Torvalds dodges GPLv3's 18-wheeler?

Some Talkback regulars noted that Torvalds may dodge the GPLv3 bullet because so little of the Linux kernel is dependent on third-party libraries. Unfortunately, that doesn't change the fact that, in the real world, every Linux distribution will be bound by the GPLv3 copyright rules.
Written by John Carroll, Contributor

In my previous post, I discussed some reasons why Linus Torvalds is so annoyed with the GPLv3 process, which are a) Linux will have to adhere to GPLv3 restrictions due to reliance on GPLv3 subcomponents, and b) the market for Linux in an important and growing part of the software economy (systems that handle DRM-controlled media) will be blocked through self-imposed regulations. In response, Edward Myers and John Le'Brecage made some important points. They noted that Linus Torvalds only maintains control over the kernel, and that that doesn't use very many third party libraries.

If true, that does mitigate the risk that Torvalds will be forced to follow licensing rules for sub-components that are licensed under GPLv3. Unfortunately, it only mitigates it. It does not remove the risk entirely.

Yagotta B. Kidding (another frequent Talkbacker, and just so no one is confused, does NOT agree with me, EVER, so don't view this as his endorsement) did note that some of those components are the GNU C/C++ compiler and a tool knowns as GNU binutils, both of which are 100% certain to move completely to GPLv3 (for new versions) given that it is a product the copyright for which is owned by the Free Software Foundation (author of GPLv3). Those seem rather important to Linux. Furthermore, I'd be surprised if other libraries hadn't managed to wind their way into the kernel - libraries which may be covered in future under a GPLv3 license. I've dealt with companies that claimed they were author of all the code in a particular piece of software shortly before I was handed several pages of copyright attribution as part of a licensing agreement.

Of course, Linux IS a big centrally controlled product, and someone must have an accurate accounting of all subcomponents used (I hope). I'm going to assume for the moment that John and Edward are correct, and that it IS possible for the Linux KERNEL to be free of the need to respect GPLv3 licensing terms that bubble up from subcomponents.

Mitigating the problem by defining Linux down to the kernel (which is factually correct) ignores the fact that every shipping distribution of Linux, which includes MUCH more than simply the kernel, has MANY more library dependencies, many of which will move (either voluntarily or by accident, see previous) to GPLv3.

This means that every currently shipping version of Linux would have to adhere to the terms of GPLv3 (if I USE a library, I'm not allowed to use that library in ways incompatible with its license) unless a massive effort is undertaken to remove these dependencies, or else someone creates a GPLv2 fork.

Barring such an effort, then from a practical standpoint, the economic consequences detailed in my previous post still apply, whether or not Linux (and Linus) manages to dodge the GPLv3 bullet at the kernel level.

In other words, Torvalds MIGHT be able to squeeze through the free software gauntlet and keep the kernel under GPLv2. He might as well have been forced to make the move, however, because practically speaking, every distribution will be bound indirectly by the restrictions of the GPLv3...

...which means they cannot be used to create a proper DRM content playback system.

How long do you think TiVo will continue to be a Linux-based product?

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