Is license compatibility worth worrying about?

At FOSDEM last weekend I saw an excellent talk by Richard Fontana entitled Taking License Compatibility Semi-Seriously. The talk took a look at the origins of compatibility issues between free and open source software licences, how efforts have been made to either address them directly or dodge around them, and ask whether it’s worth worrying about them in the first place.  This post will summarise the talk and delve into some of the points I found most interesting.

The idea of FOSS license compatibility isn’t one that was created alongside the FOSS movements, but rather one that came about when projects started to combine code released under different licences, particularly copyleft and non-copyleft licenses.  As such, there’s no real definition of what license compatibility means, and so people tend to defer to received doctrine (such as the FSF’s list of GPL compatible licenses), or leave it up to lawyers to sort out.

Early versions of KDE and Qt created the biggest significant license compatibility issue in the FOSS world.  Qt’s original proprietary license and later the QPL under which it was relicenced were considered incompatible with the GPLv2 under which the KDE project (or at least, parts of it) were licensed.  Qt is now dual-licensed under LGPL or a commercial proprietary license which fixes this incompatibility, but the FSF also suggest a remedy whereby a specific exception is added to the QPL allowing differently-licensed software to be treated under the terms of the GPL.

Another common incompatibility issue with FOSS licenses has arisen where projects have wanted to combine GPLv2 code with ASLv2 code. The FSF consider the patent termination and indemnification provisions in ASLv2 to make it incompatible with GPLv2, however they believed these provisions to be a good thing so ensured that GPLv3 was compatible with it.  Indeed, the GPLv3 went on to codify what it meant for another license to be compatible with it.

While this means at first glance that only code explicitly licensed as GPLv3 and ASLv2 can be used together while GPLv2 and ASLv2 cannot, this isn’t necessarily the case.  The FSF encouraged projects to license their code “GPLv2 or later“, in the hope that when future versions of the license were released, they would be encouraged to transition to the new license and in doing so benefit from features such as ASLv2 compatibility.  However, this method of licensing can be interpreted as “GPLv2 with the option to treat it as GPLv3 instead”, meaning that for the purposes of compatibility it can be treated to be GPLv3, while remaining “GPLv2 or later”.

This has the opposite effect of the FSF’s intention by encouraging projects to remain “GPLv2 or later” for the added flexibility it provides while avoiding forcing licensees to be bound by parts of GPLv3 that either party may not like.

While the above trick won’t work for code licensed “GPLv2 only“, a similar thing is possible for code licensed “LGPLv2 only“.  As the LGPLv2 is intended for library code, it contains a clause allowing you to re-license the code to GPLv2 or any later version, in case you wanted to include it in non-library software.  This means that you could, for the purposes of compatibility, treat the code as GPLv3.  The Artistic License 2.0 and EUPL contain similar re-licensing clauses.

What all of this shows us is that while it’s a complex issue, it’s a somewhat artificial one, and there’s all sorts of tricks one can use to circumvent it.  In practice, these compatibility “rules” are rarely followed, and rarely enforced.

In response to this, Richard Fontana suggests that we borrow the idea of “duck typing” from programming to make our lives easier.  If a FOSS project wants to combine some code under the GPL with code under a more permissive, possibly incompatible license, as long as they’re willing to follow the convention of distributing the source as though it was all GPL, the community still gets the benefit without the additional headache of worrying over which bits are allowed to be combined with which.