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FRAND, GPL, and Fairness

  • Tuesday, September 07 2010 @ 08:49 PM CEST
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Over at ComputerWorldUK, Glyn Moody argues that Fair, Reasonable And Non-Discriminatory...Ain't. This is an instance of a somewhat common theme among, supporters of the GPL, in essence, that it is somehow 'unfair' for software to be licenced in a way that is incompatible with the GPL.

I submit that is is not just incorrect, but indeed the very opposite of correct.

In his essay, Moody argues that "Fair, Reasonable, and Non-Discriminatory" licencing is not truly fair, because it has the effect of being incompatible with GPL-licensed software.

The trouble with a FRAND licence is that it can indeed by eminently reasonable and eminently non-discriminatory, but if it is non-zero - even if it is extremely small - it is useless for free software licences.


This means that any standard that adopts FRAND licensing automatically excludes free software; the corollary is that for a standard to be truly open - that is, open for all to use, not just those able to count and pay for copies - it must adopt royalty-free licensing (as the World Wide Web Consortium does).

I submit that this is exactly backwards, because it is not the FRAND licence that is the problem in such cases (assuming that such a license actually is Fair, Reasonable, and Non-Discriminatory -- it is possible for a licence to claim to be FRAND while in fact being unfair or unreasonable), but the GPL. As Florian Mueller points out in a comment to Moody's article, it is the GPL's restrictions that cause problems in such cases.

To understand this, consider an analogy:

Suppose I own a particularly fine BBQ restaurant. Being a BBQ restaurant, it will serve various kinds of meat. If I were to refuse to serve vegetarians, even if they liked my greens and cornbread, then I would be being unfair and discriminatory (and at least arguably unreasonable). But a reasonable restaurateur would not do such a thing, and might even highlight on the menu those items that did not contain meat or animal products, as a service to any vegetarians that might choose to visit.

But now suppose that a new organization is formed, the Free Vegetarian Foundation perhaps, and among its rules is that no member may patronise an establishment that serves meat for human consumption. In such a case, any good member of the FVF would no longer be able to enjoy my delicious greens and cornbread.

This would be unfortunate. But it would not therefore mean that I or my restaurant somehow became unfair or discriminatory (or unreasonable). After all, it is the FVF that has set the requirements for its members, not I.

Note that this has nothing at all to do with the merits of vegetarianism. It may well be that vegetarianism is indeed better both for the health of individuals and for the planet, but even if true, this does not make my restaurant unfair, even to the members of the FVF, and they have no 'fairness' claim upon which to demand that I cease serving ribs so that they may continue to enjoy my greens and cornbread.

I submit that precisely the same is true of FRAND licencing and GPL software. If someone wishes to licence software in a way compatible with the GPL, then they must bear in mind the GPL's requirements for redistribution (among others). But supporters of the GPL have no right to such compatibility, nor to demand, as Moody suggests, that the state require it.

One might well argue that it is more reasonable to want to be compatible with the GPL, as such is in some way better for one's software or the world in general. But,as in the case of vegetarianism, such is a separate issue from FRAND licencing. Even if your goal is noble, this does not mean that I am required to share it, and one might even argue that demanding that I do so share it is the very pinnacle of non-freedom.


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  • FRAND, GPL, and Fairness
  • Authored by: Glyn Moody on Thursday, September 09 2010 @ 04:18 PM CEST
Thanks for that interesting comment.

I've posted a reply underneath your comment to the original article on Computerworld UK.

Glyn Moody
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