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
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
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
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
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
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
#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
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?