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Re: The sad decline of copyleft software licenses? :(

From: Pen-Yuan Hsing
Subject: Re: The sad decline of copyleft software licenses? :(
Date: Mon, 28 Sep 2020 10:48:07 +0800
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On 9/25/20 10:35 PM, Jean Louis wrote:
* Pen-Yuan Hsing <> [2020-09-25 04:35]:
This reminds me of two worrying examples I recently saw where even
GPL-licensed software are still used to create proprietary software!

1. As someone with an academic background, I've seen and used many
statistics/analytical software. There is a proprietary statistics GUI
program called Brodgar that uses the GPL'ed R kernel as its "backend".
Technically, Brodgar doesn't violate the GPL because it simply sends
commands to R and receives its output, but in my opinion it really exploits
the GPL-licensed R in a sadly anti-social way. What's particularly striking
is that Brodgar prominently emphasizes why it *doesn't* violate the GPL on
its homepage:

This really left a sour taste in my mouth. I gotta admit it really looked to
me that the developer wanted to be in my face to say: "Ha! Look at how I can
take advantage of this GPL'ed software even though my program is

If program is using other program by invoking it, it is, in my
personal opinion, not a violation of a GPL license, and not some
kind of a security loophole in the GPL license.

And I also think, regardless if company has proprietary software or
not, it is good to make proper legal research and legal consultation
with R authors, or free software attorneys, to verify if some company
is in violation of the license or not.

I cannot see there possible violation of the GPL.

You can use R and make R programs which are proprietary. You can have
bash shell and have shell scripts which are proprietary. You can have
proprietary program producing automatically shell scripts executed by
shell, whereby such shell scripts would be proprietary. I do not vouch
for proprietary software, as free software has a lot to do in the
world. But that is how it is, the GPL license have been designed in
such a way to allow such usages of software.

I agree with the points you made. However, I must apologise if I mislead you, because I *did not* claim that the proprietary software Brodgar violates the GNU GPL of R. Like I said in the example, the Brodgar homepage specifically has a highly visible section telling you why it does not violate the GPL. The point I am trying to make with this example is not of a GPL violation. The bigger context of my argument is that copyleft licenses are better than permissive licenses, because permissively-licensed free software has a higher risk of being used in proprietary software. The Brodgar example is to illustrate that even with a copyleft license such as the GPL, there is still a way for GPL-licensed free software to be used with proprietary programs without violating the GPL. If that can be done, then it is *even easier* for permissively-licensed free software to be exploited by proprietary software. The whole example was meant as an argument that copyleft licenses are at least better than permissive ones, even if copyleft is not perfect and might have loopholes.

2. To my surprise, the highly proprietary messaging app WhatsApp uses the
GPL-licensed implementation of the Signal protocol developed by Open Whisper
Systems for its self-proclaimed end-to-end encryption:

I suppose the Facebook army of lawyers were able to perform the necessary
legal gymnastics to make a GPL program fit in their proprietary app, perhaps
by technically keeping the GPL'ed binary separate from the rest of the app?
(can someone more knowledgeable speak to this?)

Distributing binary version of Whatsapp that uses GPL software, would
make the Whatsapp also GPL. But I am not sure of details. They need
not distribute the source with the binary immediately, but they need
to make it available.

So how about you or somebody, makes the request for the source of
Whatsapp due to fact that GPL software is used in Whatsapp, rendering
Whatsapp also GPL?

But let us find that as a fact, than we can look into Whatsapp sources.

Denver Gingerich's response suggested that it is entirely possible Whatsapp negotiated a custom license from Open Whisper Systems to use the Signal implementation to bypass the GPL altogether.

I have no access to Whatsapp, otherwise it might be worth looking at the "About" page (or equivalent) in the Whatsapp app to see if it cites usage of the Open Whisper Systems' GPL implementation of the Signal protocol. If it is cited, then perhaps your suggestion of asking Whatsapp for the code might work. If it is *not* cited, then maybe it's the case of Whatsapp getting a custom license to the code as Denver suggested. Either way, it is, in my opinion, a sad example of free software being exploited by harmful proprietary software even *without* violating any GPL license.

My point with the above two examples is that even with GPL software,
there are still ways people/companies who want to make proprietary
software can exploit it.

Your two examples are not adequate:

- for first example with R, it is not example, as there is no fact
   that there is any GPL license violation. I have given you few other
   examples, which are million times multiplied by similar
   software. Proprietary software can invoke other free software, that
   is not forbidden and does not represent any abuse to free software.

- WhatsApp using GPLv3 library is not clear to me, it has to be
   proven, but if it is so, then all Whatsapp would become free
   software, so make request for sources from Whatsapp company, as
   maybe they give you source, based on that. Maybe not, but only if
   they don't we can start speaking of violaitons.

Like I said, I suspect you have misunderstood the point I was trying to make. With the two examples, I *was not* arguing that they violated the GPL. I was trying to state the *opposite*. Neither Brodgar nor Whatsapp seems to have violated the GPL but they were able to take advantage of free software in a way that I find unfortunate. In my opinion, if the GPL-licensed software I used in the examples were using a permissive license such as MIT, that exploitation would be even easier.

Again, I emphasise that my point was not about GPL violations *at all*.

You speak of free software licenses, so you speak of authors that are
producing free software, please think of people when speaking of
licenses, and those people who are producing free software deserve
acknowledgments in the free software world.

I do not share opinion that they are even more dangerous from
perspective of user freedom.

Are you referring people or licenses not being more dangerous?

I also do not share opinion that they strengthen the argument for
copyleft licenses, what strengthens the argument for copyleft is when
somebody publishes new software under GPL license. As simple as

I don't understand what you're trying to communicate here. I think it's pretty clear that the creation and spread of proprietary software would be easier if free software uses permissive licenses instead of copyleft licenses.

Please see here detailed list of licenses:

Thank you. I've read and used this list many times.

Non-copyleft free software licenses have been made by friends, not
competitors. It is choice of author to permit others to do what they
want, including create proprietary software, that does not make them
less friends in the free software movement.

I have never claimed that those who apply permissive free software licenses to their code are competitors nor was I implying that.

However, I am arguing that once a person creates a piece of software, and if that person cares about perpetuating user freedom, choosing a copyleft license would be a better way to achieve that goal. That's why I find the decline in usage of copyleft licenses a sad thing.

If someone chooses a permissive license, *of course* that doesn't automatically make them an enemy. I think it's important to realise that we are all working towards digital freedom, even if we might individually choose different methods.

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