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GNU is Not Unix

Explaining the GPL to Non-Lawyers? 415

peddrenth asks: "Software licenses are, we keep saying, difficult to read. The public clicks OK without reading, either implicitly trusting or mistrusting us the software authors. There have been calls recently for companies to clean-up the license, to bullet, section, and colour their licenses, to remove THE UPPERCASE and to draw charts and graphs to explain the license. Anyone who's had to read a 3-page document in a 3"x1" textbox knows how useful this would be. The GPL is one of the most important licenses in the world, and appears on thousands of products. Everything from windows programs to operating systems to people's artwork requires understanding and acceptance of the GNU GPL. Should we, the free software community, take the first step in this effort, and show the world what an easy-to-read license looks like? Would it be useful if long textual software licenses stood out like a sore thumb amongst the cool, pretty, and clear free licenses?" Many may think the GPL Preamble to be clear enough, and this may be true. However there are a lot of people out there that would like to read the entire license so that they know exactly what they may be getting into, before they agree to it. This usually implies being able reading the actual license, and not just the preamble.

"Should we use such a comparison to show the public how they're being manipulated by terms in a EULA they don't read or understand, and encourage other license-writers to include the graphs and tables themselves, showing the public what a license really means?

What would be your ideal license, what poster would you draw to explain the GPL to a child, a PHB, or an artist? Would you stick with the text, or can you think of anything better?"

jamie interjects: The root of the problem is that "intellectual property" is a kludge of a natural human understanding of property rights. Useful, but a kludge. You have to invent many oddball concepts to keep up the pretense that ideas are property. The GPL is a kludge (strict and precise licensing terms) implemented on top of a kludge (copyright law) and, in English or in code, there is no short and simple way to describe complex things.

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Explaining the GPL to Non-Lawyers?

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  • by pdh11 ( 227974 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:19PM (#3458123) Homepage
    I find it's hard enough to explain to lawyers.


  • Give the person Richard Stallman's home phone #. Then tell the person to call up and ask "What's the big deal about the GPL?"

    Problem solved.
  • short and sweet (Score:3, Insightful)

    by skidrash ( 238760 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:22PM (#3458147)
    What was my stuff is now our stuff.
    In return for this gift, I ask that if you improve our stuff it remains our stuff.
    • "What's mine is mine, and what's yours is ours." Press OK to accept. Press CANCEL to accept.
    • Re:short and sweet (Score:3, Insightful)

      by doug_wyatt ( 532721 )
      The only trick to this is that it's not just "if you improve our stuff", but it's also "if you use our stuff with your stuff in certian ways, your stuff becomes our stuff". This is the scary part to many companies.

      It's not that they're going to base their revenue off of a N-line diff of a GPL package, but they're going to use a GPL component/library to implement some component of their system, and they worry (sometimes rightly, sometimes wrongly) that this results in their entire system being "infected".

      Where's the line between "your product is just an improvement on GPL-package FOO" and "your product uses FOO as a sub-component"? That's a tough question, and the GPL tries to define it (and the LGPL was a reaction to this issue), but for many companies, it's not quite so simple.

      • Re:short and sweet (Score:3, Informative)

        by hummassa ( 157160 )
        I am sorry, but I think you are wrong.


        what is yours, is yours, and if you built something on top of what was previously ours but you don't want it to be ours, you cannot play with the thing that was ours, that is to say, rebuild your stuff on top of other stuff.

        You don't have to show everyone your code, just leave ours far from it.


      • Re:short and sweet (Score:5, Insightful)

        by dachshund ( 300733 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @02:43PM (#3458743)
        but it's also "if you use our stuff with your stuff in certian ways, your stuff becomes our stuff". This is the scary part to many companies.

        Well, no. It's "if you redistribute our stuff with your stuff in certain ways (all of which are clearly defined in a one of the most readable license documents you'll ever see), you won't be covered by this license. In which case, you'll have to explain to a judge why you violated our copyright."

        After all, users are never forced to sign any kind of agreement to the GPL. If you didn't sign a license, nobody can force you to agree that you were bound by the contract. But without the license to redistribute granted by the contract, you may pay a penalty for violating the authors' copyright.

        Anyway, if your legal staff can't figure out the terms of the GPL, then god help you with the proprietary licenses you're dealing with.

  • by FortKnox ( 169099 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:23PM (#3458150) Homepage Journal
    Should we, the free software community, take the first step in this effort, and show the world what an easy-to-read license looks like?

    Licenses are lengthy, wordy, and hard to read for a reason. They try to ensure that no "loophole" can be made. The simpler you make the license, the more likely lawyers can "see multiple meanings in words", and avoid the license entirely.

    IMHO, the free-software licenses SHOULD be wordy, because companies like Microsoft have lawyers constantly looking for a loophole...
    • well, you pretty much hit most of what I wanted to say, so I'll expand on it.

      how about having licenses retain the full legal text that they currently have, but also have a short portion at the top using simplified terms and other mediums (graphs, highlighted text, etc) that explains and summarizes what follows. (As cliff said, some say the preamble meets this)
    • I have to disagree. It is the complexity that allows loopholes. Something that is complex is more easily interpreted differently. Something that is clear and simple leaves no room for alternate interpretations. Which of these leaves more room for interpretation?


      The ANSWER is equal to the SUM of the FIRST NUMBER and the SECOND NUMBER, where the FIRST NUMBER has the same value as the SECOND NUMBER. IF AND ONLY IF the SECOND NUMBER has the value of the SECOND POSITIVE INTEGER, the ANSWER will have the value of the FOURTH POSITIVE INTEGER.

  • Our ip lawyers (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Crowhead ( 577505 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:24PM (#3458155)

    got stuck on the word 'or' in the perl license (GPL or Artistic)

    I think there will always be a problem no matter how clear it seems to be.
  • by XaXXon ( 202882 ) <> on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:24PM (#3458159) Homepage
    One of the things that's nice about the GPL, and that I've just come to understand recently, is that it doesn't really matter if you 'accept' it, in the sense that you accept a EULA from MS. Since accepting the GPL actually gives you MORE freedoms than the normal copyright laws, if you don't accept the GPL on a program you get, you are actually more limited in what you can do with it. You can't distribute it, and surely can't distribute a modified version.. Whereas the other EULAs restrict you in addition to copyright restrictions, the GPL actually reduces the restrictions put upon you by copyright law.
    • Since accepting the GPL actually gives you MORE freedoms than the normal copyright laws, if you don't accept the GPL on a program you get, you are actually more limited in what you can do with it.

      Yes, the GPL grants permissions, but it also takes away rights, such as the right to first sale of binary-only copies.

      • The what? Since when has there been a 'right to first sale'???? Huh?!?!?
      • The software is copyrighted. You have no "right to first sale". If you accept the GPL you have some additional rights over what copyright gives you. You don't accept the license you don't get the extra rights. Don't like it? Write your own damm code.
        • You have no "right to first sale".

          Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106(3), the owner of a particular copy or phonorecord lawfully made under this title, or any person authorized by such owner, is entitled, without the authority of the copyright owner, to sell or otherwise dispose of the possession of that copy or phonorecord.
          • Sale or disposure of the copy does not, however, free the copy from the original copyright. What part of the GPL do you think prohibits the resale of copies of software? The GPL specifically grants all recipients of copies the same rights as the source from which they got the copies.
      • It doesn't take away that right, you never had it in the first place!

        Does there exist EULA that gives you, the user the right to distribute binary-only copies of a program?

        Not resell your copy, actually distribute more copies? There is no such EULA.

        Stop propagaging the myth that the GPL takes away your rights as a user. Most companies want to be a monopoly and to control what you do with their products. (Meaning that if you do something with their product that they didn't sell to you then you have to pay for it)

        For developers, the GPL is not a nice as say a public domain license. There you can do whatever you want with the code. There's a reason that most people don't release code in the public domain. And that's because anyone can take it, compile it and claim that the compiled binary is unique in some way and sell it for $$$$. At least with GPLed code, the person that compiles it has to make his changes public so that you can create the same binary.
        • by rgmoore ( 133276 ) <> on Friday May 03, 2002 @02:12PM (#3458526) Homepage
          Does there exist EULA that gives you, the user the right to distribute binary-only copies of a program?

          Yes. The BSD/MIT style licenses give you this right, for which reason advocates of those licenses claim that they're "more free" than the GPL. I'm not sure if I agree with the point, but there are licenses that give the first-generation user more rights than the GPL. The argument is then over whether those rights are more valuable than the GPL's protection of second and later generation users.

          • Damn, I always forget about that BSD license.

            The BSD license also gives the rights of the developer to the user. The only difference between a BSD license and a public domain is that the BSD license requires the redistributor of code to acklowledge that the code came from a certain source. (AFAIK)

            Most licenses do take away almost all priviledges of a user, and they are only getting worse by the day.
      • If you purchased GPL software as a binary-only copy, then you do have the right of First Sale. The trick is getting the buying that binary-only copy to begin with. I don't think the First Sale doctrine applies to free-beer software, and if you did "buy" the software (otherwise known as making a donation), it's going to going to come with the source code.
      • >Yes, the GPL grants permissions, but it also takes away rights, such as the right to first sale of binary-only copies.

        No, the GPL gives you the right to resell the software as you please, with a small exception. If you chose to receive the software in an incomplete manner (ie: Without the sourcecode) this does render your copy unsaleable. However, in the real world (tm), it is also a hard sale to sell an incomplete item (try selling books missing their cover and see how fast you get in trouble).

        If you do have the complete sofware the GPL grants you the freedom to resell it as you choose.

        The limited circumstance mentioned above is rendered moot by the fact that there is no purpose in accepting the GPL unless the source has been included with the software, unless you wish to make copies, in which case you have moved beyond your first-sale rights anyways. You can still use the software with the full rights copyright grants you by default without accepting the license, thereby enabling you to sell the software in an original, unmodified, binary only, first sale fashion, like books.

        Just my two cents.
      • Yes, the GPL grants permissions, but it also takes away rights, such as the right to first sale of binary-only copies.

        Hmm. If you are using someone else's code under the GPL, then you never had a right to sell their code in the first place. So I don't see how the GPL takes anything away from you.

    • by jsfishmonger ( 463343 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @02:20PM (#3458569)
      Well said. It's also worth pointing out that there is no requirement that anyone accepts the GPL to actually use the program. For the end user it just about boils down to a standard freeware disclaimer: "There is no waranty" allong with perhaps a gentle reminder: "This software is copyrighted, don't go round saying you wrote it from scratch yourself."
    • Comments like this make me wish there weren't a 5 point cap on moderation, or a moderation category like "Not repeated enough" (as opposed to redundant :-)
  • You don't have to accept any license to use the GPL'ed software. Only people who redistribute should understand the license, because it only covers that activity. Doh!
    • Only people who redistribute should understand the license, because it only covers that activity.

      That's not actually true. For instance, if you use GPLed software on someone else's computer, then you need to accept the GPL in order to have the right to copy the software into ram.

      • Wrong. (Score:2, Informative)

        by mgw1181 ( 214961 )
        At least in the US. []

        a) Making of Additional Copy or Adaptation by Owner of Copy. - Notwithstanding the provisions of section 106, it is not an infringement for the owner of a copy of a computer program to make or authorize the making of another copy or adaptation of that computer program provided:

        (1) that such a new copy or adaptation is created as an essential step in the utilization of the computer program in conjunction with a machine and that it is used in no other manner, or...
      • you need to accept the GPL in order to have the right to copy the software into ram.

        Wouldn't that constitute copying necessary to use the product as intended?

  • by petard ( 117521 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:26PM (#3458174) Homepage

    Most of what the majority of non-lawyers need to know about the GPL can be summed up in one line:
    The GPL does not impact users of the software, only distributors.
    That's it. For that simple reason, the premise of this question is flawed. Most of the world simply uses software and doesn't redistribute it, therefore understanding and acceptance of the GNU GPL is not an issue.

    Anyone who is distributing software (GPL or otherwise) really needs to take the time to understand the details of their redistribution agreement. As redistribution licenses are concerned, the GPL is very easy to understand and truly does stand out as a marvel of simplicity. The only simpler things are BSD and public domain :-)

    • The GPL does not impact users of the software, only distributors. This isn't strictly true. Software development organizations producing closed-source works need to be very careful about residuals. That is.. they need to prove that no GPL source "leaked" into their code because some programmer saw both some GPL'd utility (or whatever) that they were using and then wrote similar code into the closed-source product. (Note: I did not say cut&paste, I said saw-and-wrote-similar) This is a *huge* worry for some companies, and quite validly so. Plenty of potentially expensive litigation lies down that path.
      • Software development organizations producing closed-source works ... need to prove that no GPL source "leaked" into their code because some programmer saw both some GPL'd utility (or whatever) that they were using and then wrote similar code into the closed-source product
        Huh? All that's protected by copyright is the expression of an idea. Writing similar code that does the same thing is not a violation of the copyright. (Slippery slope time: if there's one obvious way to express the idea -- that is, to implement the feature -- then writing the same code would be defensible. You'd need to prove intent as well as obviousness, you'd want a good lawyer, and luck wouldn't hurt.)

        There are some interesting issues here. The organization of a book is to some extent protected by copyright: if you write a book, and I write a book with an identical table of contents, I'm violating your copyright. By analogy, I guess mimicing an object hierarchy, for example, would be forbidden.

        Anyone know any precedents?

        (IANAL, just a programmer who's studied copyright issues more deeply than most.)
      • Looking at a piece of code, taking notes as to what it does and then reimplementing the same concept independently is completely protected under copyright law.

        Think of all the authors out there who write history books about Ancient Rome. Do you think none of them has ever read a colleague's book to learn more about the subject? Go look up the recent controversy surrounding Stephen Ambrose and learn more.

        This is what I always find stupid about the "Oh no! If you read MS code they will come and sue you!" arguments, or same about GPL. It's not true. In fact I think a pretty strong argument code be made that all source code should be available so that people can learn from one another. I *should* be able to find out what algorithm you used, so I don't have to reinvent the wheel.

        Of course that probably would mean an increase in software patents. :(

      • The GPL does not impact users of the software, only distributors.

      Huh? I don't need to be told that the distributor must provide the source at minimal cost if asked? I'd call that pretty darn important.

      And when I do get the source, I don't need to read the license to find that the "free" source is copyrighted and strictly licensed? I can do whatever I like with it and only worry about the license terms after I become a distributor?

      Haven't we seen enough examples of newbie distributors shipping GPL binaries and when asked where the source is, saying "Oh, we'll get around to that. Give us a few days/weeks/months/versions." That is simply not acceptable, ever. If you don't follow the license terms to the letter, you are commiting theft.

      I agree that the GPL is easy to understand - if you read it. Far too many people look at the length of it and say "Phwah, it's free. What do I need to know?" I'd suggest that we need to grab their attention on the very first line, by saying "Stop! Copyrighted code! All rights reserved, except as specified below. Use of this code without reading and following the license terms is theft, and can and will be prosecuted."

      Basically, there is a prevailing attitude that GPL and open source code in general is something for nothing, and there's no cost associated with using it. That's simply not true, and it's something I'd like to see us addressing at every opportunity.

      That said, Microsoft is going a fair way to helping out in that respect, by screaming about how viral the GPL is. Well, sure, that's rather the point. ;-)

      • Huh? I don't need to be told that the distributor must provide the source at minimal cost if asked?

        The distributer needs to know that, but not the user. It would be nice if the user knows that, but it's not necissary.

        I can do whatever I like with it and only worry about the license terms after I become a distributor?

        Not after, but until. You can do absolutely anything you want with GPL code as long as you don't distribute it.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        If you don't follow the license terms to the letter, you are commiting theft.

        No you are not. You are commiting copyright infringement. That is a hell of a lot different to theft. Please stop spreading this myth.

  • Less licenses... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by curunir ( 98273 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:26PM (#3458176) Homepage Journal
    Licenses are naturally complex things. That's ok. What isn't ok is that every company feels they need to write their own license specific to their product.

    The strength of Open Source licenses for me is the fact that once I've read them through once, I can install countless applications without needing to read a license agreement.

    If commercial software had a bunch of shrink-wrapped licenses that companies were free to use and each license was clearly identifiable near the top, then people could just click the "I agree" button and actually know what they were agreeing to.
    • Dang, I already used my last mod point on a worthless comment (compared to this one) in another thread not too long ago, boy I wish I had saved it for you. This, so far, the best commment in this thread.

      I think if users knew that several products were under the XYZ license, they could just read it once and know what they're getting themselves in to. However, most users assume that all EULAs are the same so they just mindlessly click through them when in many cases (i.e. Microsoft) they are NOT the same and their use of the software and their privacy is limited more by some licenses than by others. I think if more people know that the Window XP license granted Microsoft the right to spy on their computer, most people would think twice about it.

      I think commercial companies should draft up a 'Standard Software License' (or a suite of licenses) that the user can refer to or be familiar with. So, on the box instead of just saying that you agree to the license agreement in the box, it can say that this software is released under the 'Standard Software License' (or another XYZ license) and the user will know what that is.

      However, I should point out that even in the Open Source community, there are some company-specific software licenses such as the QPL, the Mozilla License, the Aladdin License, etc. But the number of products released under these licenses is very small relative to the numbers released under the GPL, LGPL, etc.
    • by Arandir ( 19206 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @02:29PM (#3458632) Homepage Journal
      Licenses are naturally complex things.

      The problem is that we're using licenses to begin with. We don't need licenses. Books don't have licenses. Poems don't have licenses. Music, despite the RIAA's wishes to the contrary, doesn't have licenses.

      There are in essense only three sets of rights available to the recipient of any copyrighted work:

      1) Rights previously granted under Copyright Law.
      2) 1 + additional rights
      3) 1 - rights already granted

      Only number 3 requires a license, because only number three has to be agreed to by the recipient. This is a EULA.

      Number one doesn't need any license at all. Just put the words "Copyright 2002 Joe Schmoe, all rights reserved" at the top, and you're done. 90% of commercial software could be released like this with zero problems for the authors. This is known as simple copyright.

      Number two doesn't need a license either. You're granting additional rights, not taking anything away. Even if these additional rights have conditions attached to them, as with copyleft, the recipient does not need to agree to anything, because they cannot excercise those additional rights outside of the context of those conditions. I refer to this as a Permission Statement.

      The general public, over the course of three decades of concerted brainwashing by the software industry, has come to believe that you need a license to use software. This is very sad. Instead of perpetuating this myth, we need to be proactive and declare that the user doesn't have to agree to any damn thing to use the software we gave them!
  • by jackDuhRipper ( 67743 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:28PM (#3458188) Homepage
    Jamie said it pretty well w/r/t "complex ideas being complicated to explain," but the GPL FAQ [] presents some 'real-world scenarios' I've found helpful.
  • No matter how well-written "fine print" is, most people still won't read it. They don't read assembly instructions or operating instructions, how can we expect them to read anything that's even less apparently-relevant to their endeavors.

    Have none of you, when filling out paperwork of some kind, say to open a checking account, as you are sitting there reading through the stuff you are about to be legally bound to, had the bank employee say "you know, I think you're the first person I've seen who has actually read that before signing it"?

    Still, for the few people who do try to read things, I completely support making the text more comfortable to read and easier to comprehend. :-)

  • I would like a summary at the beginning of the GPL. Not the preamble explaining why the license exists, but above that should be a quick plain-english (or whatever language :) summary of what license you have with this software. Maybe 3 or 4 sentences at most. That way at the very least people would less mind reading the summary at the top, and those that care can read the details.

    Although, it still must be clear that accepting the license means accepting the whole license, not just the summary.

    I think it's important to note that the GPL is a relatively short license. Most EULAs I see are HUGE. Let's face it, if you need graphs and color codings to read an EULA, the EULA is too complicated. Of course it's the lawyers who sort of get us into this situation in the first place, but most licenses are rediculously long.
  • Most People are Lazy.

    That said, Legal documents tend to have a monopoly on dry reading. To make a license perfectly clear will often required some sort of definitions. You can have a fairly simple concept, but when you go into the legal details, you can wind up with all kinds of extra verbiage, which makes people nervous about the whole thing, and then, at best, they will tend to bail out of the document.

    There probably is a way to do this, although a lot of folks freak on anything too long.

  • Will it matter? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by techwolf ( 26278 )
    Sure, I'd love to read a license and understand it. But what if I don't like it?

    How many retailers are going to accept an opened copy of Office because someone actually read the print and found out that they were selling their soul to Microsoft?

    I don't see it happening.
  • by bshroyer ( 21524 ) <bret&bretshroyer,org> on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:35PM (#3458236)
    In a preamble to the preamble, which would very nearly fit into the aforementioned 3" by 1" box:

    Before the preamble, state:

    Through the GPL, this software is licensed with certain freedoms.

    You have the freedom to view and change the source code to this software.

    You have the freedom to freely copy and distribute this software, and to demand payment for its distribution.

    In exchange for these freedoms, you agree, again through the GPL, that these freedoms will be present in any modifications of or distributions of this software. In addition, you agree to provide the source code for any modifications or distributions you may make.

    Please read below for the full text of the GPL.

    Or is that too simplistic?

    Note that this does not accomplish one important end, in that it does not clearly distinguish itself from other EULAe, except that it devotes the first few sentences to "freedoms" rather than "limitations".
    • As several people on this discussion have pointed out, the unfortunate thing about software licences (and legal documents generally) is that they are, by their nature, trying to be very exact. There is a reason that "shall" and "will" mean very different things in law, and that lawyers use the correct one, yet in common speech, most people would interpret them much the same way. Legalese has become complicated to deal with the problem of details: if you're not precise enough, you'll be (wilfully or otherwise) misinterpreted.

      The next obvious thing to do is to introduce a summary of the licence, as the parent post by bshroyer and others have suggested. Unfortunately, that immediately raises the question of whether the summary is complete (almost by definition, it isn't), accurate, or even a fair representation of the real licence. Can anyone hear the words "legal minefield" in the back of their minds right now? I hope so. What if the summary and licence terms disagree? What if the summary looked reasonable, but the licence contained a restriction unmentioned in it, causing someone to violate the licence agreement because they'd trusted the summary? (That's actually the worst case, in a way, because if someone can't trust the summary to tell them what's going on, what's the point?) Do you try to introduce new laws now to force summaries to be fair reflections on the summarised material? If you could do that, why bother with the full version at all?

      Why, indeed. In fact, for a long time, Borland used to have a licence agreement (called something like the "no nonsense licence agreement" IIRC) that aimed at much this purpose. It wasn't full of any more legalese than necessary. While it had to be long enough and in enough legalese to be precise, it wasn't deliberately obfuscated. I think they could score a major coup over the MS' of the world now if they brought back such an agreement, and marketed based on its ease and trustworthiness vs. MS' (un)Trustworthy Computing initiative that seems to steal half your (non-)rights through the EULA. (Remember Borland still offer MS major competition in the development tools market, for example, and hitting developers who would otherwise be drifting into MS' .NET program isn't going to do Microsoft any favours.)

      So, basically, yes, your suggestion is far too simplistic, simply because the whole "summary" issue opens up too many cans of worms. OTOH, in the spirit of your suggestion, a licence agreement that was much shorter, to the point, precise enough but not deliberately hard to read would be a great improvement.

      Now, if anyone thinks the big corps should be required to do this because it's easy, please submit your proposed rewrite of the GPL on a postcard...

  • Can't do it (Score:3, Insightful)

    by anthony_dipierro ( 543308 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:36PM (#3458249) Journal

    Sure, you could try to simplify the GPL, but the fact of the matter is that what the GPL is attempting to do is very complicated. I challenge you to propose a simplified GPL which accomplishes the same goals as the GPL. I'm not even sure if the GPL itself accomplishes the goals of the GPL, this hasn't been tested in court at all yet.

    I have a simple license, called the QingPL [], but it is quite different from the GPL. Most significantly, it does not require that source code be released when a derivitive work is released.

  • The problem is, you cannot put an entire political agenda in a 3"x1" window.

    From l []:
    <OWNER> = Regents of the University of California
    <ORGANIZATION> = University of California, Berkeley
    <YEAR> = 1998

    In the original BSD license, both occurrences of the phrase "COPYRIGHT HOLDERS AND CONTRIBUTORS" in the disclaimer read "REGENTS AND CONTRIBUTORS".

    Here is the license template:

    Copyright (c) <YEAR>, <OWNER>
    All rights reserved.

    Redistribution and use in source and binary forms, with or without modification, are permitted provided that the following conditions are met:

    * Redistributions of source code must retain the above copyright notice, this list of conditions and the following disclaimer.
    * Redistributions in binary form must reproduce the above copyright notice, this list of conditions and the following disclaimer in the documentation and/or other materials provided with the distribution.
    * Neither the name of the <ORGANIZATION> nor the names of its contributors may be used to endorse or promote products derived from this software without specific prior written permission.

  • Maybe licenses should be an audio recording that plays back to the user. A narrator can read the license and explain it. The software won't work until it is done playing.

    Of course the user could just get up and go to the bathroom during playback.

  • My case (Score:5, Interesting)

    by jsse ( 254124 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:39PM (#3458269) Homepage Journal
    I worked for a local Government, who were already brainwashed by Microsoft's sales. Here is the dialogs during a meeting debating with a MCSE whether we should use GPL's code:

    Me: We could save money using this pieces of GPL code..
    MCSE: Doesn't that make all the derived work GPL?
    Me: Yes.
    MCSE: Then we must release our source code to public! This is confidential!!
    Me: No....we are only required to release the source code when the recipents has the binary. We wouldn't release our system to public...
    MCSE: but according to GPL, the source code is open to all to read!(?) The other department could read it and might release them to public!
    Me: You might have misunderstood the concept...according to GPL's FAQ [] we do not need to release the source code if we use them within an organization. A Government is one big organization, which is very suitable to adopt GPL....
    MCSE: That's NOT I heard about GPL. I don't believe in what you said! GPL is about opensource and any dervied works must be made opensource, this is a very restrictive license and there's no way out!

    and things went downhill from there. My boss trusted him because he has an MCSE.

    I still ponder, what qualification in MCSE would make him know GPL better than others...
    • Re: My case (Score:5, Insightful)

      by booch ( 4157 ) <slashdot2010@cra ... m ['ek.' in gap]> on Friday May 03, 2002 @03:37PM (#3459133) Homepage
      You should go get an MCSE certification yourself, then. In the same way that an MCSE cannot talk about the GPL in a well-informed manner, you are not seen as qualified to speak on things Microsoft. I have certifications in both Microsoft and Linux (among others), so when I advocate the use of Open Source over Microsoft products, people are apt to believe that I know the pros and cons of both, and have made a well-informed analysis.
  • A good summary should highlight the key points

    You may freely use this software.

    Certain conditions are required to distribute this software.

    That is pretty much it as I see it anyway
  • The problem is not that people "don't read" the licenses. It's that they don't have any way of objecting to the license itself. Take a look at the site Badsoftware [], e.g. []
    Backers of UCITA insist that it leaves consumers and small businesses with our existing rights, and gives us new ones. But it doesn't. That's why every consumer advocate we know (including Consumers Union and Ralph Nader's Consumer Project on Technology) has called for termination of the UCITA project. A July 9, 1999 analysis by the Federal Trade Commission points out that UCITA allows software companies to place "restrictions on a consumer's right to sue for a product defect, to use the product, or even to publicly discuss or criticize the product." The analysis concludes, "we question whether it is appropriate to depart from these consumer protection and competition policy principles in a state commercial law statute."
    It doesn't matter if the software has a license which said "One line license: We own you!". That would be simple to understand, but the problem is ruling it legal.

    Sig: What Happened To The Censorware Project ( []

  • Copyright gives the rights of ownership, copying, distribution, and modification of a work to the author of a work, unless they decide to give those rights to others. GPL modifies basic copyrights to automatically give the rights of copying, distribution, and modification to anyone else who also chooses to everyone with access to the work as long as they continue the right of unlimited access to the work.

    In short, as far as I understand it, a clear description of the GPL would be as follows:

    This source and binaries (work) is protected by the General Public License (GPL). This work belongs to the original author or authors (owners), but the owners have granted everyone rights to copy, modify, and redistribute the work under the stipulation that any changes to the source are made available to anyone with access to the binaries, as defined by the GPL. This work is protected under standard copyright law if you do not agree to the GPL, meaning you cannot redistribute a modified binary without the consent of the owners of the source.
  • state diagrams (Score:2, Interesting)

    have a state diagram, showing what is required to go between states.

    i.e., have initial state of [PURCHASED], have an arrow to [MODIFY], [DISTRIBUTE], etc, with proper conditions which must be met to go to that state.

    actually, this might make the GPL look much more complicated that most commercial licenses, which would just have the state of [LICENSED] and no way to get to modify or distribute, etc.

  • I guess you could explain it the same way that John Travolta explained the basics of marijuana laws in Amsterdam, NL to Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction.

    (Jules and Vincent driving in a car)

    Jules: Okay now. Tell me about the GNU GPL.

    Vincent: What do you want to know?

    Jules: Well, it's about free software, right?

    Vincent: It's free, but it has some standards. I mean you can't just write a GNU GPL program and restrict it's usage. You're supposed to provide the source code.

    Jules: That's the GNU GPL?

    Vincent: Yeah, it breaks down like this: It's legal to copy it, it's legal to have access to the source code and, if you're a programmer that wants to add to it, you can as long as your additions to the code go under the GNU GPL. It's legal to keep the program free, which doesn't really matter 'cause-get a load of this- if a company wants to add to your program and not offer the source code, it's illegal. Taking GNU GPL'd programs and not offering the source code is a right that companies don't have.

    Jules:That did it, man. I'm f***ing GPL-ing my program. That's all there is to it.
    • Oh God.. Wow. This just works way, way too well. I mean, like, you can keep going with it...


      VINCENT: You'll dig it the most. But you know what the funniest thing about Open Source software is?

      JULES: What?

      VINCENT: It's the little differences. A lotta the same shit we got here, they got there, but there they're a little different.

      JULES: Examples?

      VINCENT: Well, in KDE, you can embed a web browser in your file manager. And I don't mean that you're using the web browser for your file manager like in Win98 either. They give you a plug-in browser, like you can install or remove any browser you like anytime you want, like in Opendoc. And in GNOME, you can embed like Mozilla or drawing apps or whatever into anything. Also, you know what they call their image editing program?

      JULES: They don't call it Photoshop?

      VINCENT: No, they use UNIX there, they wouldn't know who the fuck Adobe is.

      JULES: What do they call it?

      VINCENT: The "GIMP".

      JULES: (repeating, grinning softly) The "GIMP". What do they call their word processor?

      VINCENT: Well, the word processor is still Office, but they call it "OpenOffice".

      JULES: What do they call their IDE?

      VINCENT: I dunno, I didn't code anything. But you know what they use in Open Source software to configure their webservers instead of preferences dialogs?

      JULES: What?

      VINCENT: Text files.

      JULES: Goddamn!

      VINCENT: I seen 'em do it. And I don't mean a couple of extra options, they fuckin' do everything with that shit. Like, they drown you in it. Anything you wanna change about the way the webserver looks, you have to open up this big-ass file named "httpd.conf" and search through the file for the place where they explain what words to put where if you want it to act a certain way.

      JULES: Uuccch!

      (Cut to shot from inside the G4 tower case as Vincent and Jules open up from the side panel, reach in, and pull out two .45 automatics laying near the back, loading and cocking them.)

      JULES: We should have shotguns for this kind of deal.


      OK.. obvious, not funny/relevant.. I'm sorry.. I'm sorry!!! I just couldn't resist..!! Please don't hurt me. ^_^
  • by Otter ( 3800 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:44PM (#3458325) Journal
    If you're talking about users, what's the issue? Install the software, do anything you want with it, don't bother trying to sue the maker if something goes wrong. The fine points of copyleft and derivative works have nothing to do with anything any user is going to run into. That's, to a large extent, the point -- you don't need a lawyer use your software.

    Where you need to worry about the implications of the GPL are if you're a) a developer or b) a loudmouth who complains about alleged GPL violations. Come to think of it, you don't need to know anything to be a loudmouth who complains about alleged GPL violations.

    By the way, Jamie and Michael, if you have something to say, please post it instead of giving yourselves an automatic (Score: 6, Editor).

  • by zulux ( 112259 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:44PM (#3458326) Homepage Journal

    Most people's eyes glaze over when they think they have to read a contract/license. Prod them into actaully reading the GPL - it's in real english and is honestly written. It's also a brillient bit of leagal-ese.

    Courts have traditionally ruled in favor of the consumer if the contract is un-nesessarly obscure, so making the GPL hard to read in an vain attempt to close a loophole can be counterproductive if done in haste. Also, one must be carefull to not give a poorly thought out explenation of the GPL with the GPL - the court might rule that the explenation grants additional rights if the consumer is confused as to if the explenation is part of the contract/license.

    So the short answer is to actually READ the GPL. There are no explenaions nesessary to an inteligent person - and no explenation will do the cosumer any good anyways. It's only us developers that need an explenation - we're the ones that can get caught in a GPL bind, not the average consumer.

    • I've gone down this path so many time before that I can't bring myself to elucidate again. From the perpective of someone that reads, writes, and negotiates well-crafted, compendious and effective software agreements, the GPL isn't worth the paper it's printed on. A HUGE part of contracting is understanding how to preclude crafty attacks from crafty lawyers. The GPL is niave and fails miserably in this respect. Don't take my word for it, though. Just sit back and watch the outcome of the first serious lawsuit challenging the GPL. I'm sure the geeks will all blame the courts and the judge and the judicial system, but the blame lays squarely on the shoulders of the lawyer-bashing bohemian cultists that wrote and revised the GPL. They are going to be very embarassed.
  • by gelfling ( 6534 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:45PM (#3458336) Homepage Journal
    We've had a problem for YEARS with our legal beagles and the openSSH licence because the author thought he/she was being cute. The licence has a section that more or less says "I'm not entirely sure that I haven't borrowed pieces of code where those authors may decide to come after a user for any reason. At any rate that's not my problem and strictly a matter between you and them."

    Which is a horrible way to protect the author from third party lawsuits. And the result is that our corporation does not officially sanction the use of openSSH. This leads to more suspicion and resistance to other open source tools and generally makes a mess of the whole effort.

    I really wish authors would get a legal reading of their own licences for a reality check before doing what commercial licences do - that is "use this software and you are on your friggin own no matter what hombre!! I mean what next for licences? Rilly rilly kewl pictures and animations and shit?
    • We've had a problem for YEARS with our legal beagles and the openSSH licence because the author thought he/she was being cute.

      Are you sure you're talking about OpenSSH? These were certainly problems with Tatu Ylonen's SSH back in 1995. However, the OpenSSH team has made a significant point of taking patent-encumbered and otherwise problematic code out of the OpenSSH code base. For more information, see the OpenSSH FAQ [].

  • by Rogerborg ( 306625 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:47PM (#3458354) Homepage

    As the resident office open source nut, a major part of my (non paid) role is stopping my employer stealing open source code. I have lost count of the number of times that I have found stolen open source code in our products. I say "stolen" advisedly, and it's the word I use when confronting the culprits.

    The problem is that many of them simply do not understand that there is a cost associated with using "free" software. Sure, it's their fault for not reading it, but it would make my life a lot easier if we stopped wielding the word "free" like a weapon (it means too many things to too many people), and if the GPL (and other open source licenses) opened like this:

    • (C) Original developer

    • This code is copyrighted. It is not "free to use". You may not copy or use it in any way, including for non-commercial purposes, unless you follow strictly the enclosed license terms. If you do not read or follow the license terms, you will be in breach of copyright, and can and will be prosecuted for theft.

    I'd say that a clear statement like this is way more important than the DISCLAIMER OF WARRANTY that we tend to splash first. The disclaimer is there to protect the author, but a clear warning that open source code is copyrighted and strictly licensed protects the recipient from doing something stupid and causing grief to both parties. I'd say that it's more in the spirit of open source development to prioritise the copyright/license warning than the disclaimer.

    • Quoting your proposed GPL introduction:

      If you do not read or follow the license terms, you will be in breach of copyright, and can and will be prosecuted for theft.

      That's incorrect. You can be sued for civil copyright infringement, and in some cases prosecuted for criminal copyright infringement, but "theft" isn't the legal term for what you're trying to say.

      Unless your name is Valenti. Heh.

    • "You may not copy or use it in any way,"

      Change copy to distribute, and that'd be all good.

      Lest us not forget fair use. =)
    • This code is copyrighted. It is not "free to use". You may not copy or use it in any way, including for non-commercial purposes, unless you follow strictly the enclosed license terms. If you do not read or follow the license terms, you will be in breach of copyright, and can and will be prosecuted for theft.

      While I appreciate the motivation, I don't like the way this reads. I don't want people to be scared by the GPL, I want them to welcome it.

      I'm a GPL author. I want people to use my code, and I want them to read through my code and learn from it. I released the source code for free for a reason: so that people will use it and benefit from it.

      What I don't want is for someone to take an entire program I've written, and package it and sell it for a profit (unless they release the code, of course). That's why I use the GPL. But the last thing I want to do is discourage people from using my code in a reasonable way, because they're afraid they might inadvertantly violate the GPL be prosecuted for theft.
    • Sure, it's their fault for not reading it...

      But, if you do not read the license, you are not bound by it, right []?

      Why is it ok to not abide by a MS EULA, but not ok to not abide by a FSF EULA?

  • Food is a binary (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Glytch ( 4881 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @01:48PM (#3458360)
    Unless you're an expert, it's hard to get the recipe (the source) from the food (the binary). The GPL is saying "Here's the recipe, and here's some food someone else has made with that recipe, all free for the taking. But if you make and give away or sell food based on the recipe I just gave you, you've got to give away your recipe for free as well."

    I know analogies suck, but it's close enough.
  • in print! (Score:2, Interesting)

    I say software should have a license that we can read from the package. I mean, If I go and buy a piece of software that comes in its nice little box, Id sure like to read the rules to use it before I go to the cashier and pay. Whats the point of the license if I cant read it until I pay for the thing!.

    Its not only important to be able to read and understand an EULA, but to be able to read it at an adequate time; besides, if the EULA fits on the back of the box could be a good parameter for readability.

  • The author of the EULA can, of course, write whatever he likes into the licence but the more obscure terms may well be judged to be unenforceable when it comes right down to it and this outcome is much more likely if the document itself is written in obscure legalese and presented in an unhelpful format.

    The more presentable and easy to understand, the more enforceable.

    In the UK, we have laws such as the Unfair Contract Terms Act which outlaw certain types of clause even if they are easy to read but might allow others ONLY if they are easy to understand.

    By all means use the GPL as a shining example of the way it should be done, it may actually be used in court to help defeat some of the more ridiculous EULAs.

  • by EccentricAnomaly ( 451326 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @02:04PM (#3458477) Homepage

    this program is free
    give it away or change it
    but please keep it free


    I give you my work
    you must let your breath go free
    we share the same moon

  • by ameoba ( 173803 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @02:08PM (#3458509)
    I've always had to wonder, IS THERE ANY LEGAL SIGNIFICANCE TO PASSAGES WRITTEN IN ALL UPPERCASE? Or is it just one of those annoying things like ESL business owners uneccessarily placing things between quotation marks?
  • far the publisher's wishes are from the rights and restrictions laid down by copyright (and liability) law.

    Want the licenses to be shorter? Change the law so that the default rights, restrictions, and liabilities are closer to a typical publisher's desires.

    IMHO, this is actually a very bad idea, because the desires of publishers aren't the same as the desires of the people who live under the law. Keeping licenses long and complex is a good way to keep people conscious of this fact.

  • by marhar ( 66825 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @02:22PM (#3458587) Homepage
    I got this from my old company's lawyer: You won't ever get rid of UPPER CASE in legalese, because
    • Some legal precedents require parts of your license to be "noticable"
    • Typing in upper case has been found to be "noticable" in previous court cases

    So if you changed from upper case to bold italic lower case, you would very likely face a legal challenge that your notice was not "noticable", and you would have to fight that throught the court hierarchy. However, once somebody did do this, then others could use that as precedent.
    • I seem to remember uppercase being specifically required by law somewhere in the UCC for certain disclaimers of warranty. But I can't find it. In any case, it actually seems to have the opposite effect on me. The part in uppercase is usually the part I ignore.
  • A point that should be noted is that if you do not agree to the liscence after you have purchased the software you are generally $&!# out of luck as there are no stores I know of (In the US.) That will take back open software. So either I use the software and agree to the liscence or I have just wasted my money. Maybe we need easy to read liscences that we can read before we get the software?
  • Asking to make a license simple and easy to understand by those not trained in legal matters is very much akin to asking to make code simple and easy to understand by those not trained in computers.

    A certain level of complexity is needed to make both legal documents, and code to work.

    Of course, the requirements of our overly complex legal system make this much harder.
  • Third option? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by d_lesage ( 199542 )
    The public clicks OK without reading, either implicitly trusting or mistrusting us the software authors

    Actually, I think most people (including me) fall into the "Don't give a crap" category. I'll install the software and use it any damn way I want.

  • by sethg ( 15187 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @02:41PM (#3458724) Homepage
    ...which means you need to consider what kinds of users your program will have, and have a different section for each kind.
    Restatement of the GPL, Section 1
    • We give you permission to use the Program for any purpose, to share copies of the Program with anyone else in your organization, and to reverse-engineer the Program. If this is all you are doing with the Program, the rest of this license does not apply to you. [The average user can stop reading here.]
    • If you want to give away or sell copies of the Program to someone outside your organization, you may only do so under certain conditions, which are listed in section 2. [Anyone who wants to redistribute the program needs to read this part.]
    • If you want to modify the Program, use parts of the Program in your own software, or otherwise create what copyright law considers a "derivative work" from the Program, and this derivative work is only distributed within your organization, you are free to do so. [This is for companies who need to run a modified version of the program internally but have no interest in distributing it.]
    • If you want to give away or sell copies of this derivative work to anyone outside of your organization, you may only do so under certain conditions, which are listed in section 3. [This is the group of people who are most affected by the GPL's terms, but these days only a minority of the people who use GPL'ed code are actually redistributing modified versions of it, so most customers shouldn't have to wade through it.]
    • You do not have to accept this License, since you have not signed it. However, if you do not accept it, then all the normal restrictions imposed by copyright law apply: you may continue to use the Program, but you may not give copies of the Program, or copies of any work derived from the program, to anyone else. [A subtle and futile attempt to prevent people whining about how the GPL "takes away our freedom".]

      [Now someone just has to fill in sections 2 and 3...]

  • It's not explaining the GPL to non-lawyers that is
    the problem, it is explaining it to lawyers.

    The company I work for employes a lot of Open Source Lawyers. All of the lawyers hate the GPL. They all love the idea and hate the wording. It was obviously not written by a lawyer, and hence though clear to you and me is not clear to a judge who actually has to enforce it.

    Also the GPL has not been tested in court.

    Admittidly most of the confusion involves interaction with non GPL code. For instance if you worked on a Linux device driver for product x under the GPL could you then work on a BSD device driver for product x? The answer is probably not, the BSD device driver could be seen as a derivitave work and you would have to release it under the GPL, which wouldn't fly very well at the BSD distributions who like to release under the BSD liscense.

    You see we usually think of GPL infecting closed source, which most people would argue is a good thing. But the downside is that closed source developers cannot contribute to GPL projects because it might look like some of what they did under GPL was done under closed source, if it was or not.

    Then even worse the same applies to devlopers under BSD or public domain type of liscences. This decreases sharing, it does not increase it.
  • Red Hat has a webcast on the GPL. The URL is rm?koEX-UA-TV.3dwe3LIJHlmyLn-aw []

    I guess the webcast is aimed at "business executives" but should be usable for most people without a law background who are interested on the GPL...

  • by Lumpish Scholar ( 17107 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @02:53PM (#3458825) Homepage Journal
    Anyone who's had to read a 3-page document in a 3"x1" textbox ...
    Speaking as someone who's had to write text crammed into those boxes, here IMHO is some appropriate verbiage for GPL software:

    You need not agree to a license in order to use this software.

    The installation should somewhere contain copyright information, warantee disclaimer (which the user is not required to approve), and a link to the GPL. See also How to Apply These Terms to Your New Programs [].
  • People don't like reading text. Also, it's much easier to learn based on a few concrete examples, then by trying to interpret abstract rules. So your primary mode of explanation should be a Flash animation, complete with voice overs and little cartoon people acting out short 'morality plays' showing examples of what they may or may not do.

    Yes, dammit, I'm serious. :^)

  • by gblues ( 90260 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @02:59PM (#3458882)

    The preamble to the GPL is adequate because it does not need to be read (much less agreed to) for a user to use GPL software. There is no EULA. The GPL itself does not apply until a user attempts to distribute, modify, or otherwise create derivatives of the software. This will almost never happen in the normal use of most software.

    It would be more appropriate to draft the GPL using RFC terminology so that those who will be distributing, modifying, or otherwise creating derivative programs can understand the license. Coders don't speak legalese, but most can grok an RFC.


  • by Avery_Zero ( 544068 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @03:08PM (#3458954)
    I'm only mostly joking here. That would keep all licences short and sweet. Case in Point: the GPL in haiku.

    What was mine is ours
    Add to ours as you see fit
    What is ours stays ours

  • by crucini ( 98210 ) on Friday May 03, 2002 @04:34PM (#3459483)
    Maybe we need a markup language which can precisely express licensing limitations. Then the user-agent (typically web browser) could alert the user to licensing conflicts. For example, if the OS 'knows' that the computer is part of a multi-host network and the license has max_concurrent_users=1, the user-agent could warn the user that the software should only be used on one machine.

    Also, someone comparing software packages could easily diff the licenses. He might find that of seven accounting packages only one prohibits attempting to export the data, and therefore steer clear of that one.

    In fact, if vendors don't want to do this (clearly they prefer obscurity) there's nothing stopping us from encoding the existing licenses in such a format.

What is research but a blind date with knowledge? -- Will Harvey