Ignoring the GPL

It seems that the MEPIS people have finally decided to comply with the GNU GPL. You may remember this issue from the Newsforge story a month ago. Basically, the SimplyMEPIS Linux distribution, which is a derivative of Ubuntu (and was formerly a derivative of Debian) got in trouble with the FSF for not complying with the terms of the GNU GPL. Basically, while they were providing the source code for the Ubuntu packages they modified, they were not providing code for the packages they copied unmodified from Ubuntu. Apparently they figured that as long as the source is "out there," that was good enough.

However, it doesn't work that way. The fact that the source is "out there" is not enough to satisfy the terms of the GPL and it never has been. And if they'd bothered to read and understand the license, they would have known that. The GNU GPL cleary states that if you distribute binaries of GPL-licensed software, you must either include a copy of the corresponding source, whether in the same box or from the same web site, or include a written offer to distribute the source on demand. There's nothing in there that says, or even suggests, that this only applies if you make changes to the code.

The main argument from MEPIS and others seems to be that this provision of the GPL is onerus and stifles innovation. Managing all that extra source code implies a lot more work, and hosting and distribution for that code implies more expense. The idea seems to be that since the code is "out there," it's not reasonable to force all this duplicate effort on small-time Linux distributors. Why, it just might be enough to discourage many from even building their own distribution! In fact, it's even a burden on people giving out Linux CDs to their friends, since they are techically required to give out the source too! And, really, who even cares if they have the source? Just those communist GPL police!

Of course, to be honest, they have a point. Distributing source and binaries is definitely harder than distributing just the binaries. Likewise, hosting and CD replication for both source and binaries is more expensive than for just binaries. I'm sure there are some people who would be put off starting a distribution because of this.

But on the other hand, so what? The stated purpose of the GNU GPL is to make sure that anyone who receives a program licensed under it is able to change and share the program, not to make things easy for Linux distributors. Requiring that the person who distributes the binaries also distribute the source is the simplest way to accomplish this. Sure, it's more trouble for the distributor, but using the "the source is out there" approach would leave the user open to a never-ending game of "pass the buck." He'd be entitled to a copy the source, but no particular person would be obligated to actually give him a copy of it. And if that happened, then the program would be free software in name only.

I just find the whole line of reasoning put forth by MEPIS really annoying. Maybe complying with the GPL would be burdensome. Maybe their users really don't care about the source. That's not the point. The point is that they don't get to make that decision. The GPL gives you license to redistribute the software it covers under a specific set of conditions. You can abide by those terms or you can violate them and infringe on the owner's copyright. Just don't try to argue that you ought to be able to pick and choose which terms you want to follow. It doesn't work like that. A proprietary software company certainly wouldn't put up with such nonsense and I don't see any reason why the owner of a free software package should be expected to.

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