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arbitrary termination clauses (was: Choice of venue, was: GUADEC report)

On Thu, Jul 15, 2004 at 11:04:40AM +0100, Matthew Garrett wrote:
> Brian Thomas Sniffen <bts@alum.mit.edu> wrote:
> >Matthew Garrett <mjg59@srcf.ucam.org> writes:
> >> At which point it becomes non-free. Or is it your belief that it should 
> >> never be possible to turn a free license into a non-free one? The GPL 
> >> contains a clause that explicitly allows for that to happen.
> >
> >No, it doesn't.  It terminates only a license I'm already violating.
> >At that point, what do I care?
> Read GPL 7.

By its own language, the section 7 of the GNU GPL cannot be interpreted as
termination clause in and of itself.

"This section is intended to make thoroughly clear what is believed to
be a consequence of the rest of this License."[1]

Let's review:

"If you cannot distribute so as to satisfy simultaneously your obligations
under this License and any other pertinent obligations, then as a
consequence you may not distribute the Program at all."

I do not regard, "I'm the copyright holder and I'm telling you not to!" as
a "pertinent obligation".  Not without some sort of legal theory behind it,
such as finding of copyright infringement against the person being so

There *are* circumstances under which a copyright licensor using the GNU
GPL could "spring a trap" and make it work like an arbitrary termination
clause.  One obvious example is if Wicked Corp. writes some code, licenses
it under the GNU GPL, and then applies for a patent on the same work.  If
the patent is granted, Wicked Corp. can theoretically argue that everyone
using their work is infringing their patent license, even those who are
scrupulously abiding by the terms of the GNU GPL.

In such a situation, the right thing to is also the legally safe thing to
do: decree the work non-free, and since it is not even distributable
without infringing its patent, get it the hell out of Debian while we're at

The above reasoning does depend on whether one interprets the GNU GPL as
granting an implicit patent license over every aspect of the work licensed
under its terms.  It is my understanding that the Apache Software
Foundation and the Free Software Foundation disagree about whether it does
or not.  I do not feel competent at present to judge this issue.

If the GNU GPL does bear an implicit patent license (which would
necessarily include use as well as modification and distribution), then
that shuts off one avenue of potential abitrary termination.  I do not
posit that this would shut them all off.

Any at rate, such circumstancial terminations are necessarily going to have
to be judged on a case-by-case basis.  I do not find the GNU GPL to be a
precedent for an *arbitrary* termination clause, because it doesn't contain

On a more fundamental basis, abitrary termination clauses are odious and
offensive to freedom because we are not free if we are just waiting for the
hammer to fall.  One of things you give up when you decide to share your
work with the FLOSS community is your right to act as a tyrant, yanking
people's licenses away from them in a fit of pique.

In my view, to uphold the Debian Social Contract means to do what we can to
protect ourselves and our users from the capricious actions of licensors.
By welcoming arbitrary termination clauses, we welcome capriciousness.

As Pamela Jones put it:
  If the license you accept is oppressive in its terms, that means you can
  be oppressed.

[1] http://www.fsf.org/licenses/gpl.txt

G. Branden Robinson                |
Debian GNU/Linux                   |      Ignorantia judicis est calamitas
branden@debian.org                 |      innocentis.
http://people.debian.org/~branden/ |

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