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Re: GPL and linking

On 5/6/05, Jeremy Hankins <nowan@nowan.org> wrote:
> All of this discussion of legal minutia misses (and perhaps supports)
> what, to my mind, is the most compelling argument for accepting the
> FSF's position on the subject.  The fact is that the question does
> depend on a lot of legal minutia that almost all of us aren't qualified
> to have an opinion on.  So unless it's a make-or-break issue for Debian
> (which I just don't see), the obvious thing to do is to take the
> agreeable, safe position.

You may not be qualified (as I am not) to offer legal advice.  But
you're certainly qualified to have an opinion.  And there isn't
necessarily an "agreeable, safe position".

If your livelihood depends on your continued ability to work in the
software field, I think it helps to have the ability to read deeply
into a contract.  Sometimes that requires a review of the law
applicable to you personally.  I know people who really, really wish
they hadn't accepted EULA X, let alone Shared Source Agreement Y. 
Subtle issues of what constitutes contract acceptance in a given
jurisdiction, whose interpretation of an ambiguity prevails, and what
things can only be agreed to in writing (or can't be made binding at
all) do matter.

My experience with lawyers has been quite positive overall, but I have
learned two cautionary lessons.  One: a lawyer's research is always
focused on either backing or influencing his or her client's position,
and his or her thinking about the arguments on the other side is often
limited to finding counter-arguments for them.  Two: in the absence of
a lawyer who's on your payroll -- not your company's, not your
friend's, not a trusted third party's -- you are your own best legal
researcher.  Actually, the lawyer I respect most says that's true even
when he is on my payroll.  Use the primary literature; it's not really
that hard, though you might have to do a lot of background reading. 
(Same goes for medicine and algorithms, and almost all science that
merits the name.)

> So the question of whether or not the FSF is actually *right* doesn't
> matter.  We should only disagree with them if we have to for the sake of
> Debian -- in which case we're probably in trouble and should hire a
> lawyer ASAP.

The FSF has its own agenda, and it's not principally about keeping
people out of the courtroom.  Many Debian contributors have said that
one recent FSF action or another has seriously damaged their trust in
the FSF as a steward of the portion of the software commons that they
have acquired by copyright assignment, let alone of all software
offered under the GPL.  Note that the FSF is not unique in this
(RedHat, XFree86, and the Mozilla Foundation are other recent
examples), and I still think they're on the side of the angels most of
the time.

Lots of people rely on Debian to have made the most informed judgment
its members can about legal issues.  That doesn't mean just the SPI's
legal counsel, the -legal regulars, or the ftpmasters; that means the
DDs and, to a lesser extent, fellow travelers like me.  Oh, with
respect to Debian as such it doesn't necessarily mean me; IANAL,
TINLA, IANADD, and all that.  But when it comes to other entities that
accept my recommendation of Debian for their IT or product platform,
it's my judgment (among others') that they rely on.  In the primary
literature I trust; all others pay cash.

- Michael

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