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Re: LGPL vs. GPL

From: Ciaran O'Riordan
Subject: Re: LGPL vs. GPL
Date: Tue, 05 Aug 2008 12:40:34 +0100
User-agent: Gnus/5.11 (Gnus v5.11) Emacs/22.1 (gnu/linux)

JohnF <> writes:
> "let the best program win."  If the commercial application is
> truly better, maybe its superior functional specifications will
> inspire an open source "knock off."

It might, but it's predictable that the developer of the proprietary
application will try to make life as difficult as possible for any computer
users who want to migrate from the proprietary program to the free software
"knock off".

Even if the free software application ends up technically superior, society
will be stuck using the inferior proprietary application.  Maybe because
their data will end up in some undisclosed format.  Maybe because the
proprietary developer will patent some functionality and legally block the
free software developer from implementing an equal feature.  Maybe they'll
use the DMCA, maybe DRM, ...

It also puts users in the position of wanting to use the software, but never
being able to see what it's actually doing.  (This is in my mind because
Slashdot featured a story today about some company that's making software
for journalists to bypass China's Internet censorship - and I'm amazed
because I don't see the source code anywhere.  How does anyone know what the
software is really doing?  It could be from the Chinese government.  Or if
this version really is good, the next version might not be, but no one can

> If that doesn't happen,
> then the superior commercial application has every ethical right
> to dominate the market if users are willing to pay the price
> (dollar price as well as closed source price).

> And is slowly becoming a viable open source
> "knock off" alternative.

I think it's been capable of doing what 99% of people want already for the
last few years, but people are stuck with MS word because MS have leveraged
the software to gain control over the software users' data.

To let the best program win, the users have to be in a free position to
choose between the available options.  Among free software applications,
this is usually assured (or at least, it's guaranteed to be possible).  When
software that resepects users rights has to compete against software that
tries to control users, the free market then fails to give people "the

> That decision is legitimately made by the copyright holder.

Legally legitimate, yes, just as existing import laws make it possible for
me to go into certain shops in my developed country and buy the produce of
child labour.  Whether either of these things are ethical is another
question altogether.

[snip: mail by company claiming to be helping schools]
> The writer goes on to request permission to distribute mimetex outside
> the gpl.  What the heck am I supposed to do in a case like this?

That's a tough one alright.

Unfortunately, businesses are very good at selling petrol-guzzlers as "green
cars", or equally-addictive cigarettes as "light", or sugar bars as "health
food", or litigation companies as "innovation drivers", etc. etc.  When
someone says they're helping schools, but refusing to let the schools see
what the software is doing or make copies, it's very difficult to discern
whether this is really a society-improving company or if they're just
another company trying to control a market and coldly using all available
communication means ("we're helping kids") at their disposal.

If the company were releasing their software as free software, it would be a
lot easier to believe that their work really is aimed at helping the schools
that use their software.  By keeping the software proprietary, they're
probably making the school dependent on their company (maliciously or not),
so it's hard to judge this proprietary software company's true intentions.

> But it would be really nice to
> have a more straightforward procedure for dealing with these kinds
> of situations, especially a procedure that leaves me out of the loop.

Maybe it's easy for me to say, since I haven't been put in that position,
but one simple answer that leaves you out of the loop would be to tell them
that it's GPL'd, and that they can avoid all compatibility problems by
making their software GPL'd too.

To personalise it, in the helping-schoolkids example, you could also note
that by GPLing their software, they'd be allowing schools in Africa, South
East Asia, and other poor regions to benefit from their software.

CiarĂ¡n O'Riordan, +32 477 36 44 19,

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