Be careful with GPL3 software

Law.com has an article entitled Open Source Software Shows Its Muscle that talks about the perils of using open source software that uses the GPL3 license.

If one just uses some open source software with the GPL3 license on its own, it’s not an issue. The problem arises when it is tied in to other software, especially if one’s own product needs to work with some GPL3 software. Depending on how they interact, it can compromise the IP rights of your own product.

Read the article

Consumer software licences under fire

For the London Free Press – March 17, 2008

Read this on Canoe

In the United Kingdom, the National Consumer Council recently filed a complaint with the Office of Fair Trading stating that consumer software licences contain an imbalance of rights in favour of the manufacturer at the expense of the purchaser.

The complaint is about End User Licence Agreements, or EULAs. Anyone who has installed software onto their personal computer has likely entered into a EULA. This is an agreement between the software manufacturer and the purchaser who will use the software on their computer.

Usually the purchaser is bound to a EULA by way of a “click-wrap agreement,” where one must click an “I agree” icon to confirm they agree to the terms of the EULA that is presented. Click wraps are more prevalent than “shrink-wrap agreements” that are worded to bind when one opens the package.

The complaint states that EULAs can often be unfair because “consumers can’t have a clue what they’re signing up to when some terms and conditions run to 10 or more pages.”

It is also about the customer not seeing the EULA until after the software is purchased which “. . . means that consumers are unable to make informed decisions before they buy a product, yet are being forced to take on an unknown level of legal responsibility.”

The complaint names a total of 17 companies, including Microsoft, Adobe and Symantec.

It seems odd that this complaint would be raised now, since EULAs have been used for many years. And one-sided “contracts of adhesion” have been around far longer.

For example, when you buy a ticket to an event or to park in a private parking lot, you have entered into a similar agreement. The terms of these agreements are also only available after you have made your purchase, as they are usually printed on the ticket.

While is it true that the purchaser is unable to review click-wrap and shrink-wrap agreements until after they have purchased the software, it is unlikely that even when given the chance, purchasers would bother to read the agreement. Purchasers usually accept the terms without reading them and continue with the software installation.

Even if consumers did take the time to read the agreement, it would be rare for someone to decide they did not want to buy the product on those terms.

In any form of agreement where there is an inequality of bargaining power, especially when consumers are involved, there is indeed room for abuse within the agreements.

That’s why in most jurisdictions consumer protection laws will limit what terms these agreements can include. For example, in Ontario the law states that any term that requires arbitration instead of a class action will not be enforced.

And courts are not inclined to enforce provisions that they consider unreasonable or unexpected in that type of agreement.

While EULAs are often not as simple, short, and elegant as they should be, that’s more of a drafting issue than a content issue. The probable outcome of the complaint is that vendors will continue to bind consumers to EULAs, provided the agreements don’t cross the line into unusual provisions.

GPL software licence has ramifications

For the London Free Press – July 30, 2007

Read this on Canoe

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) recently released the newest version of its General Public Licence, commonly known as GPL v.3. The GPL is a common open-source licence that governs the use of certain software.

Anyone that modifies and distributes GPL-licensed software, or uses GPL-licensed software as part of its product offerings, should consider the ramifications of the new licence. There is not much to be concerned about if one is merely using software licensed under the GPL.

Open-source software is software that includes the source code, or human-written version of the software, along with the object code, or machine-written software. While it’s often available for free, the defining attribute is that the user gets the source code, which it is able to modify and distribute. The GPL is one of many open-source licences.

One part of the GPL that has carried risk for businesses using it to develop and distribute software, is that they may be obligated to provide their source code to customers, depending on how it has been done.

Version 3 contains several revisions. The most notable ones involve patents and what has been referred to as “anti-TiVoization.” Some of the language has become more legal in nature, which should make it easier to interpret. The GPL was originally drafted as a philosophy or manifesto. That meant while it was easy to understand the perspective of the licence, it was not always easy to understand how it worked in individual fact situations.

The licence contains an explicit patent grant, meaning that any entity that contributes software using the GPL grants with it a perpetual, royalty-free licence to any of its patents that apply to the software.

It also contains a provision to block future deals similar to that between Microsoft and Novell, in which Microsoft protected customers of Novell’s Suse Linux Enterprise Server from certain Microsoft patent-infringement lawsuits. Under GPL 3, if one provides patent protection to some software users, that protection is automatically extended to everyone who gets the software, no matter how.

TiVo personal video recorders use Linux, which is governed by the GPL. The GPL’s authors didn’t like that TiVo was designed to not work if someone modified the software, so they included provisions to discourage restrictions on modification.

If you obtain software using GPL 3, you are bound by it. But software creators are still able to provide their product under GPL 2, if they wish.

While this may sound complex, as with any contract, the important thing is to understand the ramifications of the GPL, or any open-source licence, before using open-source software for anything but internal purposes.

The issues can be dealt with, but they need to be considered early, as a different approach to programming and distribution may be required to meet your needs.

Small Print Project – unusual user agreements

Boing Boing points to the Small Print Project, a site that collects unusual EULA’s (End User License Agreements).

Examples include a scammer that makes you promise you are not the FTC, and print on edible paper saying you can’t make further use of it.

Of course no EULA I have created for clients would ever show up there!!??

Read the Boing Boing post

Go to the Small Print Project

Class Actions against Microsoft over WGA

Microsoft has been taking some heat over its Windows Genuine Advantage antipiracy program that checks to see if you have a valid license for Windows.

The complaint is that users were mislead and not told what the code did, and that there may be privacy issues surrounding the data that is returned.

I don’t know enough detail to provide a personal opinion on this – but consider whether it is (a) an opportunity seized by zealous class action lawyers, (b) surreptitious action by Microsoft using questionable privacy practices, or (c) somewhere in the middle.

No matter what the outcome, it illustrates the tug between companies trying to get paid for their products, the methods they use to enforce that, and whether those efforts are in the end the best way to approach the problem.

Read a PCWorld article on the lawsuit

Optimizing Microsoft licensing

ITBusiness.ca has an article about optimizing Microsoft licensing. The gist of the article is that there is money to be saved if a business takes a bit of time to sort out the software it actually does have, what it actually needs, and compares that to the various licensing programs to determine the right one.

This is true for all software, but more so for vendors like Microsoft that offer different licensing models.

The article is based on recent presentations made by the Info-Tech Research Group in various locations in Canada and the US. I was at the one in London on Friday. It was an excellent, practical presentation on both Microsoft licensing optimization, and VoIP implementation.

Read the ITBusiness article

Go to the Info-Tech Research Group site

Open source GPL version 3 draft released

The GPL is one of the most well known open source software licences. It has been described as part manifesto, and part license.

It also causes confusion in the open source and commercial worlds because of its obligation in certain circumstances to make the source code of derivative works public.

The new draft is open for comment, and is not expected to be finalized for about a year.

Take a look at the following links for the text of the draft, and some commentary. I’ll write a more detailed article for my Free Press column later.

Read the draft on the Free Software Foundation site

Read a CNet article

Read a Wired article