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LGPL Pain

TheRaven64 (641858) writes | more than 6 years ago

GNU is Not Unix 2

I'm not a huge fan of the GPL. While I agree with the FSF on most things, I can't help feeling that the GPL shows a certain lack of faith in the whole idea - if the open source development model is so much more efficient, and Free Software is so much more valuable, then why do they need such a mass of legalese to protect them?

I'm not a huge fan of the GPL. While I agree with the FSF on most things, I can't help feeling that the GPL shows a certain lack of faith in the whole idea - if the open source development model is so much more efficient, and Free Software is so much more valuable, then why do they need such a mass of legalese to protect them?

From a more pragmatic standpoint, the GPL is about the most incompatible Free Software license around. If you write GPL code, you can't use it in a BSD, Apache, X11, MIT, or Mozilla licensed project.

I was fairly happy with the LGPL until recently, however. It is a bit more restrictive than I'd have liked, but as long as you dynamically link to it it doesn't taint your own code. This is a story about the pain caused when lawyers get in the way of writing code.

It turns out that the LGPL, as it stood, wasn't restrictive enough for the FSF's ideology. You can't have freedom without a lot of restrictions (apparently) and so they added a load more to the venerable LGPL 2.1, and created the new, improved, twice as restrictive, LGPL 3.0, and encouraged all GNU projects to upgrade.

One such project, which I'm directly involved with, GNUstep, did so. Then we started having problems. It turns out there's this other license that has a clause stating that it may not be used with any conditions that are not in the license itself. This is the (GNU) GPL. Version 2 of the GNU GPL is incompatible with version 3 of the GNU LGPL, and since it's viral you can't even link code under the two licenses.

That's okay though, right? The FSF has been telling everyone that they should use the 'or later versions' clause when they use the GPL, just in case they want to make it more restrictive in the future. And everyone's done that, right? Well, it turns out, xpdf didn't. And the xpdf code was extracted to form the Poppler library. And the Poppler library, in turn, was wrapped in PopplerKit, an Objective-C framework for rendering PDFs. And so, by the transitive property, all of these GNUstep apps were GPL 2. Which is incompatible with LGPL 3. Which meant that suddenly they couldn't use the latest GNUstep. By the way, PopplerKit isn't the only GPL2-only library used by GNUstep apps.

This is a bit of a problem. So big, in fact, that Debian decided not to carry the latest GNUstep, because it would have meant dropping a load of GNUstep applications from the next release. The eventual outcome? GNUstep has reverted to LGPL2.

This isn't an unusual situation, by the way. A number of big libraries, such as GNU libc (an abomination that needs to die, but for technical, not legal reasons) is having the same problem - the FSF wants to 'upgrade' it to LGPL version 3, but that will mean any Linux distro that ships the new glibc will not be able to ship any GPL 2 apps.

And people wonder why I prefer the BSD license family.

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2 comments

In defence of the FSF (1)

zsau (266209) | more than 6 years ago | (#23932781)

Although I have nothing to say about the practical problems you've discovered — other than that these problems would not exist if the FSF's recommondation had been followed — I can answer your initial question: "if the open source development model is so much more efficient, and Free Software is so much more valuable, then why do they need such a mass of legalese to protect them?"

Firstly it is based on a false premise — that the FSF believes open source is a better development model. You should read their philosophical essays, particularly "Why 'free software' is better than 'open source'" [fsf.org] . In fact, they do not: "The relationship between the Free Software movement and the Open Source movement is ... [that w]e disagree on the basic principles, but agree more or less on the practical recommendations."

Secondly, they clearly explain why they put limitations in the GPL: "Sooner or later these users will be invited to switch back to proprietary software for some practical advantage." The problem of course is exactly the same as the one that motivations carbon trading. It is better for all of humanity if all software is free and greenhouse gas emissions are reduced, but for individual people and companies it is often better for software to be proprietary and greenhouse gases to be emitted. Governments have introduced and are introducing carbon trading schemes and other mechanisms intended to make people and companies pay the true cost of polluting, and the GPL contains restrictions intended to keep software free.

Re:In defence of the FSF (1)

TheRaven64 (641858) | more than 6 years ago | (#23934685)

You only replied to half of my statement. The other half was 'and Free Software so much more valuable.' The FSF believes that, given two pieces of software, one proprietary, one Free, the Free one is more valuable. For most people, the difference is not quite so clear cut, but given two pieces of software with equivalent features the Free one is better, and if the proprietary one has more or better features then it depends on the exact circumstances (is lock in in the future worse than getting nothing done now?).

Secondly, they clearly explain why they put limitations in the GPL: "Sooner or later these users will be invited to switch back to proprietary software for some practical advantage."
This is something I don't have a problem with. I try to avoid non-Free software for purely practical reasons - it always ends up biting you eventually (stops being supported, isn't ported to the platform you use, has trivial-to-fix bugs that are only fixed if you pay to upgrade to the new version, and so on). I certainly wouldn't consider it sensible to build my own software on top of a non-Free foundation, because I would be entirely dependent on the supplier of the upstream tools (who, as a software developer, is a potential competitor). If people want to use non-Free software, and the FSF is right, then they are putting themselves at a long-term competitive disadvantage in exchange for a short-term gain. That's their choice, and I don't have a problem with it.
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