Is GPL so Viral? – The New Phase of OSS License Enforcement and Compliance

This post was first published on 20th March, 2011.
General Public License (GPL) is one of the most stringent open source licenses. Being a license created by Free Software Foundation, it may be termed as a strong copyleft license. One of the primary objectives of the license is to spread the philosophy of free software foundation to make source code available for copying, use, modification and distribution. Any derivative work of a software governed by GPL will also be governed by GPL and source code must be made available during distribution. Programs that are integrated with software governed by GPL are considered to be derivative works of the GPL software if they have atleast a part of the said software integrated into them.
Dynamic linking and other modes of integrating a program with GPL software that makes both the programs independent are considered to be mechanisms that would keep a program away from GPL conditions. Free Software Foundation and proponents of the copyleft movement have always expressed reservations with respect to such an interpretation and always emphasize that any software integrated with a GPL software would also be governed by GPL’s terms and conditions. Google is now facing an allegation from one of such proponents. Mr. Edward Naughton is alleging that Google’s Android uses 2.5 MB of the Linux system and by not making the Android programs available under GPL is violating the terms and conditions of the license. He is arguing that integration of header files from Linux into Android and calling for functions from a Linux library amounts to integrating GPL software in a manner that makes the entire work governed by GPL. By making the software available under permissive licenses such as BSD and Apache, Mr. Edward points that Google is violating terms of GPL.
Use of header files is generally considered as permissive usage without attracting the conditions of GPL. A work that uses a header file is generally not considered to be a derivative work of the original software. If Google’s usage is considered to be a violation of GPL, it could have a telling impact on the way GPL software can be used by businesses. As it stands today, this is just an allegation from an individual and Google’s response to the same is awaited. If the Free Software Foundation and other developers decide to pursue this case in a court, the decision will definitely throw some light on the meaning of a derivative work under GPL.
As I have been pointing out on SINAPSE in my earlier posts, this is a new phase of Open Source Software (OSS) enforcement. The eyes watching for OSS violation are not just those of developers, free software foundation and their agencies. Users and individuals are taking the cause forward through social enforcement. Though OSS violations rarely go to the court, their exposition has definitely prompted companies like Microsoft and Apple to take corrective action.
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