Kuro5hin.org: technology and culture, from the trenches
create account | help/FAQ | contact | links | search | IRC | site news
[ Everything | Diaries | Technology | Science | Culture | Politics | Media | News | Internet | Op-Ed | Fiction | Meta | MLP ]
We need your support: buy an ad | premium membership

[P]
An attempt to document the history of the GPL

By Andy Tai in MLP
Thu Jul 05, 2001 at 09:37:50 AM EST
Tags: Software (all tags)
Software

The GNU GPL is the fundamental document for Free Software. Because of its importance, it is useful to document its history and evolution, for reference purposes. As an attempt I have created such a web page at http://www.free-soft.org/gpl_history/.

I have incorporated material I can find from the web, usenet posts, mailing lists, etc. I think there may still be missing details, or possible inaccuracies. I welcome any corrections, additional inputs or suggestions.

Thanks,
Andy Tai, atai@atai.org


Sponsors

Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure

Login

Related Links
o http://www .free-soft.org/gpl_history/
o atai@atai. org
o Also by Andy Tai


Display: Sort:
An attempt to document the history of the GPL | 13 comments (12 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
Interesting read (4.83 / 6) (#1)
by spacejack on Thu Jul 05, 2001 at 01:00:44 AM EST

For someone largely ignorant to the history of the GPL anyways. Are there any books on this subject?

A quick comment about this sentence:

A hack on copyright laws, it turns the concept of copyright upside down, creates a whole community cooperating around the world and enables the development of software by the people, of the people and for the people.

It's not a 'hack' of copyright law in any way (eg. compare the length of the license to one of Microsoft's EULAs). Copyright isn't about money, it's about exercising control over your work. The GPL in fact reinforces the notion that your work is your work, and that you can dictate certain conditions by which it is used. That people only see it as a way to make money is unfortunate.

Question for everyone:

When the copyright on current GPL software expires (assuming it is still in use in another century or whatever), should the community press to have it extended the same way Disney et. al do?

Excellent question... (4.33 / 3) (#2)
by univgeek on Thu Jul 05, 2001 at 01:15:34 AM EST

IMHO asking for an extension to the copyright would be unnecessary.

This is technology, do you think any code will remain relevent for the 70 or 95 years that the copyright is valid? Or does the copyright apply to the algorithm? The algo would be eternally valid I would think. (of course no one thought that COBOL would still be around to screw everyones life in 2000, but I guess thats another story)

Does this mean that software copyrights should be much less than other copyrights? ie should the length of the copyright be linked to the time it takes for the material to becom obsolete? taking into consideration the quote from the US. constitution which says that copyright should be for benefit of all.


Arguing with an Electrical Engineer is liking wrestling with a pig in mud, after a while you realise the pig is enjoying it!
[ Parent ]

Hack on copyright (4.75 / 4) (#3)
by wnight on Thu Jul 05, 2001 at 01:26:54 AM EST

For someone who says he's ignorant, you make a fairly decent point... The GPL is just allowing authors to control their work, the same as any license by anyone, for any purpose.

But, I would say that it's a hack, not on copyright, but on the system. The system is now geared not to allowing authors to maintain reasonable control, but to making a ton of money for large corporations (why else do copyrights extend so far past the life of the author?). As such, the GPL attempts to make it easier for everyone (Microsoft included) to write software. The only caveat is that by doing so, they increase the value of the GPL for everyone else. Eventually, it's so much easier to write software with the already available GPLed bits that people find it unprofitable to write proprietary code (in all but a very few cases.)

This is designed to bring the system to its knees because nearly every work would be GPLed.

The desired goal is that when it's so much easier to use (nearly) public domain code to write (nearly) public domain programs, corporations will stop pushing for draconian laws surrounding copyright.

Or, at least that's sort of how I see it working.

When people write very good GPLed code, it's hard for a company to justify completely reimplementing that from scratch just to avoid GPLing some program. Especially when that program probably isn't very relevant to their revenue stream.

My company, for instance. We make telephone gear. Why should we care if we GPL our configuration software, it doesn't use any undocumented hardware interface, nor does it do any of our competitors any good. Yet, if we GPL it, our customers could help diagnose bugs (we do sell to many clueful organizations with a large programming staff) and perhaps learn from it if we do something clever. (I know I'd never have learned to program if I hadn't been able to LIST the programs on my Apple ][ system disk.)



[ Parent ]
software is playing catch-up (5.00 / 1) (#8)
by spacejack on Thu Jul 05, 2001 at 10:36:18 AM EST

For someone who says he's ignorant, you make a fairly decent point...

Heh, well I think I understand the basics of the GPL (I've actually contributed to a small project recently). I know squat about the history of it though.

But, I would say that it's a hack, not on copyright, but on the system. The system is now geared not to allowing authors to maintain reasonable control, but to making a ton of money for large corporations

Perhaps in the world of software it is only seen this way.

(why else do copyrights extend so far past the life of the author?).

A variety of reasons I guess. One reason might be that it increases the value of the work for the buyer, so the seller (creator) can make more money. Another is the intent of the piece. Remember that in the art world, copyright has gone through a lot more interesting tests than in the software world.

A basic example might be REM: they have refused to license their songs to large corporations, like Microsoft and Nike. If they were suddenly killed in a plane crash next week, should Nike & MS suddenly be allowed to use their music as their theme songs?

Moredecai Richler (a famous Canadian author) just died the other day. Should his works now suddenly be in the public domain? Do we want to see variations and permutations spit out by hack writers riding his coattails? Should the publishers all lose out on the sales of his most recent books, since "anyone" can print/redistribute the work? Frankly I'm not sure that's in anyone's benefit.

Michael Snow, a local artist, created a sculpture of geese for a large downtown mall here. Back in the 80's, the mall decided to adorn the geese with Christmas decorations one year. Snow objected, this was not the intent of his piece. He sold them the physical piece, but he owns the copyright. And he was within his rights and forced them to take off the decorations. This is a good thing, and I'm glad that he can exercise this power against a large corporate entity like that when he feels it necessary.

There are other wierder circumstances that come to mind. Andy Warhol created some works that were bio-degradable; i.e., they were supposed to disintigrate after a certain amount of time. Of course the owners of the work wanted to artificially preserve it. Should they be allowed to? Hard to say and I don't know what came of that story. If they did, I think it would be fair to conclude that the work was no-longer Warhols, and should no longer be sold as a Warhol, since his work, technically, is no more.

Rap music, back in the 80s kind of went through a Napster thing. At first it was like "hey, that's cool, they're using those samples creatively and producing new work, let them do it!" Of course, the tune would've been different if the Rolling Stones were grabbing tunes from buskers and producing them themselves. James Brown wasn't too happy about having his catalogue pilliaged while he was in jail -- his first song when he got out was "The Godfather Must Get Paid!". Even George Clinton who was friendly to rappers re-using his old material now requires royalties for the use of samples. The problem is that people just leech the work in any way possible and suck it dry.

Anyways, all I'm saying is, software is a bit new in the game of copyright. Most software is used for business, so I don't see any big "moral" wins for GPL software; it's just one more way to do it and should be used appropriately. I don't really see it as revolutionary, so much as software developers have been somewhat unimaginitive with the variety of ways copyright law can work for them and their software.

[ Parent ]
Copyright in various fields (5.00 / 1) (#9)
by wnight on Thu Jul 05, 2001 at 11:50:02 AM EST

Re: long copyrights...

Yes, I do see how, in general, the longer the copyright will last, the more a company will pay for it. However I think you hit diminishing returns after a while. No company is going to plan 100 years ahead when buying what may potentially be the next Mickey Mouse and pay accordingly. They'll still buy it for the exploitation rights in the next (guessing) 10 years and the rest is just gravy.

As to control...

If REM died today, I'd support a 20-year long copyright for their heirs. It'd remove any financial incentive anyone might have for killing them, and it'd last long enough to provide income for their youngest children to grow to adult-hood. (There are cases perhaps, of disability, where this is not true but I think the law needs to focus on general cases not the extraordinary.)

Re Richler...

I think he deserves the same 20 years, but yes, actually I do want to see variations on his work. His work wasn't created in a vacuum, so it's unfair to place it there. He borrowed from the work of other people, if not directly, then during his education. Why should we deprive others of the same rights?

Re Snow...

This is a case I was hoping would be settled the other way. If you buy a book, you have the right to resell that book, dispose of it, or display it alongside books that author wouldn't approve of. (Short of any libel issues if you were implying that the author was connected to those other books perhaps.)

You also gain the right to modify the work (rip out pages, annotate the margins, etc) and then distribute that modified work (Sell your copy) as long as you don't produce more copies.

Why isn't this true with art? Why can't I buy that stupid painting in the Canadian art gallery with the three vertical lines, the one that sold for millions, (ok assuming I was rich enough) modify it with a knife, and resell it? It's my artistic commentary on that talentless hack.

But anyways, I question if this was a copyright case, or a case of the court finding for the famous person who claims to be oppressed by the big corporation and has the public sympathy. The Canadian government did a similar thing before where they refused to let someone burn an original painting (specified in their will).

As for a big moral win...

Our big win will come when we lessen the power of large corporations to control what we do on our computers. If computers are all sold with MS OSes, we're at their mercy. They'd be able to snoop on what we do, control how and when we use our computer, sell the data to marketers, etc. And to reverse engineer it would be illegal.

The nature of the GPL is that GPLed code increases. Using this code can provide a great head-start over someone writing from scratch. Eventually, we should be at the point where it's a definate liability to write proprietary code because you have to avoid all these very-handy libraries. Hopefully at this point we'll start to get more commercial (ie, sold with computers, and designed so that mom can use them.) OSes, and some of those will be open. Not because of any moral reason, but simply because the fastest way for Company X to compete with MS was to reuse Linux and toss a GUI on top.

Through this, we can prevent a situation where it's illegal to lift the hood to see what makes the computer run, but mandatory to buy those parts.


[ Parent ]
good points (5.00 / 1) (#10)
by spacejack on Thu Jul 05, 2001 at 12:34:29 PM EST

Re Snow...

This is a case I was hoping would be settled the other way. If you buy a book, you have the right to resell that book, dispose of it, or display it alongside books that author wouldn't approve of. (Short of any libel issues if you were implying that the author was connected to those other books perhaps.)

You also gain the right to modify the work (rip out pages, annotate the margins, etc) and then distribute that modified work (Sell your copy) as long as you don't produce more copies.


As you well should be able to. Snow's work OTOH was the original, and the Eaton Centre was displaying it as such, so dressing it up with tinsel changed the work. Snow might've intended it to be a brief respite from all the surrounding commercialism, or as a religiously ambiguous piece, in which case Christmas decorations are contrary to the intent. So I think he was justified here -- not because I'm so emotionally attached to the piece (it's sorta tacky IMHO), but because I think this right belongs to the artist.

Why isn't this true with art? Why can't I buy that stupid painting in the Canadian art gallery with the three vertical lines, the one that sold for millions, (ok assuming I was rich enough) modify it with a knife, and resell it? It's my artistic commentary on that talentless hack.

Heh, the Rothko? I think they justified it as "an investment". But I think that you should be allowed to do whatever you want to to it in your own home. The difference is how you display it in public. I like your idea for the commentary on the work though :)

I'm surprised that other artist's will held up in court; I agree that you should be able to destroy the work if you really want to (as some collectors have to increase the value of their other acquisitions.. which is a bit shady if you ask me, but what can you do).

Back to the GPL, I would also like to see more, very common/essential core software released under the GPL (or at least under less-restrictive licenses than MS). I like the Apple approach to OSX, where the OS guts are open, but the original work, the expensive, hard-to-test UI for the masses is still protected and allows them to make money and compete with other interface products. Now if they would just release that OS for x86 systems... :)

[ Parent ]
95% internal? (5.00 / 1) (#12)
by Pink Daisy on Thu Jul 05, 2001 at 09:16:51 PM EST

If, as some people claim, 95% of software is produced and used internally by companies, the GPL does not matter. I don't know the correctness of those figures, although things such as ESR citing them and the Software Magazine top 500 list make me think they are not correct, or at best, very outdated. Anyway, as I was saying, if the software is only used internally, GPL is of no concern.

As long as the company does not distribute the binaries externally, they are under no obligation to distribute the GPL'd code. They can also link it against all the proprietary code they like, since if there is no distribution, they do not need to be able to distribute the stuff under the terms of the GPL. Of course this does nothing to benefit the free software community unless they voluntarily release their modifications, or you count the diminished use of commercial proprietary software as a victory.

[ Parent ]

Are you able to do that? (4.33 / 3) (#4)
by modraken on Thu Jul 05, 2001 at 01:42:01 AM EST

I am not sure if you are able to 'extend' a copyright the way you are describing it. I think the only person who is able to do that is the copyright owner. Since the copyright doesn't expire until after the person's death, it seems impossible to do. I'm not sure how this process works with corporations. I believe it is 95 years or so after the first publication, but I may be interpreting it wrong. And once it expires, it enters the public domain, and is by definition not copyrightable. So I don't think the community can do what you are asking.

Of course this may be all moot. Aside from the typical claim that 'No one will use 100 year old software', Congress also keeps extending the copyright length . They have extended it a few times in the past 30 years, each time adding 20+ years on to the expiration date. At this rate, a copyright will never expire. This is simply USian law, though. Anyone know anything about copyright law on an international level?

[ Parent ]

extending copyright (5.00 / 1) (#7)
by Kellnerin on Thu Jul 05, 2001 at 09:52:52 AM EST

I think spacejack's question was more along the lines of "Should the Free Software Foundation (or some other embodiment of 'the Community') lobby Congress (or your relevant legislative body) to extend the term of copyright, a la Disney and the cabal of evil media companies?", rather than whether Joe FreshmeatPoster should try to extend copyrights on their own works. For someone like the FSF to do that is probably just as impossible, though, because the question then becomes "Will some organization acting on behalf of the Free Software Community have enough financial clout to put enough legislators in their pocket?" which I think we can all guess the answer to.

But this is still moot, because I don't think "the Community" would want to. There's no real love of copyright and other accoutrements of Intellectual Property in this crowd; at best it's a necessary evil. Any gain that comes from being able to guarantee that your decades-old GPLed code would be safe from nasty people trying to fold it into a proprietary product would be far outweighed by the fact that copyrighted works in other fields (art, music, literature) would remain locked up or another 20 years. And if someone is willing to wait all that time in order to "embrace and extend" your work, and be more than a few years behind the curve, well I imagine they are welcome to it ...

More concretely, without any speculation on what may happen or what people may wish to do, there's the fact that the GPL is designed for code that changes, that evolves and improves over time. From my understanding, any new parts that are written, if substantial, are copyrighted the year they are created, not the year the project was started. So even if the copyright expires on the very earliest code, the package as a whole does not fall into the public domain -- in fact, the most advanced pieces are probably still under protection -- and I doubt anyone will want to go through the trouble of dissecting which parts are "safe" and which are not. And if no development at all has happened on the entire project during the entire term of copyright, it's probably time to open the code -- if anyone wants it.

And lastly, I have to point out that the phrase "Free Software/Open Source movement" in the linked piece would be hotly contested by RMS, among many others. The GPL is firmly connected with the Free Software movement as distinct from the Open Source movement, who each have their own differing philosophies (It is a moral imperative to allow people access to your source, thereby giving them the ability to adapt your product to their own needs on the side of the FSF, vs. It is a useful and practical thing to allow people access to your source, so that they may find and fix your bugs and contribute to an ultimately better product on the side of the OSI -- summaries of the philosophies in 30 words or less mine.)

--Stop it, evil hand, stop it!--
[ Parent ]

interesting stuff (4.00 / 2) (#6)
by the wanderer on Thu Jul 05, 2001 at 05:32:56 AM EST

I have just begun to use linux, and the GNU GPL comes up a lot in some discussions i follow about linux. So i think this is a good article, it will sure tell me a few things i didn't know yet.


david, the Lost Boy
the Written Pixel

upside down? (5.00 / 1) (#11)
by Pink Daisy on Thu Jul 05, 2001 at 09:07:41 PM EST

I wouldn't really say the GPL turns copyright upside down. The idea of copyright as a perpetual protection of profits from proprietary property is a new one. I think the idea of copyright is more to give the creator control over the distribution of their work, as an incentive to create more. The GPL takes advantage of copyright just as much as anyone else; specifically the viral nature of the GPL would not be possible without that legal protection, and anyone could make proprietary derivative works from GPL code.

One thing that I would like to know is how copyright expiry affects software. Does copyright on software expire eventually? After how long? God forbid we still be using something so primitive as Linux or Windows twenty or sixty or whatever years from now, but I think it's quite possible that we will be.

When Linux becomes PD, and when Windows becomes PD (5.00 / 1) (#13)
by pin0cchio on Fri Jul 06, 2001 at 02:53:02 PM EST

Does copyright on software expire eventually? After how long?

On paper, the copyright on Linux expires 70 years after Linus Torvalds dies, and the copyright on Windows 2000 (a work of corporate authorship aka "work for hire") expires in 2096, 95 years rounded up after it was released.

In reality, they will not expire until several years after The Walt Disney Company is dissolved. Thanks to Sonny Bono, we now have a de facto perpetual copyright regime.


lj65
[ Parent ]
An attempt to document the history of the GPL | 13 comments (12 topical, 1 editorial, 0 hidden)
Display: Sort:

kuro5hin.org

[XML]
All trademarks and copyrights on this page are owned by their respective companies. The Rest 2000 - Present Kuro5hin.org Inc.
See our legalese page for copyright policies. Please also read our Privacy Policy.
Kuro5hin.org is powered by Free Software, including Apache, Perl, and Linux, The Scoop Engine that runs this site is freely available, under the terms of the GPL.
Need some help? Email help@kuro5hin.org.
My heart's the long stairs.

Powered by Scoop create account | help/FAQ | mission | links | search | IRC | YOU choose the stories!