The Viral Clause

Paradoxically, the viral clause, the part of the GPL licensing framework that so many people objected to because it wasn't business friendly, made the license business friendly - in the future, a license that liberates business from the drug of DRM and the prison of software patents may turn out to have been equally prescient and business friendly...

The Linux kernel is licensed under the GNU General Public Licence, or GPL. As we all know, the GPL turns copyright law on its head, and encourages freedom by granting the user a number of rights and responsibilities. The only substantive restriction imposed by the GPL is that the user must preserve the licence, and pass on the same rights, unimpaired, to other users, which by definition includes giving access to the source code, and to any changes that have been made to the code. (This restriction is sometimes referred to as the viral clause).

The software can be used for any purpose the user pleases, and can be packaged and resold, or given away free. But copies of the code must be accompanied by the GPL and any notices referring to the GPL, including the copyright and disclaimers of warranty for the software. Some would claim that the success of Linux owes much to the "viral" nature of the GPL.

Opponents of the GPL may choose, like Eric Raymond, to attribute the rise of Linux to other factors. In a speech in Brazil in 2005, he stated: "We don't need the GPL anymore. It's based on the belief that open source software is weak and needs to be protected. Open source would be succeeding faster if the GPL didn't make lots of people nervous about adopting it." In a follow-up interview with Federico Biancuzzi Raymond said: "I don't think the GPL is the principal reason for Linux's success. Rather, I believe it's because in 1991 Linus was the first person to find the right social architecture for distributed software development."

Linux was also the logical extension of several years work undertaken by the GNU project on the primary tools that make an operating system possible. The Linux kernel wouldn't have been possible, technically or philosophically, without the grounding of GNU and the GPL, and it's unlikely that Linux (and its many related projects) would have grown as they have under an alternative licensing model. We have an alternative model in BSD, which despite a ten year start, and initial technical superiority, has failed to capture the imagination of a larger developer community, and has fragmented into several versions.

One of the beauties of open source/free software is that it accomodates people of all religious, national, political and technical backgrounds, without prejudice. There is no assumption that fellow contributors share the same ideals beyond the common purpose of sharing the software. Of its nature free software development is both communitarian and collaborative, and this is its greatest asset. The GPL preserves both the continued integrity and growth of the project. Without the GPL, the corporate user can find advantage in hijacking and forking the kernel, thus discouraging wider contributions from other users. Under the current license large organisations have felt encouraged to share their code contributions, which in some cases have been massive. Linux has become a collaborative project across several industries, which would not be the case without the protection of the GPL.

The Linux kernel began as a personal project of Linus Torvalds, but grew rapidly because of the contribution of others. What differentiated Linux from Minix and other contemporary OS projects was that users felt able to freely contribute. The kernel grew rapidly, and Torvalds was able to exercise his special abilities as arbiter and overall co-ordinator of the kernel - but the project is, and has had to be, remarkably organic and democratic, because its efficiency depends upon the aggregation of many talents, each of which deserves some recognition.

The GPL is Stallman's special contribution, but Stallman does not see himself as a spokesman for anybody but himself and his ideal of free software. Stallman's isn't a charm offensive, but by sticking to his metaphorical guns he has brought both pleasant realities and unpleasant truths to the surface, and has never backed down. The objective of free software, in Stallman's vision, does not begin or end with the success or failure of the Linux kernel, or of GNU/Linux, which is how he prefers to describe the whole operating system.

“The only reason we have a wholly free operating system,” he has said, “is because of the movement that said 'we want an operating system that is wholly free, not 90 per cent free.' If you don't have freedom as a principle, you can never see a reason not to make an exception. There are constantly going to be times when for one reason or another there's some practical convenience in making an exception.”

These arguments have been re-awoken in recent months, and, with extra vigour, since the release earlier this week of the GPL 3. It is forgotten that very similar reasons were given for abandoning the now commercially recognised GPL 2 during the nineties, with most of the opposition coming from the BSD camp. The arguments were still heated as late as 2000, as a Google search for GPL versus BSD will verify, yet the GPL not only proved to be the best protector of the principles of free software, but was also the most business friendly of the licenses available, for one simple reason - companies like IBM, HP, and SGI could contribute openly to the kernel, in the knowledge that the developments of their competitors would also be fed back to the community - Paradoxically, the viral clause, the part of the license that so many people objected to because it wasn't "business friendly", made the license business friendly, worked to the mutual advantage of all contributors, and to the benefit of the project as a whole.

The recognition and support of the GPL and its variants by diverse organisations has propelled the open source model beyond software. To belittle the contribution of the GPL to the success of Linux is perverse. To argue that now is the time to abandon the GPL (as Raymond suggested in 2005, and others have argued more recently) is just wrong.

Time will tell, but the anti-DRM and software patent clauses in the latest version of the GPL may prove to be as necessary and successful an innovation for the spread of free software as was the viral clause in GPL 2, which encouraged (or enforced) the notion that those that took advantage of the software should also contribute their changes back to the community, and which, 10 years or so ago, so many people took exception to... in the future, the notion of liberating business from the drug of DRM and the prison of software patents by means of a software license may turn out to have been equally prescient and "business friendly".

Richard Hillesley


very well said!!!

very well written peice...

I Agree

Excellent article. I don't always agree with everything RMS says but I'm sure glad he's around and doing what he does. The worlds a much better place for Richards being here and for what he's done. I get very angry when I hear hateful things being said about him.

ESR bought by Linspire, don't forget

Remember that he's on Linspire's board, and also remember that Linspire is one of the traitors that signed a Novell-style patent deal with Microsoft. ESR has, to my knowledge, not left the board in light of this treason, and this from a man who, not so long ago, told Microsoft, "I am your worst enemy" when they sent out a job recruitment letter to him. Funny how a little money can change someone's opinion so fast....

What ESR, SJVN, and other "fence-sitter" open sourcers don't get is that the Free Software movement has never been about technical excellence. It's always--ALWAYS--been about freedom. That's why I, too, left the camp of "open sourcers" and joined the camp of Free Software advocates.

Yes, the GPL is necessary. And Richard was right.

The spectrum of evangelists

RMS is an extremist. Any major social/economic movement needs extremists to propel it's ideology forward but moderates like ESR are needed to keep it stable and appeal to the larger market so that critical mass is maintained. F/OSS has proven itself but the software industry is now in the tumultuous transition stage where the closed/non-free industry is starting to shift and we need to accommodate their fears until they get used to the change. Only when the vast majority of the industry has moved to the F/OSS position can we then ignore the holdouts and write them off as extremists of a bygone era.

Re: The spectrum of evangelists

but the idea that Eric Raymond is a moderate or a stabilising influence is, to say the least, interesting...

The GPL is sane. Raymond's sense of balance is, well, interesting...

Sorry but, don't agree with you. Now is the time when the free software movement has to be as clear as it can be as to what it's principles are. You only have to look around at the companies that are calling themselves "open source" companies so that they can ride the wave...

RMS is not an "extremist," just stubborn. And it's worked amazingly well so far.


"Extremists" like Stallman we can deal with. We understand his message. He conceals nothing about his motivations, his concerns, or his goals. Nutjobs like Raymond are another matter.

Beautifully expressed

Very good bit of journalism, Richard. Care to write a piece that shows what an irritant Eric Raymond's views have now become, and how the idea like calling Free software Open Source, to make it understandable to unthinking business people has, if it ever was any help, now become divisive word play?

The GPL is no more viral than copyright

With _ANY_ copyrighted work you need permission from the copyright holder to copy it for purposes that aren't exempt from infringement such as fair or private use, etc. The GPL is nothing more than such permission to people who agree to the terms of the license. The copyright holder is able to dictate such terms to people who make modifications to the code because such modifications (even the changes by themselves) qualify as derivative works, which is a well defined concept in Copyright law. Derivative works of a copyrighted work remain (at least in part) under the control of the original copyright holder, so he or she can still legally dictate the terms for getting permission to copy them.

Now nothing is stopping a person from learning from a GPL program and then applying that knowledge in a possibly new and inventive way and putting that application under whatever license the author wants. The GPL cannot legally prohibit that because the GPL only governs _copying_ (which you don't otherwise have any permission to do with a copyrighted work anyways, other than certain uses that are exempt from infringement and defined by Copyright law).

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