Another test for the GPL

You may have seen that another interesting legal wrinkle has popped up for the General Public Licence, the open source intellectual property agreement that holds so much of the movement together.This time, a developer going by the name of Inkling has announced that he is withdrawing two packages from the GPL and everyone's got to stop using them at once.

You may have seen that another interesting legal wrinkle has popped up for the General Public Licence, the open source intellectual property agreement that holds so much of the movement together.

This time, a developer going by the name of Inkling has announced that he is withdrawing two packages from the GPL and everyone's got to stop using them at once. He doesn't say why or give any other details.

The two packages in question, atscap and pchdtvr, are used for capturing and manipulating Americna standard high-definition TV, and thus play in a part of the forest heavily populated by big companies and fairly intensive patent issues. Thus, best guesses from the usual Groklawian and Slashdotty sources is that some sort of cease and desist has been ladled out to the programmer in question, who is busy trying to deflect the consequences. Perhaps Inkling works for a company in that line of work, which has discovered his GPL output and is unimpressed, or perhaps he's been given a job offer that depends on him taking his work with him.

All these things are possible, as is an entire spectrum of who's done what that's wrong or right. These details will be revealed over time.

The most interesting and pressing issue, though, is what the implications are for the GPL.

First, you can't unilaterally remove any licence, just like that, unless the licence allows it. The GPL does not. There is a provision in US law that does allow a licence to be removed by the IP owner despite everything, but as far as I can see it needs around 35 years to operate.

Second, you can't GPL something that isn't yours to GPL. Of course, the GPL exists precisely to remove such restrictions: by releasing something under it, you guarantee to everyone that they are free to release further software incorporating some or all of the original code - providing only that it, too, is issued under the GPL. If it's proved that stuff in a GPL belongs to someone else and was originally incorrectly licensed, then you can't use it - SCO's Big Idea.

Third, the GPL is not responsible for people who use it wrongly. If I were to decompile Microsoft Office, change a few details and reissue it under the GPL as Goodwinsoft Bureau, then it would have no effect on anything other than my career and sanity.

Thus, the worst that can happen is that the GPL is removed from the code not because of a random whim from Inkling -- that's not in their power -- but because it was incorrectly issued in the first place. Any packages that use these components will have to be withdrawn from distribution until they can be cleansed, preferably by the production of replacement packages that don't have legal issues.

That's fine, and exactly what the open source movement needs to happen. For that, though, there has to be clarity about what's going on - mysterious threats and untraceable pressures are common weapons against the open movement, and the best defence is openness. Since the year dot, the message has been 'show us what's wrong and we'll willingly fix it' - and here's another chance to underline that key thought.

In general, this is a good opportunity to further entrench the ground rules of responsibility, openness and thoughtfulness which have done the movement so much good in the past decade or so.

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