[R] licensing of R packages

Berwin A Turlach berwin at maths.uwa.edu.au
Fri Nov 14 20:15:12 CET 2008

G'day Duncan,

On Fri, 14 Nov 2008 13:37:20 -0500
Duncan Murdoch <murdoch at stats.uwo.ca> wrote:

> What is so special about binaries?  

First, with binaries it is (presumably) easier to define when one piece
of software is part of another.

Secondly, I presume that the software that started this thread is a
binary, though I have not downloaded it.

> 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.  

Not at all, see:


Last time I checked, R is a programming language interpreter. :)

> So lots of the R packages on CRAN that do not have GPL compatible
> licenses would be in violation of the GPL,

Not at all.  As per the above cited FAQ item, there would be no problem
with the interpreted R code; there could be problem with compiled code
linked into R.  But as soon as that code can also be compiled and run
without R, there would be no problem. 

> and since CRAN is distributing them, CRAN is in violation of the GPL.
> That's nonsense.

You might find that many things that you think are nonsense are taken
deadly serious by lawyers. ;-)
> 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:
> http://www.fsf.org/licensing/licenses/gpl-faq.html#CanIUseGPLToolsForNF

Could you please explain how you come to this opinion?  As far as I
know, if you write a C/C++ program that makes use of GNU extensions,
that program will be still linked to the same system libraries as a
program that does not make use of such extensions.  Or is a program
that uses GNU extensions all of a sudden linked to /usr/lib/libgnuspecial ?

> although they do (incorrectly, in my opinion) make the same claim as
> you about libraries:
> http://www.fsf.org/licensing/licenses/gpl-faq.html#IfLibraryIsGPL

Given the track history of the FSF of defending the GPL, I am afraid I
will go rather with their opinion than yours. :)  In particular since
their opinions were formed with input from lawyers as far as I can tell.

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

Not at all, read the complete FAQ, especially the part I mention above
about interpreted languages.

> > Thus, on one hand I agree with you, I have never heard that [...]
> > 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. [...]
> 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.

Well, from what I read it showed that the offenders didn't like their
chances of taking the risk of going to court.  So they must have come
to the conclusion that there is some legal basis.

I guess the only way of knowing for sure would be if you commit such a
violation, refuse to stop doing so, don't settle out of court and decide
go to court.  That would probably settle once and for all whether there
is a legal basis for that argument.  And you would be doing the
free-software community a great favour by having this issue finally
tested in a law of court, decided and laid to rest.  But please don't
be offended if my money is on you loosing the case. :)



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