LICENCE TO BILL
Linux Format|December 2021
Jonni Bidwell has been reading licence minutiae and fears big business threatens the future of copyleft and software freedom.
Jonni Bidwell

When Richard Stallman wrote the first version of the GPL, even if no one but people contributing to the GNU Project were using it, it represented a major shake-up of traditional licensing practices. Besides defining the oft-quoted ‘four freedoms’ (numbered 0 to 3, of course), it turned traditional copyright – that is, a list of things you cannot do with a particular work – completely on its head.

Code under GPL was free (as in speech), in the sense that anyone could see and modify it. The only real proviso was that the resulting code had to be subject to those same GPL provisions. Free begets free. That said, the GPL in no way restricts one’s ability to sell software and, optionally, distribute the paid version under a separate licence.

When Oracle was on the brink of acquiring Sun Microsystems in 2009, there was concern that Sun’s MySQL database – one of the most successful GPL efforts in history, and one it had acquired the year previous – would effectively become a proprietary product, since any fork of the free work would have to be GPL-licensed. It could not be commercially licensed by anyone other than Oracle, since it – being a company that had a history of making money from databases – inherited the licence. As it happened, this change saw MySQL founder Monty Widenius release the free MariaDB fork just before the acquisition was approved. Thanks to its compatibility with MySQL, MariaDB is today doing rather well.

But free software’s uneasy relationship with industry continues to evolve. In 2018 MongoDB introduced the Server Side Public License (SSPL) and switched its database of the same name’s licence to it from AGPLv3. The stated goal here was to stop unscrupulous cloud vendors using MongoDB in their own cloud applications, but pundits were sceptical. To worsen matters the SSPL was later adopted by Elastic Inc. for its immensely popular ElasticSearch and Kibana products.

Here’s a funny thing. We review a bunch of distros every month. And each review has an about box, and each about box has a ‘licence’ category. Yet, with very few exceptions, it’s impossible to say which licence a whole distro falls under. Superfluous page furniture aside, this raises some important questions.

The Linux Kernel has been a GPLv2-licensed affair since very soon after its release. Indeed, it is said that that shift from Linus’s original non-commercial licence to a copyleft one directly contributed to Linux’s early success. That kernel appears in every Linux distro alongside all kinds of other software. Most Linux distros incorporate GPL-licensed tooling from the GNU project, whence comes the coverline-unfriendly GNU/Linux conjunction. And if that were all they included then licensing would be straightforward. Such a distro would very much be ripe GPL fare.

But distros can contain all sorts of otherwise licensed software. The most obvious example is the X.org display server, which still powers lots of people’s GUIs and for historical reasons is covered by a mishmash of MIT, X Consortium and BSD-style licences. Some distros, like Alpine Linux (and Iglunix iglunix.xyz, almost), don’t include any GNU software. Then there’s the matter of proprietary firmware and microcode, which lots of modern hardware, from Wi-Fi devices to graphics cards, require in order to light up.

The firmware files themselves are blobs in the /lib/ firmware directory and run directly on the hardware, typically on a microprocessor of exotic architecture (such as MIPS) for wireless cards. And even if you could convince manufacturers to give you the source files, they wouldn’t do you much good because the tools for compiling them are proprietary. Such files are kept in the separate linux-firmware package, and typically get loaded during the early boot process. They can also be embedded into a kernel image, which is fine for your own projects, but redistributing such a kernel would be a GPL violation.

THE LAY OF THE LICENCE LAND

Since licensing is a confusing issue for developers new to open source, GitHub created a helpful website at https://choosealicense.com. Besides recommending MIT for those wanting to keep things simple, and GPLv3 for those that want something closer to Free Software ideals, the website has helpful advice on which licences are preferred by what communities. There’s also a summary of some of the more widely used licences, such as the Apache License 2.0 (which allows limitations on trademark use) and the “mediumcopyleft” Mozilla Public licence.

There are probably more open source licences than there are things in Horatio’s philosophy, and it wouldn’t really be useful to list them in all their clause-ey glory here. Some, such as the Creative Commons family, have been penned with crafts other than software in mind. There’s also the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) under so many of those man pages you’re supposed to flipping read. We won’t even mention the profane WTFPL licence.

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