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From Marvin Humphrey <mar...@rectangular.com>
Subject Compliance costs for different licenses
Date Tue, 22 Mar 2011 01:09:13 GMT

In some informal private conversations on licensing, I've taken to describing
the GPL as "more costly" to comply with than the Apache License or other
permissive licenses.  I'd like to make sure that I understand the enforcement
mechanisms properly so that I may describe the situation accurately and avoid
spreading FUD, especially if I start making such claims in public.

Say that a company distributes a proprietary, closed source application which
bundles both an Apache-licensed library and a GPL'd library, without crediting
either.  This action violates both licenses.

If I understand correctly, the legal avenues available to the copyright
holders for the two libraries are the same.  In both cases, it's straight-up
copyright infringement once the licenses are violated:


Both copyright holders have the right to get an injunction issued which forces
distribution of the offending application to cease.  Both have the right to
reimbursement of court costs, etc.  

However, assume for the purposes of argument that the priority of the
copyright holders is for the application vendor to modify their distribution
so that it complies with the relevant license.  (A big assumption, considering
all the civil remedies available in cases of copyright infringement.)  This is
where the "cost" of conformance diverges.

To satisfy the Apache License, the vendor will have to start crediting the
copyright holder properly -- a relatively inexpensive action.  However, to
comply with the GPL, there are two options, both costly.  

The first option is for the vendor to publish the source code of their
proprietary application and allow distribution under the GPL.  Note that the
copyright holder for the GPL'd library cannot *force* the app vendor to open
up their code -- it's just one way to bring the offending distribution into

The other option is to purge the GPL'd library and all work "derived" from it
from the app.  Presumably purging the GPL'd library will involve some amount
of development effort.  Purging all "derived" materials presents the
additional challenge of accounting for what is "derived", as there is
substantial disagreement as to what constitutes a derivative work in software
that the US court system has yet to resolve.

(Of course you never want it to get to the point of a lawsuit, and hopefully
your real costs as an app vendor accrue in ongoing efforts to avoid

How close is my understanding to the reality?


Marvin Humphrey

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