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2 Licenses and the Definition of Free Software - FreeHelia

Based on the level of limitations or fees on use, study and distribution of intellectual property, licenses are often categorized as

A product that is “free as in beer” does not cost anything to use for some purpose, but may contain restrictions, for example on distribution or modification. Proprietary means that use is strictly limited by license and usually there are fees on use. Free as in speech, or “Free” with capital F, means that the license meets the strict freedom criteria as defined by various free software organizations.

For example, license of Microsoft Word is proprietary, license of Adobe Acrobat Reader is free (as in beer) and the license of Linux is Free (as in speech). The somewhat funny English terms Free speech and free beer are to make distinction between no cost software and Free software movement. Those words are also the ones used by the Free Software Foundation.

Free Software Foundation, the organization behind the most popular Free software license (GPL), defines Free Software as software that user can

(Free Software Foundation 2003)

Open Source Initiative, whose criteria is often implicitly seen as the definition of Free by categorizing licenses to OSI approved, gives a ten point criteria for license evaluation (Open Source Initiative 2005). In content, it is very similar to Free Software Foundations criteria.

Much of what Helia produces and uses is not software. Teachers create materials for courses, students write reports of solved problems. Books and materials made elsewhere are used by courses.

Many free licenses are made for software, and even though they can be used for other intellectual property, their text can become confusing. For example, what is the source code of book, mentioned by GPL and other licenses. Because of this confusion, many non-software licenses have been created lately. Most popular Free non-software licenses are GNU Free documentation license (FDL) and Creative Commons licenses. Creative Commons, in addition to FDL, is now suggested by the Free Software Foundation (Free Software Foundation 2003).

2.1 Popularity of Licenses

Popularity of software licenses can be compared by looking at the total number the license is used in any project, or we can concentrate just on the most important and most popular projects.

License distribution of open source projects

Illustration 1. License distribution of open source projects according to freshmeat.net.

An important Free software directory freshmeat.net keeps statistics of licenses used. The most used license is the GNU General Public License (GPL), which is more used than all the other licenses together. GPL is used by 70% of projects. All ten most popular projects in freshmeat.net use the GPL. (OSDN 2003)

GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) and the BSD license are next in popularity. Almost 10% of projects use either LGPL or the BSD license. (OSDN 2003) These licenses are similar in spirit so that they grant freedoms much like GPL, but don’t put many restrictions to protect those freedoms. For example, you can take BSD licensed source code, put it in your proprietary, non-free product and never release the source. (FreeBSD Team 1994-2004) Free Software Foundation (gnu.org), the organization behind LGPL suggests this license for some software libraries. BSD license is used by a whole unix-like operating system, BSD.

LGPL and (clarified) BSD license are compatible with GPL. This means that you can take an LGPL program and include it in your fully GPL licensed work. This reduces license complexity even further. As the list made by GNU shows, many popular open source licenses are compatible with GPL.

Other licenses, such as the Artistic license or Mozilla Public license, have less than 2% share each. In addition to this, some licenses are either GPL-compatible or author as dual licensed the work with GPL. Thus, these other licenses have very little significance. (Illustration 1)

2.2 Freedom vs Protection of Rights

Illustration 2. Freedom for users versus protection of intellectual property.

In my view, the most important criteria for choosing a license are freedoms as a user and protection for intellectual property. If we accept the basic assumption of free market, greedy consumers, any user would probably have a program for no cost, with source code and unlimited redistribution rights. When distributing the software, the user would become a vendor. Many vendors would like to limit the use of software to get maximal profits for selling licenses to use that software.

In the illustration, I have categorized proprietary and some of the most common Free software licenses according to this criteria. Typically, proprietary software licenses limit user rights as much as law permits and even more – often any resale is prohibited and vendor could deny use at any time without reason. On the other hand, BSD (Berkley System Distribution License) and LGPL (Lesser GPL) allow unlimited use with almost no restrictions. Contrary to a typical initial impression, software licensed this way does not usually end up free. Instead, someone exercises the rights given by the license and redistributes the software under his own, more restrictive license, making his version proprietary. Apple OSX is a good example of this, as it is a highly popular proprietary operating system and a distribution based on BSD software. GNU General Public License (GPL) grants users many rights, but states rules to protect those rights. It states that when redistributing software under the GPL, all recipients must be given the same GPL rights that redistributor got when he received a copy of the software. (Illustration 2)

2.3 Licensing risks

Using a licensed product is a legal agreement and not without risk. Risks common to Free and non-free licenses include trademarks, license conflicts and patents.

Trademarks can limit what you can call a product. With some licenses, you can have the program and source free, but if you distribute it, you must come up with another name. Examples of trademark protected Free software include the most popular database management system MySQL and the most popular Linux distribution Red Hat (Freshmeat 2003, MySQL AB 2003, Red Hat Inc 2003). It is not fully clear if this kind of limitations to GPL licensed software are valid. Theoretically, this could be changed by Free Software Foundation (gnu.org) for GPL licensed products. The GPL usage notice allows use under GPL version 2 or any later version (Free Software Foundation 2003). In practice, most organizations will likely want to by on the safe sides to enjoy all public relations benefits of Free software, and because removing trademarks from software is often quite straightforward.

Releasing other’s property could result in the products license to be invalid. For example, if I sold you the right to broadcast next summer Olympics, you still would not have the rights, because I can not sell something I don’t own. At the time of writing, a failed Linux distributor SCO claims to own parts of Linux kernel. As they have failed to provide any proofs, many consider their claims false but harmful to Linux image. (Reuters 2003, Taylor 2003) BSD, a free operating system similar to Linux, won a similar case with a symbolic settlement in 1995 (McKusick 1999).

License conflict is just another form of somebody releasing code he does not own. Licenses often put some restrictions on what you can do with the software. For example, most licenses demand you don’t claim credits for other’s work. Parts of software with this restriction cannot be mixed with software whose license allows removal of credits. GPL requires modified software to be released with the same Free GPL license as the original. Because one cannot just take GPL code and put restrictions on it, Microsoft has called GPL a “viral license” and “cancer” (Microsoft 2004, BBC 2003, ZDNet UK 2005). In my opinion, the restrictions provided by GPL benefit Helia - when we develop and publish new features for software, we expect other organizations using our modifications give their improvements back to us.

Software patents are allowed in many countries, such as USA and most parts of Europe. In Finland, patenting a mathematical method (software) is not allowed by law, but is beginning to be possible because of the surprising new policies in National Board of Patents and Registration of Finland (Electronic Frontier Finland 2003, National Board of Patents and Registration of Finland 2003). Patenting software has lead to many ridiculous cases in USA and other countries. Examples include a patent for electronic commerce (Amazon 1997) and a patent for hyperlink (Sargent 1980). Also many formats are patented, such as GIF (images) and mp3 (music). Usually, a better patent-free format exists, in this case PNG for images and OGG for music.

2.3.1 Risks of Proprietary Licenses

Proprietary licenses, such as the Microsoft End User License (MS EULA), are created to by vendor, to protect vendors interest. Proprietary licenses can contain high risks for client companies. Vendors of proprietary software often aim for customer lock-in, so that even if customer is not satisfied with service or product quality, changing has become too expensive. (McHugh 1999)

The big risk is one-sided change of conditions whenever vendor wants. This is achieved through a combination of software features and licensing terms. License usually allows vendor to change conditions of a license, or terminate users right to use the program. A more used method of forcing users to accept one-sided license change is to drop support for older operating system version and have a new license for the new version. As the code is proprietary, there are no third party vendors to provide critical security patches, which makes it impossible to use the program in business environment. This kind of forced change was used to get people over to Windows XP, whose license has changed a lot from previous versions of Windows. Reverse engineering is often not allowed by the license, but this kind of limitation does not necessarily apply to Finland. Sometimes licenses contain impossible terms to reduce vendor responsibility.

Licenses are not just a cost by itself. To follow license agreements with vendor, IT support must be continuously counting licenses. To avoid buying unused licenses, IT support is forced to create many configurations for workstations. When workstations are managed by imaging (as in Helia), this creates a lot of unneeded manual work.

Multiple license agreements create a hard to manage legal portfolio. In my personal experience consulting companies, even large firms often solve this problem by forgetting it. Little effort is made to read agreements, maybe because client companies feel they could not choose vendors or negotiate the terms anyway. Many proprietary software licenses are very long, and purposefully made hard to read. Some software vendors go as far as using a tiny font for printing the agreement and using a matchbox sized window to display a ten-page agreement on computer screen.

Many of the problems of proprietary licenses don’t exist with Free licenses. A lot of Free software uses compatible licenses, and most of the software use the same license, namely the GPL. This reduces costs of managing the legal portfolio. Not only there are less licenses for company lawyers to be familiar with, but also there is an ongoing public review of the widely used licenses, especially the GPL. This results in less costs and fewer risks.

Free software gives huge benefits to users of software. What is their downside? More equal stand to negotiate price and service terms between customers and vendors makes it very hard to have artificially high profits based on customer lock-in or dominating position on the market. What some vendors may find threatening, most customers and users find beneficial.

2.4 Recommended licenses

As we have laid out the desirable qualities of licenses in previous chapters, coming up with a recommendation should be easy.

Following the recommendations of the Free Software Foundation, we can achieve license popularity, backing of a huge community and throughout testing of licenses. Free Software Foundation recommended licenses are

(Free Software Foundation 2003).

Helia should use GNU General Public License (GPL) as preferred license for choosing and publishing software, and FDL or GPL for publishing course materials and student works. For other works, Helia should follow Free Software Foundation’s recommendation for licensing. The choice of a license should be volunteer for each student and teacher.

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Last modified: 2005-10-30. Permanent url: http://www.iki.fi/karvinen/freehelia_licenses_and_the_definition_of_free_software.html

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