GPL foundation is not future proof

Things are moving fast in software these days. In many ways much is the same as it has been - like how we write and license our code, but much have changed with regard to how code can be distributed. A couple of days ago, VLC for iOS was removed from the AppStore because it seems the store terms conflict with the letter of the GPLv2 under which VLC is licensed. This caused me to tweet:

oddsimons: #VLC iOS gone as store "imposes additional terms and conditions". Can Linux legally ship as new phone firmware? #android #GPL

The tweet says what I was thinking, I just did not have any answers. Since no one has stepped forward to answer either, I've ended up digging into details and reading various opinions of others to see what underlies all this. It seems to me that in the big scheme of things, the infringement claim from one of the VLC contributors (Rémi Denis-Courmont) and even the involvement of FSF in a similar case last year may just well be the start of something that will bring the whole house of cards down.

Not intended by all those involved, no doubt. But in the name of freedom. And without anyone having a right to complain. Hear me out...

Embedded Linux and DRM

A couple of years ago, the issue of embedding Linux was raised against Tivo. The GPLv2 license covers distribution on any media, so that naturally also includes flash memory and chips and whatever else plays host to the software.

The fact is that even though the source is available, downloading, improving and compiling will in fact not work. Because the various levels of signatures and DRM preclude you from running this software on the box.

According to the Wikipedia article, the truce of this clash was this:

  • GPLv3 draft was updated to certainly not accept this behaviour in the future
  • Linus Torvalds seems to accept this license breach as the security concerns outweigh the rights of users


Usage Terms

So, VLC for iOS comes along. And, as far as I can tell, to avoid rehashing the DRM debate mentioned above, the actual target of the complaint is the AppStore Terms of Agreement that the user has to accept. This is a very long agreement covering all kinds of aspects. In some mailing list post I came across it seems others were not so certain about this incompatibility (the link to post eludes me now), but that gray areas are definitely present. No doubt people can (and will) continue to weigh words and intentions to somehow detect all, but at the end of the day I suppose it boils down to this one line in the GPLv2 agreement:

"You may not impose any further restrictions on the recipients' exercise of the rights granted herein."

If you believe the word, then even accepting a secondary level of usage terms in order to keep/use the software really becomes a no-no. It may conflict, it may not, and if not it may do so in the future when terms change.



By far the most popular Linux-based recent-generation OS is of course Android. In use by a large number of device makers for all kinds of purposes. Android OS layer is released by Google with an Apache license that does not have these issues (smart move), but it runs on top of a modified version of Linux and contains a fair chunk of GPLv2 code.

Source code rightly published (in theory at least). And upgradable - again in theory, as shown by the recent Sony Ericsson Xperia debacle.

Here is some well-known secrets of the underlying business:

  1. Handset/Device manufacturers survive by selling NEW devices.
  2. Google makes its money from KNOWING YOU and selling MORE ADVERTS.

Did you know that even devices ship with their own EULA? Today I found a HTC EULA that contains this pretty nugget:

"Portions of the Software includes software files subject to certain open source license agreements, then such open source software files are subject to the notices and additional terms and conditions that are referenced in this section."

So the open source agreements are in ADDITION to the HTC conditions? What conditions you may ask?! As far as I can tell, certainly not any conditions that I'd consider compatible with the GPLv2. Opinions on my interpretation of course welcome here - as I may get parts of this wrong.

The other side of Android is the apps, and to the joyful cheer of VLC for iOS being pulled, the voices started singing the praise for the upcoming Android version of VLC. To make any sort of sensible comparison, this must then presume to mean that VLC will be available on Android Market (terms) - which of course requires a Google Account so make sure to agree to that too. So, in some not-so-distant future running VLC from Market you have already agreed...

"... that if Google disables access to your account, you may be prevented from accessing the Market, your account details or any files or other Products that are stored with your account."


Individuals and Corporations

Are Android "compounded terms" worse than Apple? Most likely not. But the jumble of terms and conditions that follow a GPLv2 application running on a GPLv2 foundation OS on a new-generation device is very confusing. Fact is that it should be clear-cut according to the purist:

"Here is the software and the GPLv2 license. Have fun!"

It isn't like that at all. At least Apple owns their own stuff and may set the terms that you may agree with or not - take it or leave it. GPL is owned by you (in a broad sense) and apparently restricted by others. This will continue to aggravate people.

We are still at quite an early stage with regards to GPL licensed phones, tablets, set top boxes, TVs, embedded media devices and so on. New licensing issues will arise at equal speed in coming years. Hardly anything is really settled legally, and all is swept under the carpet in some stable status quo that certainly will not last. Richard Stallman and Linus Torvalds do not always agree, but they are strong people whose voices carries an opinion that is to a large extent unchallenged on their own turf.

What the VLC story also shows is that it just takes ONE important contributor to decide that "enough is enough" and request that any infringement (whatever that may be) ceases immediately. A single person - or corporation. And each contributor matter. That is thousands of people and organisations that have contributed to the Linux foundations.


House of Cards

Does such a person work for large corporations? Like Apple? Microsoft? Or Nokia as Rémi does? Or perhaps such a person has fallen on hard times and is now currently unemployed and in major financial difficulty - perhaps ready to be taken on a SCO-like joyride by capitalist vultures? I don't know. I certainly don't consider it to be unrealistic. What my 20 years in software has taught me is never to be surprised at what may lay around the corner.

If this house of cards crumbles it will certainly have major effects. I think that anyone that builds a business on top of GPL-licensed land should be aware that their house is located on sand in an earthquake zone. High risk, and there is no one that provides insurance. Beware of seismic activity.

  • Posted: 2011-01-11 02:39 (Updated: 2011-01-11 15:10)
  • Categories: licensing linux


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