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Re: Question about automatic generation of GPLv3 COPYING file

From: Brian Cameron
Subject: Re: Question about automatic generation of GPLv3 COPYING file
Date: Tue, 16 Sep 2008 23:05:57 -0500
User-agent: Thunderbird (X11/20080825)


Ralf Wildenhues wrote:

[ Regarding the fact that the GNOME module gconf-editor (among other
  modules) is actually licensed under the GPLv2 license but automake is
  automagically and silently generating a COPYING file with a GPLv3
  license ]

So does this mean that modules like gconf-editor is GPLv3 or the actual
license as specified in the source files?  This seems confusing.

This is a question for a lawyer, not for this list.  I agree that it's
confusing, but note that there should be both: the license file, and the
copyright notices at the top of each source file.  It is not uncommon
that source trees have files with differing (compatible) licenses, and
carry several license files.

Indeed, it isn't uncommon for a module to have differing licenses.
That is pretty normal.  However, I would think that the authors of the
source code should be the people deciding how their code should be
licensed, rather than an artifact of the build tools being used.  It
seems hard to ensure that such differing licenses are indeed compatible
in any sort of automatic fashion.

I am wondering if the behavior of creating a COPYING file (if one
does not already exist) with the GPLv3 license is intended to be a
feature or not?  Either way, I would like to encourage the automake
community to consider removing this feature.

You can use 'automake --foreign' or AM_INIT_AUTOMAKE([foreign]) to avoid
installing GNU-related files.  Without the 'foreign' option, automake by
default installs GNU defaults.  Not just for the COPYING file, but
several other things as well.  One of Automake's expressed goals is to
create packages that match GNU's rules.

Thanks for the pointer.  I hadn't ever read the "GNU Coding Standards"
document until you highlighted this point, and I found the document via


If automake's goal is to enforce GNU coding standards, then I could
understand if it failed to work unless the file is present.  Thus
forcing the authors to create the file or use the 'foreign' option
(or not use automake).

However, just populating the file with an arbitrary license seems an
error-prone way to enforce the standard.

Although I can understand
that some may support this sort of feature to propagate the GPLv3
license, I do not think that automatically generating a license via
autotools is the best way to do this.  It seems a very unfriendly way to
propagate a "viral" style license, and a way that could be really
damaging to some users, and could generate bad feelings about the free
software community.

That to me really sounds a bit over the top.  Given there are very easy
ways to avoid this, and given that the current mode of operation is
documented very clearly,

While I do agree that it is documented reasonably, many people do not
always read all related documentation.  People who might decide to use
autotools to build non-GNU programs might not be familiar with the
"GNU Coding Standard" or be aware that automake silently enforces a

and a COPYING file has forever been installed
in the default mode, it would be confusing to many users if automake
would stop doing this now.

There might be some confusion.  However, as I already explained there is
already clearly some confusion about the way it currently works.  Note
the following bug reports.  Clearly the authors of these modules were
not aware of the ramifications of automake changing its default license
to GPLv3:





To me, this sort of confusion is really more serious than any confusion
like "where did my autogenerated COPYING file go".  Putting incorrect
and unintended licenses in a module is more confusing than putting no

If the automake community is not agreeable to removing this feature,
would there be a problem if a particular distro removed the feature of
automatically creating this file with any particular license?  Is this
something a distro could do, or does the license of automake forbid
changing automake in this way?

No, I don't see why the GPLv2+ (the license of Automake 1.10.1) should
forbid such a change.  FWIW, you could make 'foreign' the default.
However, if that causes your packages to not be bootstrapped identically
on other distros, that typically hurts your most important users: those
that are also developers, and re-bootstrap the package on their system.

As you probably noticed, I work for Sun.  Nobody at Sun has yet made any
decisions about how automake on Solaris should behave.  I was just
curious about whether disabling the feature by default might be possible
so all options can be considered.

Currently Sun does not allow GPLv3 code to integrate into Solaris, which
is why this is a particular issue at Sun.  So, until this issue is
resolved, I guess Sun will probably have to avoid updating to the latest
versions of automake which generate a GPLv3 license.  Though, disabling
the feature by making 'foreign' the default might also be an option.
Hopefully, Sun will approve of the GPLv3 license soon, so this issue
just goes away.

Or is there a way to configure the default behavior of automake so
that a distro can specify how automake should create the default
COPYING file, or what license (if any) should be used when creating

Changing the automake sources should be a one-line patch.
Getting this patch into FSF Automake sources will probably
be hard (i.e., I'd guess RMS will likely disapprove of it).

I've cc:ed him.  Perhaps he can let us know his thoughts about this
matter.  I generally agree with Richard's sometimes aggressive
approaches towards promoting free licensing.  However, it does seem that
the authors of any source code should be "free" to pick the license of
their choice and never have a tool silently and automatically license
code for them.  At least that is my feeling.


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