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UPDATED: Richard Stallman -- Apple's non-free source license

Mar 22, 1999, 16:17 (79 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Richard Stallman)

by Richard Stallman

March 22, 1999 -- Richard Stallman has issued an update to one of his paragraphs and we have appended it below the article. -- lt eds.

After studying Apple's new source code license, the APSL, I have concluded that it falls short of being a free software license. It has three fatal flaws, any of which would be sufficient to make the software less than free.

* Disrespect for privacy.

The APSL does not allow you to make a modified version and use it for your own private purposes, without publishing your changes.

* Central control.

Anyone who releases (or even uses, other than for R&D) a modified version is required to notify one specific organization, which happens to be Apple.

* Possibility of revocation at any time.

The termination clause says that Apple can revoke this license, and forbid you to keep using all or some part of the software, any time someone makes an accusation of patent or copyright infringement.

In this way, if Apple declines to fight a questionable patent (or one whose applicability to the code at hand is questionable), you will not be able to have your own day in court to fight it, because you would have to fight Apple's copyright as well.

Such a termination clause is especially bad for users outside the US, since it makes them indirectly vulnerable to the insane US patent system and the incompetent US patent office, which ordinarily could not touch them in their own countries.

Any one of these flaws makes a license unacceptable.

If these three flaws were solved, the APSL would be a free software license with three major practical problems, reminiscent of the NPL:

* It is not a true copyleft, because it allows linking with other files which may be entirely proprietary.

* It is unfair, since it requires you to give Apple rights to your changes which Apple will not give you for its code.

* It is incompatible with the GNU GPL.

Of course, the major difference between the NPL and the APSL is that the NPL *is* a free software license. These practical problems are significant in the case of the NPL because the NPL has no fatal flaws. Would that the same were true of the APSL.

At a fundamental level, the APSL makes a claim that, if it became accepted, would stretch copyright powers in a dangerous way: it claims to be able to set conditions for simply *running* the software. As I understand it, copyright law in the US does not permit this, except when encryption or a license manager is used to enforce the conditions. It would be terribly ironic if a failed attempt at making a free software license resulted in an extension of the effective range of copyright power.

Aside from this, we must remember that only part of MacOS is being released under the APSL--and it is the lowest level part. The only practical use for this code is to run the non-free part of MacOS. It will not help free operating systems, because they already have the low-level drivers for the PowerPC Mac.

Overall, I think that Apple's action is an example of the effects of the year-old "open source" movement: of its plan to appeal to business with the purely materialistic goal of faster development, while putting aside the deeper issues of freedom, community, cooperation, and what kind of society we want to live in.

Apple has grasped perfectly the concept with which "open source" is promoted, which is "show users the source and they will help you fix bugs". What Apple has not grasped--or has dismissed--is the spirit of free software, which is that we form a community to cooperate on the commons of software.

Thanks to Paul Seelig.

As posted to gnu.misc.discuss.



Update by Richard Stallman, March 22, 1999:

I previously wrote:

Aside from this, we must remember that only part of MacOS is being released under the APSL--and it is the lowest level part. The only practical use for this code is to run the non-free part of MacOS. It will not help free operating systems, because they already have the low-level drivers for the PowerPC Mac.

Apparently this was not entirely true. People tell me that some of the information in the released sources has resolved some remaining uncertainty about the hardware, which has helped the writing of PowerPC Mac drivers for Linux. It is good of Apple to make this information available, but this does not affect the main conclusions of my analysis.

Also, some say that the code released is actually a system which is sufficient for certain uses (though not including the graphical convenience that is the Macintosh's main technical feature). If so, I stand corrected; perhaps the code Apple has released would make some nontrivial contribution to the free software community, if the current APSL were replaced with a free software license.


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