[ubuntu-uk] The genius of FSF

Mac Ammonius.Grammaticus at googlemail.com
Tue Jul 10 18:03:42 BST 2007

Matthew East wrote:
>...The GPL is a license (hence the "L") by which (among
> other things) the licensor and copyright holder grants the licensee the
> right to use and redistribute the program subject to certain conditions.
> A license is a type of contract, in this case between the program maker
> and the user/redistributor.

I think the GPL is rather more subtle than that, in that it uses 
copyright law, rather than the law of contract. Here's Eben Moglen's 
description of how it works (sorry this is a bit long):

"Thus, the initial rules for sharing undertaken by the Free Software 
community... assumed that only the law of copyright need fundamentally 
to be considered. And what was achieved was, within the vocabulary of 
the community, a very pretty hack. A hack in the sense that the word is 
ordinarily employed in our, if I may call it, our community, an 
unexpected result achieved by creative deployment of existing parts in 
an unexpected or unusual configuration. The hack to copyright law was 
the recognition that the purposes of free software could be achieved by 
subtracting from the rights exclusively given to the author by the law 
of copyright as it applied to computer software. What the free software 
author wanted was actually simply to remove a few pieces from the 
existing copyright machine. He didn't need to add anything to it - no 
additional obligations needed to be placed on any user of the software, 
no additional agreements needed to be gotten from anybody who had a copy 
of the software - all that was necessary was to remove some restrictions 
- by sharing the copyright status accorded to each author of a computer 
program, the exclusive right to control copying, modification, and 
initial distribution of copies. Under US Copyright law, that's all there 
was, exclusively vested in the author. What the author then wanted was 
to give the power to copy and modify away. To remove exclusivity, and to 
provide to others what the statute gave exclusively to him or her. With 
respect to distribution, the only principle necessary in order to 
protect sharing was to say "if you redistribute, whether modified or 
unmodified, use these permissions and no other." ... By honeycombing 
copyright in other words, by returning to the user some, but not 
absolutely all of the exclusive rights vested in the author under 
copyright law, the social artefacts desired (the freedom to copy, 
modify, and share) could be ensured at the full strength that copyright 
law ever ensures the author's rights. No further contractualisation, no 
further compulsion, no further form of legal coercion is necessary but a 
determination to enforce copyright for the benefit of sharing."


    That seems to me not contract, but a beautiful and unexpected 
inversion of copyright law.


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