Software Licensing – Don't Complain If You Don't Like The License

Over and over again, I hear complaints about software licensing. The two main complaints are always the same:

1) Proprietary Licenses are too restrictive.

2) The General Public License is too restrictive.

Do you see a theme here?


Software is covered by copyright. Due to the length of the copyright terms, no software that I know of has yet passed into the public domain, except some possibly written for governments.

Even if software has passed into the public domain, it probably would not be usable. Due to changes in operating systems and architecture, most software becomes obsolete long before the copyright term runs out. The main exception seems to be programs written in Cobol. Cobol is still in common use by businesses, despite many predictions of it’s imminent demise.

Most Cobol programs are considered trade secrets by the organizations that use them, and not publicly distributed.

Proprietary Licenses

Of course proprietary licenses are restrictive. The reason that corporations are supposed to exist is to maximize profits, and pay dividends to their owners (shareholders). The corporation would like to charge the maximum amount possible for the software, and if possible charge you more than once (upgrades).

And of course if you want to use the software on more than one computer, they want you to pay. Oh, and even worse, they don’t want you to be able to make any changes to the software. If you find that the software is missing a feature that you need, they don’t want you to be able to modify the software. They want you to pay for the new version that has that feature, if they decide to implement it.

Free Software Licenses

Free Software licenses are designed to ensure that the source code cannot be taken proprietary, and to attempt to maintain the user’s freedom to do whatever they want. The General Public License (GPL) is the most common Free Software license. It was recently updated to Version 3 to cover situations that didn’t exist when Version 2 was written.

A common complaint is that Free Software licenses are communistic, which they aren’t. They are communalistic, in the same tradition as a North American school or church raising.

The GPL is considered restrictive by a lot of organizations which would like to use software that uses it as a license. For one example, I was told that if the Linux Kernel moved to GPL V3 it would kill the use of the Linux Kernel in mobile phones. When I asked why they didn’t just switch to one of the BSD kernels like Apple did, the response was that the Linux Kernel was more suitable.

Open Source Licenses

And then of course there are the permissive licenses, like the MIT  and BSD licenses. Apple’s Mac OS X is based on a BSD kernel, as is the IPhone/IPad. Permissive licenses are designed to allow the software to be freely used.

Permissive licenses are often used to promulgate code implementing a new standard, so that both Proprietary and Free Software packages implement the standard in the same way.

Licensing Complaints

Whenever you hear a complaint about a license, you are hearing a complaint that the author of the software (whether corporate, individual, or foundation), is working in their own best interests, not the best interests of the complainer. No one is forcing the complainer to use the software (I’m not going to get into a discussion of Microsoft’s anti-competitive actions here). If they don’t like the license that the software uses, they have the option of searching for another package that does use a license they like, write their own software, or do without.

The above line usually draws screams of outrage. Why shouldn’t someone be free to use the software however they want?

Copyright is the answer. I have no right to buy a copy of Microsoft Windows and install it on multiple computers, unless I buy multiple copies. Microsoft has a right to require me to do this. In the same vein, Microsoft can’t use the Linux Kernel, unless Microsoft is willing to abide by the license that the Linux Kernel is licensed under. If they are willing to abide by the terms of the license, they can use it.

So Why Are People So Upset About Free Software?

Two reasons:

1) They can’t make money out of it.

2) It’s a competitive threat.

3) The licenses are solid, Free Software always wins in court.

This is why Microsoft, Adobe, et al are so fiercely opposed to ‘Free Software.’ They can’t lock it down. They can’t stop it. Even if every programmer working on every Free Software project simultaneously disappeared, the projects could restart tomorrow. The code is out there, and the Free Software licenses lock the proprietary software corporations out. Companies like IBM, that deal in services love Free Software. It allows them to sell their services for less than if they had to pay one of the proprietary software companies. IBM has a lot of programmers working on Free Software projects. It pays for IBM to do this.

So Free Software is competition. If everyone used Free Software, the proprietary software companies would be out of business. In fact the damage is already being done, applications like are taking a lot of business from them. It has been suggested that Microsoft’s abandonment of Office Genuine Advantage is a attempt to get more people to pirate Microsoft Office.

So you get complaints that Free Software is communism, or that it’s not Constitutional (I’m not kidding, Darl McBride while he was President and CEO of The SCO Group wrote a letter to the U.S. Congress claiming this). The real problem is that it’s competition – unfair competition from the point of view of the proprietary software companies. If they had their choice, competition would be illegal.

Curiously you also get a lot of complaints from programmers. Programmers, if anyone, should understand that license is a personal choice. Every programmer that starts a project, makes a choice. Anyone who wants to use the project later, has a choice. Either they accept the license, find another project with a license that they can accept, or start a project themselves.

Live With The License

Or Write Your Own

Think about it folks. If you want people to respect what you are doing, you have to respect what they are doing. This is Microsoft’s big issue. Time and time again they’ve proved that they don’t respect Free Software licenses, and then they wonder why the Free Software community has little respect for them.

If you can’t live with something, do something (or help fund someone) to do something about it. If you aren’t willing to do that, stop complaining.


Wayne Borean

Tuesday December 21, 2010


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