Ruminations Galore


Interpreting a software license

Is a glass half full or half empty? This eternal question sums up the challenge of interpreting a software license. So how does one avoid the pitfall of a wrong interpretation? Here is my thumb rule — never ignore the spirit in which the software license was created in the first place.

The _biggest problem_ is that we _interpret the language_ of the license. When a new license comes out, we interpret the language; what the license says (the use of English — how the sentences are phrased, what words are used to describe the terms of the license, etc.)

We never interpret the intent of the license. We don’t dig that deep. We see the language on the face of the license and we interpret the writing style. We interpret the flow of words and the method of saying a certain thing.

This leads to confusion. If only one understood the purpose of the license, the goals that the license was written to accomplish, the true intent of people who wrote the license, there would be very little need for debate. There would be no foolish comments made by some and there would be no need for any clarifications.

GPLv3 and the ‘patents portfolio’

The letter describing Kernel developers’ position on GPLv3 made one such mistake. The section explaining their understanding of the patent clause says:

As drafted, this currently looks like it would potentially jeopardize the entire patent portfolio of a company simply by the act of placing a GPLv3 licensed programme on their website.

This is rubbish. GPL has always stood for the spirit of Copyleft. It was always about ensuring that the freedom for GPL is passed on to everyone.

FSF was quick to thwart this misconception with a clarification note.

If only you understood the intent behind the license and the purpose of the patent clause, you’d realize the interpretation was baseless. It was a result of interpreting the language of the license instead of the purpose and what it hopes to accomplish legally.

GPLv3 and end use restriction

I find Section 5.1 of the developers’ position especially unnerving:

While we find the use of DRM by media companies in their attempts to reach into user owned devices to control content deeply disturbing, our belief in the essential freedoms of section 3 forbids us from ever accepting any license which contains end use restrictions. The existence of DRM abuse is no excuse for curtailing freedoms.

This is another case of extreme misinterpretation of the language. Think about it. The license is a Copyleft license. Copyleft means freedom. Copyleft is freedom that everyone has. So, you really think that people who thought of making freedom available to everyone over 20 years ago would ever do anything to curtail the freedom now?

It is ridiculous to say that FSF is trying to force end use restrictions. Nothing could be farther from the truth. GPLv3 only tries to ensure the freedoms of Copyleft. It tries to ensure that no entity can limit any persons freedom. GPL was always about downstream-freedom. That is, if A has freedoms (of Copyleft), then A can not limit B from enjoying the same freedoms.


The GPL has always been about Copyleft. It was always about ensuring that the freedoms of Copyleft are enjoyed by everyone. In the past two decades, the FSF or RMS have done or said nothing to contradict this. The GPL was written to ensure the Copyleft and for as long as it has existed, FSF has not deviated from the spirit of Copyleft.

How can you call the anti-DRM clause as restricting the end user freedom? It is an exact opposite. Everyone always had the freedom to do whatever they wanted to do with GPL’ed code and they still have that freedom. No one could limit other people’s freedom and they still can’t do that. Nothing has changed.

So, why must we make any interpretation of the GPL that suggests a possible deviation from Copyleft. GPL was always about making the freedoms available to all. The intent, purpose, meaning, reasons for the changes in GPLv3 are nothing new. It’s all about ensuring freedom.

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