On removing GPL code

Last week, Diego Iastrubni asked removing GPL code, prompted by MonoDevelop’s announcement that it had removed all the GPL code in its codebase, thus opening the road to proprietary plugins.

Well Diego, there’s an app organization for that. Depending on your jurisdiction, you could ask the Free Software Foundation in the United States, the Free Software Foundation Europe in Europe, the Free Software Foundation Latin America in Latin America (are you seeing a pattern here?). The FSF in the United States is the steward of the GPL (all versions) and the organization in charge of interpreting the intent of the GPL. Of course, certain matters on interpretation will end up in courts — because it is not only about the intent of the license, but also what it actually says.

There are also national centres of competence regarding licensing issues and the use of Free Software. In Finland you might want to ask COSS; in Spain, CENATIC or ASOLIF; in the Netherlands, NOiV; in the United States, the Linux Foundation. Any of those might be able to help out with this kind of question. I won’t pretend that they definitely will: it depends on the context and workload and whether the question makes sense in their context.

Fortunately, an organization like FSFE has education and information provision written into its constitution (but not its budget: support the FSFE to help it continue to help you and the rest of the Free Software world). So here’s an attempt at an answer — which does not constitute legal advice and which does not constitute an interpretation of the GPL.

So let’s follow through Diego’s question:

I have this application which I license under the terms of BSD, and I saw a GPL library (lets call it libbar ) which might help me. I incorporate the library by dinamic linking. Now my application is effectly a GPL binary, sweet.

It is vitally important to distinguish between source and object forms of the software here, as well as keeping track of mechanisms of linking. Let’s try to strip this down to a bare minimum number of components. A program A written entirely by you using no external (third-party) components and released by you under the terms of the 2-clause BSD license. That’s fine. Now suppose you modify your application to use an interface provided by a GPL library (like libbar, in Diego’s example). Does that make your program a work that must be licensed under the GPL? Maybe. Does that make the object form of the program linked to GNU readline a work that can only be distributed under the terms of the GPL? Yes. So you must ship the object with the text of the GPL, with a source code offer (either the complete source or a written offer, as usual). Still, the sources retain the license that you originally put on them (BSD 2-clause, which is GPL-compatible, so this is possible).

Now you replace libbar (the GPL library) with a newly written, 2-clause BSD-licensed, libbar_bsd. It might implement the same API as libbar, or it might implement a slightly different one and you modify your application A accordingly. Does that change the licensing possibilities that you have? Yes. you can release A under the 2-clause BSD license — again, keeping in mind other obligations you might have. If you were forced to re-license the source under the GPL (see Maybe, above), then there may be issues. If you are the sole copyright holder, then of course you can re-license. But you need to double-check any contributions you may have received to the codebase. With the new A, you can release object versions including libbar_bsd, under the 2-clause BSD license.

Lets assume, my application uses (derives classes, whatever) code from libbar. If I remove the GPL code and change it by BSD code – my work even though it does not contain GPL code – it’s a derived work, due to compile time constrains. Am I correct?

I think this scenario has two different interpretations: if A uses functions from the library then — like I said previously — the object is definitely GPL licensed and the source might need to be. But if you actually have derived classes and modified code from libbar, then it’s going to be a great deal more difficult, because your source is in itself a derived work. I’m not sure how to understand the “remove the GPL code” here: if there is no GPL source code in the application and it doesn’t link to any GPL libraries in object form then there’s no reason that the GPL need apply.

Let’s look at Diego’s other scenario:

Lets assume that libbar, uses abstract classes/methods from libfoo (which is BSD). Lets assume that my application uses the interfaces exposed in libfoo, then libbar extends those interfaces, and I am not directly using libbar. When I use my new BSD library, my application is not compiled against any GPL code (just linked to) and it never used it directly. My old code was GPL by run-time constrains and, and the new one is BSD. Am I correct?

In this scenario, application A uses libfoo (presumably unrelated, although it apparently provides functionality to libbar), so there’s no GPL code involved at all. The parenthetical comment “(just linked to)” I don’t understand: why would the application A link to libbar at all if it doesn’t use it and libbar is en independent development?

So that leaves us with that dreaded “Maybe” from earlier. Paul Pacheco commented on Diego’s blog with exactly the right bits of the GPL — the trailer to clause 2 of the GPLv2; GPLv3 doesn’t have the same language. But perhaps even more important, the GPLv2 says:

Thus, it is not the intent of this section to claim rights or contest your rights to work written entirely by you; rather, the intent is to exercise the right to control the distribution of derivative or collective works based on the Program.

In other words, distributing your work which is both an identifiable part of the whole work and which is not derived from the GPL library (and I’ll claim that using an interface is not in itself sufficient to create a derivative work), then the source continues to be licensable however you like, but the object must be distributed under the GPL. The sources you provide that correspond to that object form must be distributed under the terms of the GPL — strange but true.

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2 Responses to On removing GPL code

  1. Pawel says:

    Maybe off topic: I hope this Mono and anti GPL lobby will end soon. It’s enough to go at planet gnome to read advertisements of MS technologies which Icaza and co. spreads.

    Good to see Linux devs are smart and they use GPL.

    • adridg says:

      Yep, that’s plenty off-topic. The FTF, however, is there to provide information about licensing: so if we’re asked whether you can remove GPL code or how linking a GPL library influences the license of an application, then we answer those.