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GPL warrants heightened attention

Vendors and enterprise developers must read the fine print in the General Public License that governs Linux, otherwise their business could be in jeopardy.

TORONTO -- The beauty of the open source software community -- and the General Public License that governs Linux and open source -- is that innovation must be shared with the community.

This can also cause a bevy of sleepless nights for vendors, IT managers, developers and enterprise bean counters.

But what if you don't modify, but are making only a system call at runtime to a library? This is the stuff that makes people crazy.
Arshia Tabrizi
 technology transactional lawyer

Reciprocal, or "copyleft", provisions in the GPL give the license a viral aspect said Arshia Tabrizi, a technology transactional lawyer based in Toronto Wednesday at the Real World Linux Conference and Expo.

Essentially, there are two viral elements to the GPL that mandate a developer must distribute their source code with modifications back to the open source community and that sublicensing rights are passed along with those modifications, Tabrizi said.

"If you're building some proprietary code, and you use a GPL library, your proprietary code now falls under the GPL and must be returned with no royalties coming your way," Tabrizi said. "Your business could quickly go down the drain."

Licensing, copyright and patent issues have been a front-line issue for the open source community during the last year since the SCO Group filed its suit against IBM and subsequently challenged whether the validity of the GPL.

Re-enforcing those concerns were the results of a Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) survey of Canadian IT managers released yesterday that put licensing issues atop the list of concerns for decision makers.

"If you're an end user, the code is yours and you're in the clear. Issues arise if you are distributing your code or are a vendor," Tabrizi said. "This is where the GPL causes a lot of sleepless nights."

Modifications to GPL source code bring a broad definition of a derivative work into play.

"If [GPL] code is in an application, the Free Software Foundation doesn't care if it's a static link or a dynamic link to a GPL library for example. They say it's a modification and you must disclose your source code," Tabrizi said. "But what if you don't modify, but are making only a system call at runtime to a library? This is the stuff that makes people crazy."

The GPL has not been tested in court, but the Free Software Foundation has taken steps to avoid these issues with he issuance of the LGLP or Lesser GPL.

"It's the Free Software Foundation's solution to the copyleft provision of the GPL," Tabrizi said. "You don't have to disclose your source code if you're using a LGPL dynamically linked library."

Development and network engineering manager Daniel A. Puckett spent a year developing a new application for his locally based enterprise Distributel Communications Ltd, a long-distance telephone service provider. All of it was proprietary, save for a few GPL-licensed header files.

Always lurking in the back of his mind was this fear that his use of the header files would force him to return his proprietary source code to the open source community under the GPL -- a potential nightmare for a company.

Puckett said he feels a little less concerned that his work has been "contaminated"

"The GPL was drafted by non-lawyers," Tabrizi said. "A lot of these issues have not been addressed yet."

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