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A Few of Microsoft's Questions at RMS' NYU Speech & A New GPL FAQ on the Shared Source Page

Jun 06, 2001, 14:15 (55 Talkback[s])

After the New York Times reported that Microsoft had prepared a question sheet for reporters attending Richard Stallman's speech at New York University, some readers commented that more of the questions might be an interesting read. Mr. Stallman was kind enough to send us a few more of those questions with additional commentary of his own.

Another set of questions for businesses to ask regarding the GPL has turned up on Microsoft's "Shared Source" site, as well. Available as a self-extracting .exe, the document can be extracted with the unzip command available with most Linux distributions and read with AbiWord or StarOffice. As with the questions below, Microsoft remains at the top of its game in terms of slyness: it takes a few minutes to realize no one's asking anything... they're telling.

Mr. Stallman writes:

The best way to see through the trickery of the questions is to turn each one around and ask the same question about a Microsoft proprietary package. You will find either that the same "problem" exists, or that some other problem would have blocked you before you could even reach the situation.

For instance, one question complains that they can't copy 1000 lines of GPL-covered source code into a million-line proprietary program. Could you copy 1000 lines of Windows or Word source code into your million-line program? The usual license for Windows or Word won't let you do this; in fact, it won't let you see the source code at all. Their "shared source" NDA license won't let you do it either.

Another question complains that if a free software package has many contributors, it is unclear who to approach to clarify the license or ask for an exception. At least free software licenses permit many people to contribute and produce such a combination. Starting from a proprietary Microsoft program, the combination could not have been made in the first place. Meanwhile, if you follow the FSF's practice and ask for copyright assignments for changes you install, then it is entirely clear who people should ask about the license--they ask you.

The uncertainty referred to by question 2 actually comes from copyright law, not from the GPL. As judge Learned Hand put it, decisions about the scope of copyright are inevitably ad-hoc. (That is close to an exact quote, but I have no way to look it up.) The question doesn't arise for Microsoft programs, because their restrictive licenses don't let you come anywhere near these borderline cases. They stop you miles away.

From Microsoft's press sheet, handed out before the speech:

As you are probably aware, on Tuesday May 29, Richard Stallman of the Free Software Foundation is going to speak at New York University on how the General Public License facilitates sharing, cooperation and freedom. Microsoft is pleased to see NYU continue to examine the source licensing issue. We encourage you as journalists to take a moment prior to the speech to read through these questions and to look at the GNU GPL FAQ located at <<http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl-faq.html>>

The Free Software Foundation's General Public License is the license that covers the Linux operating system. Microsoft has publicly stated concerns with the license and its implications at <<http://www.microsoft.com/sharedsource>>

Having reviewed the new GNU GPL FAQ, and in anticipation of Mr. Stallman's speech, we wish to raise several additional questions: 1. Lack of proportionality and profit-making business models. Does the all-or-nothing viral approach of the GPL severely limit business flexibility?

Proportionality: If a proprietary program uses a GPL library (as described in the GNU FAQ #29) or combines with a GPL plug-in or module (as described in the GNU FAQ #31 and #37), the combined program is subject to the GPL. In this case, a proprietary program of 1,000,000 lines of code that uses a small GPL library or links to a GPL plug-in as described above, will then be subject to the GPL and its terms. This is not a proportional relationship.

Conflict with profit-making business models: Companies that have made significant investments in building proprietary value in their code are in an untenable competitive position if they include GPL technology in their solution. The situation can be made significantly worse if the principals of a company are unaware of the inclusion of GPL code in their product due to the actions of their developers or of individuals who have licensed the source code of their technology.

2. Uncertainty about interacting with GPL code. How does a firm know with certainty whether its developers' interaction with GPL code subjects the firm's proprietary code to the GPL?

The new "GNU General Public License FAQ" addresses a number of complex scenarios involving the combination of proprietary software with programs, modules, or libraries covered by the GPL or the LGPL. Not only is the license itself vague about these complex scenarios, but the FAQ uses ambiguous language in describing them--for example:

#33: "If the program dynamically links plug-ins, but the communication between them is limited to invoking the `main' function of the plug-in with some options and waiting for it to return, that is a borderline case."

#37: "If modules are designed to run linked together in a shared address space, that almost surely means combining them into one program.

By contrast, pipes, sockets and command-line arguments are communication mechanisms normally used between two separate programs. So when they are used for communication, the modules normally are separate programs. But if the semantics of the communication are intimate enough, exchanging complex internal data structures, that too could be a basis to consider the two parts as combined into a larger program."

#47: "However, in many cases you can distribute the GPL-covered software alongside your proprietary system. To do this validly, you must make sure that the free and non-free programs communicate at arms length, that that they are not combined in a way that would make them effectively a single program."

3. Lack of any definitive method for resolving questions about GPL coverage. If a firm has a question about whether the use of a GPL program in a proprietary software project, or the interaction between a proprietary program and a GPL program, module or library, subjects the proprietary software to the GPL, how does it resolve this question? Does it contact FSF? What if the GPL program is not copyrighted by FSF? Does the firm contact all of the individuals who contributed to the GPL program? How does it know if it has identified all of them or whether each contributor holds a copyright to the portion of the program to which he or she contributed? What if there is conflict among the contributors or between the contributors and FSF? Who resolves such conflicts?

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