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Re: GPL & Possible Derivative Work

On 6/18/05, Glenn Maynard <glenn@zewt.org> wrote:
> On Sat, Jun 18, 2005 at 06:11:45PM -0700, Sean Kellogg wrote:
> > Shocking as it may sound, I agree with everything Michael has said here.
> > Cleanroom implementation is not a good defense against copyright
> > infringement.  If you want to write code and release it under a license under
> > the GPL, then don't look at the GPL'ed code.  Otherwise you are copying
> > something...  and while its possible that that "something" isn't itself
> > copyrightable material, chances are good that it is AND it really goes
> > against the whole "meaning and intent" of the GPL.

If Sean is saying that you can't look at GPL'ed code and then write
something non-GPL with similar functionality, I respectfully disagree.
 You are, however, under an obligation (moral and legal) to take
considerable pains not to copy expressive content that is not either
inseparable from the ideas and methods of operation (doctrine of
merger) or necessary for interoperability purposes.  That's
substantially the same standard of plagiarism avoidance that applied
in my sixth grade history course -- if you take some notes on an index
card, keep track of their origin, and verify afterwards that you
didn't even inadvertently copy the original's phrasing -- and applies
about the same to any _published_ material irrespective of what
license may be attached.  (Trade secrets are a different story.)

> This seems to boil down to "once you've looked at GPL code that does
> something, you're forever banned from writing anything similar to it
> under another license".  I hope I'm not the only one that finds that
> questionable.  And no, it doesn't go against the intent of the GPL;
> the GPL is intended to lock a piece of software into itself, not whole
> programmers.

The GPL-as-an-instrument-of-law ensures that an implementation deeded
into the commons remains there as it evolves, and that forks can take
place when the current maintainers go off in a direction that doesn't
meet other people's needs.  The GPL-as-an-instrument-of-subversion is
another story, and some people would have you believe that its intent
is indeed to divide the world into free-software altruists and
benighted greedheads who mustn't be permitted to build on any
functionality provided by or knowledge obtained from a GPL work. 
Choose your worldview, I suppose.

> I've seen a whole lot of GPL'd code.  It's awfully hard to make money
> writing GPL'd code.  Should I be looking for a new career?

It's not so hard to make money writing code for a specialized purpose
(such as a scalability test harness for a telecoms company's product)
and offering GPL terms as a "square deal" between consultant (who can
reuse the code elsewhere) and client (who can hire someone else for
the next proposal cycle).  It's not even that hard to wear a "free
software" face for PR purposes and still monopolize the market for
tech support, customization services, and license to embed within a
more complex product.  What looks hard from where I'm sitting is to
make the former scale beyond three guys in a garage, or to retain your
soul in the course of the latter.

- Michael

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