Benjamin Geer on Fri, 5 Apr 2002 18:37:01 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-bold] Re: <nettime> NPB License

On Thursday 04 April 2002 2:51 pm, nettime's_quasilegal wrote:
> <>
> [snip]
>    Unfortunately using copyright to protect free software is a lot like
>    using a Jackal to guard the hens.

The free and easy approach suggested (just stop worrying about it) will work 
fine until someone takes *your* code and turns it into a proprietary, 
closed-source product.  Here's how it almost happened to X Windows (without 
which Linux wouldn't have a graphical user interface):


The X Windows Trap
by Richard Stallman

To copyleft or not to copyleft? That is one of the major controversies in the 
free software community. The idea of copyleft is that we should fight fire 
with fire--that we should use copyright to make sure our code stays free. The 
GNU GPL is one example of a copyleft license. 

Some free software developers prefer non-copyleft distribution. Non-copyleft 
licenses such as the XFree86 and BSD licenses are based on the idea of never 
saying no to anyone--not even to someone who seeks to use your work as the 
basis for restricting other people. Non-copyleft licensing does nothing 
wrong, but it misses the opportunity to actively protect our freedom to 
change and redistribute software. For that, we need copyleft. 

For many years, the X Consortium was the chief opponent of copyleft. It 
exerted both moral suasion and pressure to discourage free software 
developers from copylefting their programs. It used moral suasion by 
suggesting that it is not nice to say no. It used pressure through its rule 
that copylefted software could not be in the X Distribution. 

Why did the X Consortium adopt this policy? It had to do with their 
definition of success. The X Consortium defined success as 
popularity--specifically, getting computer companies to use the X Window 
System. This definition put the computer companies in the driver's seat. 
Whatever they wanted, the X Consortium had to help them get it. 

Computer companies normally distribute proprietary software. They wanted free 
software developers to donate their work for such use. If they had asked for 
this directly, people would have laughed. But the X Consortium, fronting for 
them, could present this request as an unselfish one. ``Join us in donating 
our work to proprietary software developers,'' they said, suggesting that 
this is a noble form of self-sacrifice. ``Join us in achieving popularity,'' 
they said, suggesting that it was not even a sacrifice. 

But self-sacrifice is not the issue: tossing away the defense that copyleft 
provides, which protects the freedom of the whole community, is sacrificing 
more than yourself. Those who granted the X Consortium's request entrusted 
the community's future to the good will of the X Consortium. 

This trust was misplaced. In its last year, the X Consortium made a plan to 
restrict the forthcoming X11R6.4 release so that it will not be free 
software. They decided to start saying no, not only to proprietary software 
developers, but to our community as well. 

There is an irony here. If you said yes when the X Consortium asked you not 
to use copyleft, you put the X Consortium in a position to license and 
restrict its version of your program, along with the code for the core of X. 

The X Consortium did not carry out this plan. Instead it closed down and 
transferred X development to the Open Group, whose staff are now carrying out 
a similar plan. To give them credit, when I asked them to release X11R6.4 
under the GNU GPL in parallel with their planned restrictive license, they 
were willing to consider the idea. (They were firmly against staying with the 
old X11 distribution terms.) Before they said yes or no to this proposal, it 
had already failed for another reason: the XFree86 group follows the X 
Consortium's old policy, and will not accept copylefted software. 

[In September 1998, several months after X11R6.4 was released with non-free 
distribtion terms, the Open Group reversed its decision and rereleased it 
under the same non-copyleft free software license that was used for X11R6.3. 
Thank you, Open Group.] 

Even if the X Consortium and the Open Group had never planned to restrict X, 
someone else could have done it. Non-copylefted software is vulnerable from 
all directions; it lets anyone make a non-free version dominant, if he will 
invest sufficient resources to add significantly important features using 
proprietary code. Users who choose software based on technical 
characteristics, rather than on freedom, could easily be lured to the 
non-free version for short-term convenience. 

The X Consortium and Open Group can no longer exert moral suasion by saying 
that it is wrong to say no. This will make it easier to decide to copyleft 
your X-related software. 

When you work on the core of X, on programs such as the X server, Xlib, and 
Xt, there is a practical reason not to use copyleft. The XFree86 group does 
an important job for the community in maintaining these programs, and the 
benefit of copylefting our changes would be less than the harm done by a fork 
in development. So it is better to work with the XFree86 group and not 
copyleft our changes on these programs. Likewise for utilities such as xset 
and xrdb, which are close to the core of X, and which do not need major 
improvements. At least we know that the XFree86 group has a firm commitment 
to developing these programs as free software. 

The issue is different for programs outside the core of X: applications, 
window managers, and additional libraries and widgets. There is no reason not 
to copyleft them, and we should copyleft them. 

In case anyone feels the pressure exerted by the criteria for inclusion in 
the X distributions, the GNU project will undertake to publicize copylefted 
packages that work with X. If you would like to copyleft something, and you 
worry that its omission from the X distribution will impede its popularity, 
please ask us to help. 

At the same time, it is better if we do not feel too much need for 
popularity. When a businessman tempts you with ``more popularity,'' he may 
try to convince you that his use of your program is crucial to its success. 
Don't believe it! If your program is good, it will find many users anyway; 
you don't need to feel desperate for any particular users, and you will be 
stronger if you do not. You can get an indescribable sense of joy and freedom 
by responding, ``Take it or leave it--that's no skin off my back.'' Often the 
businessman will turn around and accept the program with copyleft, once you 
call the bluff. 

Friends, free software developers, don't repeat a mistake. If we do not 
copyleft our software, we put its future at the mercy of anyone equipped with 
more resources than scruples. With copyleft, we can defend freedom, not just 
for ourselves, but for our whole community.

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