A rapidly proliferating software license bars use by companies with poor labor practices

Originally published at: https://boingboing.net/2019/04/04/bytedance-alibaba.html


[I]t’s only a matter of time for open source software to add clauses that block out anyone who doesn’t hold the same ideological stance as its author.

Oh dude. Let me introduce you to the GPL.

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Do tell. The GPL isn’t ideology-free(though it’s not clear that any license is; commercial licenses tend to explicitly or implicitly endorse a vision of software as a commodity distributed according to the logic of profit maximization; while BSD/MIT/Apache endorse either(depending on the user) a very definite distaste for any licensing terms that aren’t more or less unavoidable, or a pragmatic bet that ubiquity will be more advantageous than higher rates of reciprocity); but its restrictions on the ideology of the user are pretty tepid.

It explicitly avoids any mandates concerning use(either purpose of project, profit/nonprofit, etc. or user: individual, educational, private sector state entity); and the only restriction it imposes is that you must afford anyone you distribute the derived binaries to the same rights you enjoyed(which is an ideological stance; but one that makes ideological policing harder: GPL compliance prevents you from denying the code to users or uses you don’t like).

The GPL3 and AGPL pay a bit more attention to use; but still not to restrict it; just to ensure that tivoization or cloud services that don’t ‘distribute’ in the conventional sense aren’t end runs around the requirements.

That’s pretty low on the ideology police scale.


More importantly than what the OSI thinks, this seems unlikely to be a Free software licence (in the sense of being FSF-approved/approvable).

Also, companies with poor labour practices presumably also don’t care too much about licence violations.

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If your ‘hard ideological stance’ notion is “you’re free to use, modify, and distribute this code as you like as long you don’t take away the freedom of other users to use, modify, and distribute the code”, you might want to re-evaluate your choices. It’s really “basic human decency” level.


And yet its viral clause, is by design, an attempt to make all code correspond to to RMS’s view of how software should be developed. By trying to dismiss it as “basic human decency”, really is not giving it, its due, since the viral clause is the single most controversial clause in software licenses in decades. It is why the the LGPL exists! It’s why pretty much every license that isn’t BSD exists. It’s why it’s called “open source” and not the intentionally confusing and too cute by half, “Free software”.

The viral clause wasn’t an accident. It was an intentional radical political statement. Even RMS says so. Not only that, but he takes it further to argue that the watered down viral clause, is the reason not to use the LGPL, a license he helped create!

Your point?




This reminds me of the original license to JSLint. It had to be used “for Good, not Evil”.

(Un-)surprisingly, most large companies refused to use the otherwise ground-breaking software because they didn’t know if they were being evil or not.



The viral part is only to prevent what one person has opened from being closed by another. RMS doesn’t like lots of things (Coca-Cola company, for instance), but he doesn’t (unlike in the licence discussed in the main story) build his dislike of those things into any GPL licences. None of them say “cannot by used by the Coca-Cola company”.

I’ve surely been around longer than you, and understand the history of various licences, GPL, MIT, BSD, etc. Rather than trying to sound clever, you’d better to take your own advice.


I think this is a less-than-great idea. It might sound good on the surface, but, from a practical perspective, a lot of people and organizations are going to be reluctant to contribute to something like this, or use it, because of almost inevitable hassles down the line.

Stallman has already addressed this kind of thing specifically:

The freedom to run the program means the freedom for any kind of person or organization to use it on any kind of computer system, for any kind of overall job and purpose, without being required to communicate about it with the developer or any other specific entity. In this freedom, it is the *user's* purpose that matters, not the *developer's* purpose; you as a user are free to run the program for your purposes, and if you distribute it to someone else, she is then free to run it for her purposes, but you are not entitled to impose your purposes on her.

and you don’t even have to be a wild-eyed GPL fanatic t agree with this. This much is fundamental to all free software.


It literally only says to follow your local labor laws, what’s the problem

Don’t underestimate the power of a mere declaration. Abolition of slavery started from less. Stephen Pinker tracked the decline in all manner of vile practices, judicial torture and so forth - and all of them declined nearly everywhere from within, not by force. They just became more and more unpopular. It’s about speaking out.

Stephen Pinker is not a historian, so I’d be wary of his conclusions with regards to historical phenomenon. Maybe consult some historian’s accounts of the slave trade instead. AS the civil war was happening, southern slave owners were looking for ways to preserve it. Nor should we underestimate the role of the Tsar’s ending of serfdom at a stroke in eventually leading to the end of the monarchy in the early 20th century. It was likely easier to get some nobles on board who were seeing themselves as a class in decline because of the massive loss of wealth due to the end of serfdom (because as Gogol noted, serfs were a form of wealth in Tsarist Russia).

And let’s not forget that there are more slaves TODAY then in any other time in history, sometimes in all but name. So, no slavery has not ended every where. You’ve likely seen or met someone who is either currently enslaved or was at one point in some form of slavery going about your everyday life, and not even realized it.

Speaking out helps and should be part of the process, but sometimes, you need more than that to end a practice of brutality and violence that benefits a group who dominate the monopoly on violence. Even a cursory review of history will tell us that. History is not progress, though it can be, it’s far more messy and complicated, and we have to do more than just assume things will get better IF we do want them to get better.

[ETA] To bring it back to the issue at hand, one of the ways that the GPL has been enforced is through the courts… Ebon Moglen has gone to court in the past to sue people violating the GPL and won. So, it’s NOT just the declaration, rather it’s the structures of our society which help to enforce it. Nothing happens in a vacuum.


I was more thinking of the structural advantage given to companies that follow the law vs ones that refuse, but you do have a solid point

Stephen Pinker writes ‘Whig histories’, which start with the assumption that things improve over time. So in this case that means assuming the conclusion.


I worked for one. It wasn’t like that all the time, but in hindsight, the 70-hour work weeks were too common to be “emergencies.”

The aformentioned company didn’t.

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I’ve always thought of BSD/MIT/Apache licenses as being made by idealists, while the GPL is what happens after idealism meets the rest of the world.


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