GPL Misconceptions

We tend to use the GNU General Public License for software that we make available to the community. I’m sure the “GPL FAQ” topic has been done to death, but I literally get asked the same questions every few weeks. WARNING: I am not a lawyer, I am not the Free Software Foundation, and this article is merely my opinionated interpretation of the license as we choose to enforce it for our copyrighted works.

It starts off with a plugin author who has made a derivative work of our GPL’d software. The author asks a question like this:

Q: Can I sell my plugin?

A: Yes, but you must obey the GPL in all respects. The GPL is about distribution (or, as it later clarified, “conveying” and “propagating”). If you distribute the plugin to someone, that person must be able to receive a copy of the GPL’d source code, which means you cannot prevent any recipient from distributing it for free. Thus, you can legally sell a plugin, but it is not a good business model.

The real meaty follow-up question is:

Q: Well, then can I give (or sell) my plugin out privately and keep it closed-source?

A: No.

The GPL doesn’t care if you’re giving it to your friends, your Grandmother’s bridge club, or to a big proprietary company. If you’re distributing it, you must give the recipients the same GPL rights. The most common follow-up to this question is, “What if we have a private agreement?” or “What if the recipient agrees not to invoke his rights?”

You can certainly have private agreements, but they can’t trump the license. There’s two issues here. The first issue is that you don’t own the copyright and thus you can’t change its terms outside of the copyright’s scope. For example, let’s say I buy a copy of Windows XP. I can’t take that copy and start distributing it to people, saying “I allow you to use my copy if you don’t tell Microsoft.” I’d be placing an irrelevant condition because the license does not give me the right to make that condition. The GPL doesn’t say “you don’t have to abide by the copyright if you don’t want to.” It says that if you choose not to abide, your rights are automatically terminated. That’s a stark contrast!

The other flaw is that even if a person agrees not to invoke his or her rights, that doesn’t revoke those rights. Those rights are there automatically, and once the person receives them, not even the copyright holder can terminate them. Once you have received rights under the GPL, the only way to terminate them is by violating the license.

Lastly, there’s another follow-up question. “If I’m developing/distributing the plugin within a company, what happens?” In that case, it’s the company’s decision. See the FSF’s answer.

This is how we’ve come to understand the license after four years of dealing with it. Again, I’m not a lawyer, and it’s certainly possible that I’ve interpreted the FSF’s FAQ and license text incorrectly.

It both amuses and disappoints me that people continually look for ways to poke holes in our software’s license. The software and all of its encompassing knowledge are a shared community. To try to squirm around the license is saying “I deserve compensation for my time and effort” while ignoring copyright law, and perhaps more importantly, the fact that such time and effort pales in comparison to what the original developers and the community have built.

Another way to look at it: You did not have to pay to use the software. Instead, the developers have chosen your usage of the GPL as adequate compensation. If you don’t want to do that, your only hope is to try and negotiate an alternative license agreement (which is a decision entirely at the discretion of the copyright holders).

Fortunately, we haven’t had very many GPL violators (perhaps a good follow-up article would be our experiences with those few).

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