Ruminations Galore

28
Sep

The GPL is not a compromise

Ever since the word (neigh, rumors) got out about a possible new version of the GPL being worked upon, people have been restless. There were talks about the issues this new version might and should address even before any official announcement was made by the Free Software Foundation that GPLv3 was a possibility. Now that two drafts have been released, there are still talks, people are still fuming about the issues this new version addresses and the way it does so and discussing the need for all the trouble.

It is important to understand the essence of GPL to realize why there was a need for the new version. GPL is a copyleft license. Everyone and their granny has discussed Copyleft to shreds in the 20-odd years since its inception, but do we grasp its essence? Copyleft is just four principles that when followed give us Free Software. Copyleft is a collaboration model that ensures that software remain ‘free’ and ‘freedom’ reaches everybody.

a) the freedom to use software
b) the freedom to copy and share the software
c) the freedom to modify the software
d) the freedom to distribute and use any modified version of the software

These four principles define Copyleft. The GNU General Public License is a strong Copyleft license. I am sure most of us have heard arguments about strong and weak Copyleft licenses. How does one define strong and weak Copyleft licenses?

Well, if there are a certain set of guidelines which are collectively knows as Copyleft, then you’d think that depending on how stiff the license is on implementing these guidelines would determine if the license is strong or weak Copyleft. And you’d be right! There are several Copyleft licenses and depending on how stringent clauses they have to ensure and assert Copyleft makes these license strong or weak.

GPL has always been a strong Copyleft license. So, it shouldn’t be massive brain-work to imagine reasons for modifying the GPL or releasing a new version.

The reason was simple: apparently there were ways that people were circumventing the four guiding principles of Copyleft. And the fact that technology has changed much since version 2 also was a factor. Version 2 just didn’t cover all the technological aspects that govern how software is distributed now.

The disliked change

There are certain changes that have garnered much heat while some have been accepted with warm hugs amidst flowing ‘free beer’. The fact remains, GPL was a strong Copyleft license 20 years ago and thus changes must be made to guarantee that it remain so today and in future.

Technical Protection Measures (TPM), one of which is Digital Rights Management or DRM, is one of the most discussed aspect of the new version. When you understand the essence of copyleft, you’d realize that modifying the GPL to confront this issue was an important step. It was important for GPLv3 to address DRM, aptly called Digital Restriction Management, because it acts as a hurdle in the fulfillment of the four principles of copyleft. The most popular instance of DRM use (abuse) that restricts the freedoms of Copyleft is TiVo. It uses DRM to curb freedoms c. and d.

While on the face of it, TiVO, is not violating the GPL, the truth is that it does not fully comply either. I say it doesn’t ‘fully comply’ because you have to understand — GPL is not a compromise. There are no two-ways about it – you must comply completely.

Many people have questioned the need for section 3 of the new draft: No Denying Users’ Rights through Technical Measures. Again, I say to them: if only you understood Copyleft you wouldn’t be asking this question. GPL is not a compromise. 20 years ago, DRM did not exist and so the GPL was a strong Copyleft license. Now, people use DRM as a means to ‘jump’ into a grey area whereby they outrightly violate the GPL and yet can not be held responsible legally.

GPLv3 hopes to curb such ‘jumping’ points. By clearly defining how copyleft can not be circumvented, GPLv3 plans to be a strong Copyleft in the current era. When people say there must be some middle ground and that asking for the ‘digital keys’ is stupid, I’d like to remind them — GPL is not a compromise. It’s not about finding middle grounds and keeping people happy. It’s about asserting Copyleft. It’s about guarding everyone’s freedoms.

GPLv3 does not belong

This section is in regards to the people who say that GPLv3, by denying the use of DRM (to restrict freedom) is doing something unethical. I am the last person who should be explaining this but as some don’t understand even with RMS and Eben Moglen explicitly, repeatedly stressing on why this is necessary, I have to jump in.

Let’s again look at the four freedoms. They are freedoms. They are equally valid for all. If one person has them, everyone has them. Who are you to decide, then, that the freedom does not reach everbody. A case in point, TiVO. I mention TiVO because everyone talks about it and it is the most popular reason for the proposed anti-DRM/TPM clause of GPLv3.

What TiVO does is that it restricts how you use software that *they* release under the GPL. They can’t do that. No one can. It’s not because they created the sofware; and so can impose such a restriction. It’s because the software is under the GPL that they _can’t precisely do this_. GPL is a collaboration model built on freedoms that everyone has.

A recent blog entry on LinuxJournal has forced me to include this section here; I wasn’t planning on doing so. The article claims that GPLv3 has no right to control what a hardware manufacturer does. Agreed. But, then again, the hardware manufacturer has no right to act smart and try to circumvent the GPL.

Freedom 0, is the freedom to use the software however you see fit.

The article on LJ suggests that since the source for TiVO is available and as no one stops you from modifying it, people should be content with the ‘freedom’ of using the software on any “other” hardware device, just not TiVO.

Excuse me! Who governs where I can or can not use GPL software, when the first freedom I have is the freedom to run the software as I see fit. RMS and Moglen have said on numerous occasions that if a manufacturer has freedoms of GPL, then he can not deprive users of his device the same freedoms. TiVO clearly does this. They deprive users of their device some fo the freedoms that they have. Why won’t you understand?

This brings me back to the title of the article: GPL is not a compromise. It’s a strong copyleft license and so it can do anything to ensure that copyleft is not misused. At the end of the day, there are four freedoms of copyleft and under no circumstance can they be enjoyed by someone who purposefully restricts others from enjoying those freedoms as well.

The anti-TPM clause is not to thwart DRM. The intention is to ensure that no loop-hole exists, which can be used by miscreants to make copyleft a ‘sham’.

During the GPLv3 conference in Bangalore, India, RMS said that they have no objection to devices running GPL software, restricted with DRM *IF ANF ONLY IF* the manufacturers too forgo their right to modify and run modified software on the device. Then there would be a balance.

What happens now is that TiVO uses GPL and forces itself upon the users. I see this as an additional restriction. If the GPL/copyleft permit me to use software however I decide, then how can TiVO dictate terms to me, and limit how I use the software. For me, it’s a clear case of violation.

But legally, TiVO is protected by the DMCA under the anti-circumvention provisions. Sec. 1201 (a)(1)(A) of the DMCA states that: No person shall circumvent a technological measure that effectively controls access to a work protected under this title.

That’s just not right. A method to circumvent is protected under the anti-circumvention policy. How ironic!

2 Responses to “The GPL is not a compromise”

  1. 1
    The GPL is not a compromise « The Independant Penguin Says:

    [...] Full Story Explore posts in the same categories: Other news, GNU/Linux News [...]

  2. 2
    The GPL is not a compromise « المعرفة للجميع Says:

    [...] Ever since the word (neigh, rumors) got out about a possible new version of the GPL being worked upon, people have been restless. There were talks about the issues this new version might and should address even before any official announcement was made by the Free Software Foundation that GPLv3 was a possibility. Now that two drafts have been released, there are still talks, people are still fuming about the issues this new version addresses and the way it does so and discussing the need for all the trouble.  http://linuxlala.net/thoughts/?p=114 [...]

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