Invitation to ubuntu developers

David Hart ubuntu at
Tue Nov 28 09:25:00 GMT 2006

On Sun 2006-11-26 14:35:42 +0000, Matthew Garrett wrote:
> On Sat, Nov 25, 2006 at 10:53:07AM +0000, David Hart wrote:
> > He's completely wrong about circumventing the GPL.
> > 
> > Taken from Section 2 of is the
> > following:
> (snip GPL)
> > The Ubuntu distribution is an aggregation of software.
> Many (most, in fact) of the upstream kernel developers hold that kernel 
> modules are inevitably derived works of the kernel, and therefore must 
> be released under a GPL-compatible license. In Ubuntu, we attempt to 
> avoid that issue with a technicality - non-free kernel drivers are 
> shipped as independent object files, which are then linked at boot time. 
> As a result, we don't break the license, since the boot-time linking is 
> use rather than distribution.

In what way are non-free kernel modules distributed differently than
free ones (other than that they come from different repositries)?
> In theory, anyway. If non-free kernel modules are a violation of the 
> letter of the GPL, then what we're doing is pretty clearly a violation 
> of (at least) the spirit. It's certainly won us no friends in the 
> upstream kernel community.

But it's not at all clear to me that non-free kernel modules _are_
a violation of either the letter or the spirit [1] of the GPL.
The GPL quite clearly states that the _use_ of the program is
outside its scope.

Static linking of a GPL library into a program clearly makes
it a derivative because code is copied into the executable at
build time.  Dynamic linking has the same practical effect and
it's my understanding that it's treated as a derivative in law.
(We have the LGPL to allow library linking so the intention of the
GPL, in my mind, is clear.)

Modules, on the other hand, can generally be loaded/unloaded
at run time and they don't necessarily contain any kernel code.
I don't see how this is very much different than, say, running a
shell script under bash.  I'm not required to GPL my bash scripts
if I distribute them.

Although you say that many/most kernel developers hold that kernel
modules are derived works it would suggest that some, at least,
do not believe so or are undecided.  And in any case, with all
due respect to the kernel developers, they don't decide what is
or isn't legal.  That's the job of the courts and AFAIK it's never
been tested.

Whilst I realise that the GP post was a parody of Mark Shuttleworth's
post to OpenSUSE he states at the bottom that his post is based on
facts.  It is _not_ a fact that including non-free drivers violates
the GPL.  Moreover, if the non-free drivers are used and distributed
in the same way as free ones then there is no circumvention involved.

Please tell me if I'm missing something here.

I also disagree with 'Shark Muddleworth' that Mark Shuttleworth's
original post was inappropriate.

It is quite clear to me that the Novell/Microsoft deal circumvents
the spirit if not the strict letter of the GPL in regards to patents.
Potentially, I could now receive GPL software from Suse that I
would not be free to redistribute.

As for its legallity, AIUI the FSF's legal counsel is still looking
at the contract between Novell/Microsoft and have yet to publish
an opinion.

[1]  For the record, I've been running linux long enough now that
even my oldest boxes were intentionally bought with hardware that
could/would work without non-free software.  Just the idea of
running closed software in kernel space gives me the ebeejeebies <:-O

David Hart <ubuntu at>

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