[R] licensing of R packages

Duncan Murdoch murdoch at stats.uwo.ca
Fri Nov 14 21:24:03 CET 2008

On 11/14/2008 2:15 PM, Berwin A Turlach wrote:
> 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:
> http://www.fsf.org/licensing/licenses/gpl-faq.html#IfInterpreterIsGPL
> 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? 

I believe your argument was that if my program can't be used without a 
library that is currently only available under the GPL, then my program 
must be considered as a derivative work, so I must license it under the 
GPL as well.

Well, if my program uses GNU extensions, it can only be used when 
compiled by gcc, which I believe is GPL'd.  So your argument would imply 
that it is a derivative work.

None of us (you, me or the FSF) think the latter argument is valid.  I 
don't see a material difference from the former argument, so I conclude 
the former argument is invalid as well.

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.

I think the complete FAQ is inconsistent.  Some of it is accurate (e.g. 
the bits that say you can use GPL'd software without GPL'ing your own 
work) and some of it is not (the parts that imply dynamic linking makes 
something a derivative work.)  The arguments used in the accurate bits 
contradict the arguments about linking.

>> > 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. :)

I wouldn't say that's the only way, but I'll be happy to do it.  Do you 
want me to link to the GSL, or something that the FSF owns?

Duncan Murdoch

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