by on April 13, 2007

Last week, Mark Blafkin said:

There is a loophole (that Stallman hasn’t found a way to close yet) in the GPL that allows distributors to ship proprietary binaries on the same CD as free software, but they can’t be part of the same program/system. The GPL is designed to make it as difficult possible (and GPLv3 more so) to run both proprietary and free software at the same time.

Now, Merriam-Webster defines a “loophole” as “an ambiguity or omission in the text through which the intent of a statute, contract, or obligation may be evaded.” With that in mind, here is the relevant provision of GPL v2:

Mere aggregation of another work not based on the Program with the Program (or with a work based on the Program) on a volume of a storage or distribution medium does not bring the other work under the scope of this License.

Now, as it states above, the term “loophole” describes an interpretation of a contract that is contrary to the intention of its drafters. If the ability to distribute free and proprietary software side-by-side on a CD is a “loophole,” it’s mighty hard to explain why they would have added a provision that explicitly permits such distribution.

But whether that was a loophole or not, at least Stallman is working hard to close it, right? Well, here’s the latest version of the GPL 3 draft:

A compilation of a covered work with other separate and independent works, which are not by their nature extensions of the covered work, in or on a volume of a storage or distribution medium, is called an “aggregate” if the compilation and its resulting copyright are not used to limit the access or legal rights of the compilation’s users beyond what the individual works permit. Inclusion of a covered work in an aggregate does not cause this License to apply to the other parts of the aggregate.

This is a bit wordier, but it seems to me that the intent is no less clear: the GPL specifically and deliberately permits distributors to “ship proprietary binaries on the same CD as free software.” Blafkin either doesn’t know what a loophole is, or didn’t bother to read and understand the GPL before criticizing it.

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