedly does.
More about GPL v3
If you're just releasing your own code, I'd recommend releasing your code under v3, to require anyone else who uses your code in his web services to release back his fixes and changes* (but if you use those, you'll need to release the complete code too). If you're planning to use GPL libraries (not LGPL) in your code, even if those are v2, some might switch to v3 in the future and you'll have to either release your code or never update those anymore. So I'd recommend to use only LGPL libraries.
That's why it is important to understand philosophy behind licences. GPL philosophy is 'if you take you must give', and if v3 has loopholes that let you go against philosophy, there will be v4 and v5. LGPL is similar but giving is restricted to changes to the library.
edit:clarified.
edit: *might be untrue in v3, but if it is, there will be v3.1 or v4 addressing the issue.

[Edited by - Dmytry on June 17, 2009 5:50:06 AM]
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Quote:
Original post by Dmytry
Quote:
Original post by krez
Anyone know of a good, simplified (yet thorough) explanation of the GPL? The legalese kills my brain...

More specifically, how does it apply to server-side code? For example, say I write a PHP web app and license it under the GPL. Does letting people access it through a website count as "distributing" or "conveying" it (and as such, require me to distribute the backend code)?

and to be useful:
Firstly, if you release your code under GPL, you can still use your own code as you please. E.g. you can release modified version of your own program in binary only.

Heh, nice to see you.

That is, GPL is and always was explicitly about keeping the author's copyright. Nobody can just rip the copyright off, only the copyright owner himself is allowed to. A prominent example about what Dmytry just mentioned is Sun's (Oracle's?) VirtualBox: They distribute an OpenSource edition under GPL, and a non-free variant that has some additional features (though until now they always merged the non-free features into the free version after some time).

Btw, there's more about dual-licensing at wikipedia: "Dual Licensing".

Sidenote: Reversely, you are not allowed to distribute GPL software in any way if you changed the license to a GPL incompatible. And you are not allowed to tweak the copyright owner :D
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Quote:
Original post by Oluseyi
If the web app is publicly accessible, though, even if users only receive non-code data as the output, then he is obligated to provide the source code if asked.

Quote:
Original post by Dmytry
GPL v3 attempts to address the loophole

That is the main issue, thanks.
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Original post by Oluseyi
The Free Software licensing quiz is very, very good.

Now that was depressingly enlightening. I didn't know if I dynamically link to something LGPL'd (like ffmpeg) I have to allow users to reverse engineer my program. Now I can't use anything GPL'd or LGPL'd :(
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Quote:
Original post by MikeTacular
Quote:
Original post by Oluseyi
The Free Software licensing quiz is very, very good.

Now that was depressingly enlightening. I didn't know if I dynamically link to something LGPL'd (like ffmpeg) I have to allow users to reverse engineer my program. Now I can't use anything GPL'd or LGPL'd :(


I think that's a vague issue. As far as I can tell, this only holds true for derivative work (e.g. when you build your application upon such library as a fundament). I think you are on the safe side as long as it is easy to replace the library by an equivalent one, or a newer version of it. Oh, and, IANAL. Just in case.

Wikipedia has more information: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGPL
About derivative work: http://www.linuxjournal.com/article/6366.
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Quote:
Original post by phresnel
Quote:
Original post by MikeTacular
Now that was depressingly enlightening. I didn't know if I dynamically link to something LGPL'd (like ffmpeg) I have to allow users to reverse engineer my program. Now I can't use anything GPL'd or LGPL'd :(
I think that's a vague issue. As far as I can tell, this only holds true for derivative work (e.g. when you build your application upon such library as a fundament). I think you are on the safe side as long as it is easy to replace the library by an equivalent one, or a newer version of it. Oh, and, IANAL. Just in case.
Unfortunately, while that holds in some cases, the issue is a little more fuzzy. If the LGPL library contains a significant amount of code that is incorporated at compile or link time (rather than dynamic link time), such as pre-processor or template code, then it is very hard to use a newer version of the library.
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Quote:
Original post by MikeTacular
Quote:
Original post by Oluseyi
The Free Software licensing quiz is very, very good.

Now that was depressingly enlightening. I didn't know if I dynamically link to something LGPL'd (like ffmpeg) I have to allow users to reverse engineer my program. Now I can't use anything GPL'd or LGPL'd :(

I've no problem with that clause. I'm releasing my software dynamically linked against LGPL libraries. This phrase may sound rude to american, but all the chances are your software is not interesting enough to reverse engineer either. Besides, reverse engineering is allowed in many countries in EU, so if you worry about reverse engineering you better don't release your software at all.
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Original post by phresnel
I don't claim anything, but you mentioned "understand and agree some ideology" in the context of GPL only, twice, if I read correctly. But actually, you also have to understand and agree to the ideology of the often-so-called less restricting licenses. Otherwise you could wake up one morning, and wonder about how others have surprisingly taken all your code and plagiarise the product; which is exactly what happened to given example, where they obviously didn't take the potential consequences of their choice seriously.

It is necessary to understand the "ideology" of any license, however even you must admit that the GPL is a fairly unique document in terms of promoting the notion of copyleft - of ensuring openness and placing that restriction on derivative products as well, while preserving author's rights. It was a radical departure from all that came before it, which either fell into "this is all mine and you need my permission to use it - and you probably have to pay me, too!" or "this is mine; you can use it, but don't ask me for support or claim I'm liable", and it has been equally influential on licenses that have come after it.

Further, copyleft is emblematic of a particular variation on a gift culture, whereas the overwhelming majority of humans live in a market or barter economy. It's an unfamiliar concept, and therefore bears emphasis more so than licenses that embody more common market ideals.

Do you now understand why it might be necessary to underline the ideological basis of the GPL, but not of, say, BSD?

Quote:
Original post by MikeTacular
Quote:
Original post by Oluseyi
The Free Software licensing quiz is very, very good.

Now that was depressingly enlightening. I didn't know if I dynamically link to something LGPL'd (like ffmpeg) I have to allow users to reverse engineer my program.

Yeah, that's the one I missed, too. Now we know.
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Original post by Dmytry
I've no problem with that clause. I'm releasing my software dynamically linked against LGPL libraries. This phrase may sound rude to american, but all the chances are your software is not interesting enough to reverse engineer either. Besides, reverse engineering is allowed in many countries in EU, so if you worry about reverse engineering you better don't release your software at all.

I'm not too worried about my personal programs. Sure, I'd like them to be legally protected from backwards engineering, but like you said there's very little chance anyone would care to. The big problem comes with commercial software. When I worked at Sorenson Media (which mostly deals with video encoding) and we were working on a new product someone thought of using ffmpeg for one thing or another. I don't know if it was actually used or not (or if it will be in the future), but if they did it might make it harder to fight the competition since the competition could then legally reverse engineer any innovations made in the program (though they might do that anyway even if it were illegal). I didn't know about the EU reverse engineering thing though. Oh well though, I don't need to worry about it right now; it's not causing me any problems. But it is good to know.
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Original post by MikeTacular
I'm not too worried about my personal programs. Sure, I'd like them to be legally protected from backwards engineering, but like you said there's very little chance anyone would care to. The big problem comes with commercial software. When I worked at Sorenson Media (which mostly deals with video encoding) and we were working on a new product someone thought of using ffmpeg for one thing or another. I don't know if it was actually used or not (or if it will be in the future), but if they did it might make it harder to fight the competition since the competition could then legally reverse engineer any innovations made in the program (though they might do that anyway even if it were illegal). I didn't know about the EU reverse engineering thing though. Oh well though, I don't need to worry about it right now; it's not causing me any problems. But it is good to know.

I'm yet to see example of software that would be worthwhile to reverse-engineer for reasons other than format, protocol, or other compatibility. Can you name any examples when someone 'reverse engineered' some software to steal some innovation?
I'm really glad reverse engineering is legal in some countries, else I'd get totally stuck with windows because I wouldn't be able to read NTFS or FAT32 from other OS (ditto for microsoft word).
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Original post by Dmytry
Quote:
Original post by MikeTacular
I'm not too worried about my personal programs. Sure, I'd like them to be legally protected from backwards engineering, but like you said there's very little chance anyone would care to. The big problem comes with commercial software. When I worked at Sorenson Media (which mostly deals with video encoding) and we were working on a new product someone thought of using ffmpeg for one thing or another. I don't know if it was actually used or not (or if it will be in the future), but if they did it might make it harder to fight the competition since the competition could then legally reverse engineer any innovations made in the program (though they might do that anyway even if it were illegal). I didn't know about the EU reverse engineering thing though. Oh well though, I don't need to worry about it right now; it's not causing me any problems. But it is good to know.

I'm yet to see example of software that would be worthwhile to reverse-engineer for reasons other than format, protocol, or other compatibility. Can you name any examples when someone 'reverse engineered' some software to steal some innovation?
I'm really glad reverse engineering is legal in some countries, else I'd get totally stuck with windows because I wouldn't be able to read NTFS or FAT32 from other OS (ditto for microsoft word).


Wordy word. Plus, for the unaware, they (which includes several projects) didn't "steal" innovation (and even when, where would we be if everybody would be forced to re-invent the wheel, if the wheel-idea would be forbidden to copy? Or the von-Neumann thoughts? etc.), but in fact try to clean room implement things.
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Disclaimer about me (off-topic, POV):

I know this is not the perfect world for a GPL (in such a world programmers would be more like carpenters who work as needed, and be fixing burst pipes / bugs at users home, and be timbering tables and chairs / writing and installing software,..., "Peter?" "Yes, Darling?" "Could you search the number of the next hacker around from the yellow pages?" "Sure, are you looking for a new feature?" "Yes, it annoys me that I must always walk over the whole menu tree just to make a small box around some text!"), and I understand your position. But I am personally a great fan of a real knowledge society; I am not against software patents in general, but would prefer if they lasted only a few years, say 1 or 3 or so, plus many of the patented knowledge is absoulte non-sense. I am also against forbidding to re-engineer software, because it's like forbidding to open up my computer tower and study the mainboard layout. I am definitely not an advocate of forcing everyone to release your code for no charge, maybe in a remote future, but not know.



Quote:
Original post by Oluseyi
Quote:
Original post by phresnel
ensuring openness and placing that restriction on derivative products as well, while preserving author's rights.


I think it is personal opinion to describe "ensuring openness" as a restriction. How would you call it when A makes some free software for the sake of freedom, B then grabs a copy of A's work, puts a proprietary license upon it, and re-markets that now restricted version to customers, so that customers have no freedom with respect to the product they paid their money for? [car sneaks in] Maybe so that the customer is forbidden to re-sell the software/car, and the customer needs to destroy the discs/crush the car himself in order to legally trash it. (I know that the car is not a perfect equivalent of software, but the act of buying/owning/tweaking/learning/reselling)

Imho, that's a restriction, and while MIT+Co. are less restricting in themselves, it is easy to convert such software into a restricted variant, and hence morph the something that was produced for public sake into something that is a blind-alley, because it lies in customers attic, useless to those who don't have a license.

So, while GPL is more restricting in what it allows, it helps to keep the underlying product/software unrestricted, and for that, copyleft is necessary, because a GPL with alienable copyright would be the legal same as MIT+Co., as the copyright owner is the one who is allowed to change the license.


Quote:
Do you now understand why it might be necessary to underline the ideological basis of the GPL, but not of, say, BSD?

Pardon, no. I still see BSD+Co. (sorry for all the XXX+Co.) as:
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Here's my software I have (maybe) cooked up in my spare time over years. Do what you want with it, if you make money or other profit with it, I don't care, I am only interested in the coding part (example missing) and maybe the widespread use (X). It doesn't matter to me whether you refine that meal with your secret ingredient and tell me about those so I can do better next time, or if you live a good life with my recipe + your ingredients and leave me back in my small kitchen, and you and the others you plagiarise me will be the only ones in the world who ever profit from it.


If you are unsure, the GPL gives you more safety w.r.t. your code, in that plagiarising your work is legally problematic, and later you can still switch to BSD or the like.
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