[R] licensing of R packages

Duncan Murdoch murdoch at stats.uwo.ca
Fri Nov 14 19:37:20 CET 2008

On 11/14/2008 1:14 PM, Berwin A Turlach wrote:
> G'day Duncan,
> On Fri, 14 Nov 2008 12:36:15 -0500
> Duncan Murdoch <murdoch at stats.uwo.ca> wrote:
>> On 11/14/2008 11:57 AM, Carlos Ungil wrote:
>> > 
>> > And the copyright owners have recourse to legal action if they
>> > think there is a license violation. Again, I don't know what a
>> > court would decide, but if you want to test the limits of the GPL
>> > license I would avoid challenging a GNU project :-)
>> Actually, I think that's an ideal situation.  There is a lot of fear
>> and doubt about using GPL'd software, because of worries like yours.
>> But the FSF has the resources to follow up in cases where there are
>> actual violations, and they have won several.
> What do you mean with "won several"?  As far as I remember from reading
> an interview of Eben Moglen, in most cases the violator backed down and
> it ddi not come to a law suit.  From what I read, I think the FSF was
> only involved in one case that actually went to court, perhaps two; but
> I could be wrong.
> However, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harald_Welte attributes to Harald
> Welte the creation of http://gpl-violations.org and with prosecuting
> "violators of the GPL, which had been untested in court until then".
> And as I mentioned early, the FSF does not seem to be the copyright
> holder of the GSL, so it is not clear whether it can become active.
> But perhaps it can, it is not clear to me whether Harald Welte was the
> copyright holder in the cases that he pursued.
>> The way to lose a GPL lawsuit is to incorporate GPL'd code into your
>> own project, and then not follow the GPL when you redistribute.
>> There's evidence of that.
>> But I've never heard of anyone linking to but not distributing GPL'd 
>> code and being sued for it, let alone losing lawsuits over it.
>> That's evidence enough for me that it is a safe thing to do.
> I rather think it is evidence that nobody who has done such a thing was
> willing to let it come to a lawsuit but rather decided to settle the
> matter before it reached court.  Probably because the advice that they
> got from their own lawyers was that they were on a sure loser and
> should settle instead, with the settlement being much cheaper.  As I
> understand it, the FSF never went for punitive damages and was just
> happy with the offender rectifying his/her way in the future and
> adhering to her/his obligation under the GPL.
> In my opinion, but IANAL, it is pretty obvious that if your binary has
> to be linked against some GPL'd software to make it work and this is the
> only way of making your binary work, then your binary is a derivative
> work of that GPL'd software.  Hence, if you want to distribute your
> binary, you are bound to the GPL.

What is so special about binaries?  By your line of reasoning (which I 
don't agree with), if you write an R script, making use of features of R 
that are not present in other S dialects, then the only way to make it 
work would be to use R.  So if you want to distribute it, you would need 
to GPL it.  So lots of the R packages on CRAN that do not have GPL 
compatible licenses would be in violation of the GPL, and since CRAN is 
distributing them, CRAN is in violation of the GPL.  That's nonsense.

Moreover, if you write a C/C++ program that makes use of GNU extensions, 
you'd be in violation of the GPL if you were to distribute it without 
GPLing it.  Even the FSF doesn't believe that:


although they do (incorrectly, in my opinion) make the same claim as you 
about libraries:


The argument in the latter FAQ does seem to imply that R scripts must be 
GPL'd, and again:  that's nonsense.

Duncan Murdoch

> Thus, on one hand I agree with you, I have never heard that "of anyone
> linking to but not distributing GPL'd code and being sued for it, let
> alone losing lawsuits over it".  On the other hand I do seem to remember
> hearing about people who distributed binaries-only software, that needed
> to be linked against software under GPL to work, being talked to by the
> FSF and agreeing to stop their behaviour.  Anybody knows if there is an
> archive for gnu.misc.discuss for the early to mid '90s so that I can
> try to refresh my memory?

And I've heard of people receiving letters from copyright holders asking 
them to stop making fair use of copyrighted materials, and they 
complied.  So what?  That just shows that intimidation works, it doesn't 
show that there is a legal basis for the intimidation.

Duncan Murdoch

> Cheers,
> 	Berwin

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