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Inside the GPL

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Many people use the terms open source and free software interchangeably (they're not the same thing) and have no real comprehension of what the GNU General Public License (GPL) has to do with, well, anything. David Gulbransen clarifies these concepts, and explains why you probably don't actually own any software you've bought. Seriously!
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The open source software movement is debated a lot these days. As governments, companies, and individuals struggle to find the balance between well-written software and controlling costs, many have turned to "free" or "open source" software solutions such as Linux to obtain functionality and features previously offered only in proprietary software products.

Advocates of the open source movement claim that in an open source world, everyone wins. Consumers get quality software, presumably at reasonable prices, and gain access to the source code of the applications, which gives the consumer a greater degree of control over those applications than with proprietary software that is "closed source."

Opponents of the open source movement argue that open source software creates disincentives for software developers to create new software, because the requirement of sharing the source code makes it more difficult for developers to protect their intellectual property and to profit from the resale of their work product.

In this great debate, who's right? Who's wrong? That's the answer most people are seeking. Is there really a "free lunch" when it comes to software licensing? Or is the old adage of "You get what you pay for" true in software? Frankly, there is no easy answer. But, as in most situations where two groups of extremists blast each other with convoluted rhetoric, the real answer is probably smack dab in the middle.

In this article, we'll examine what's often the centerpiece of this debate: The GNU General Public License (GPL). You can read the full text of this software license on the Free Software Foundation (FSF) web site. (You always read the full text of your software licenses, don't you? If not, you should.)

CAUTION

Disclaimer: The content of this article is provided for informational purposes only. The author of this article is not a lawyer, and nothing here should be construed as legal advice. For all questions regarding legal matters, you should consult an attorney, not the World Wide Web.

Birds Do It, Bees Do It: Software Licensing

You don't own your software. That's right—the operating system on your computer, the word processor you use, the image editing program you use to take the red-eye out of birthday photos—none of it belongs to you.

"But I have a box. And a CD. And manuals. And I paid a lot of money for that software. Of course I own it!"

No, in all likelihood, you don't.

Do you remember when you bought the software package, took it home, and ripped open that envelope containing the CD-ROM for installation? The envelope probably had a lot of writing on it, in small type, and you probably didn't read it. No one ever really reads that stuff. But that writing was a critical piece of finely crafted legalese called an end user license agreement (EULA), which dictates how you're allowed to use the software. Chances are that the EULA was shown to you again during the installation process, and you had to click a button stating that you agreed to the terms.

Surely you read it in its entirety then, right?

TIP

If you're using a computer with Windows installed, your EULA is contained in a text file called eula.txt. Depending on your configuration, try going to c:\windows\system32\eula.txt, or you could just try searching your hard drive for eula.txt.

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