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The GPL: Saving Software From Itself

The GPL says that as someone who runs a program, you're free to change and redistribute its source code--provided that you also offer the same rights to everyone who receives a copy.

Most of us take it for granted that electronics will continue to get both cheaper and better. A new server, laptop, or printer depreciates almost as quickly as a new car, so you'll always get more for less if you wait.

Thanks to evermore restrictive copyright and patent laws, that's not quite true anymore. As of July this year, the FCC's "broadcast flag" rule will require all video cards sold in the United States to allow TV networks to prevent users from recording programs. Most enterprises don't have much use for video equipment--if you're an exception, stock up now--but that's just the start.

Lobbyists are pushing for legislation that will mandate similar Digital Rights Management (DRM) inside other components, where it will be used for purposes such as enforcing software licenses. The licenses themselves are also getting more oppressive, while the threat of being sued grows. But there's a solution: The General Public License (GPL), on which most free software depends, uses copyright law to benefit software users instead of vendors. So as copyright law gets more powerful, so do your GPL rights.

And this spring, for the first time in 14 years, the Free Software Foundation (FSF, will update it so that it also uses patent law to protect users from lawsuits.


The GPL says that as someone who runs a program, you're free to change and redistribute its source code--provided that you also offer the same rights to everyone who receives a copy. This keeps free software free and encourages programmers to contribute their work.

One change to the GPL will cover networked applications and is already being tested by reputation management start-up Affero. The principle is that all users of a program should have the right to its source code, even if they're only accessing the software remotely, not running it on their own machine. Thanks to how copyright law is interpreted, the new GPL will ensure that this happens.

As the name implies, copyright law originally covered only copying, not use. Thus, if you're reading this article on paper, you need (and have) permission to make photocopies, but not to pin it to a dartboard or use it as kindling.

If you're reading this online, you have fewer rights. Software vendors' lawyers have successfully argued that copyright law covers the use of a program because simply loading something into RAM is making a copy. This enables draconian End-User License Agreements (EULAs). For example, to install the latest security patches for Windows Media Player, you must agree to give Microsoft unlimited remote access.

The new GPL is much less onerous, but it does involve conditions for using certain software--specifically, that Web servers offer all clients a free download. This may be inconvenient for organizations that run their own custom versions of open-source servers, but the long-term result will be that less customization is required, as more free software is available.

The other major change could have even greater effects, extending the GPL to patents as well as copyrights. This wasn't necessary 14 years ago, as most programmers then considered software unpatentable.

Things are different now. Whereas patents originally covered only inventions, the United States now grants them on even the most obvious and general algorithms, ensuring that almost every program in use today--proprietary or open source--infringes on at least one patent. The only thing keeping software companies out of court is that the main holders of software patents are other software companies, and they fear retaliatory lawsuits.

This is a problem for the open-source community, as well as for start-ups that haven't patented anything yet. Worse, users can also be liable for patent infringement, and few vendors will risk indemnifying their customers. By using the GPL to build up a patent deterrent of its own, the FSF can protect both developers and users.

Respond to Andy Dornan's commentary at, or e-mail

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