Richard Stallman on GPL Exceptions

by Ostatic Staff - Jan. 11, 2010

Richard Stallman raised more than a few eyebrows when he signed the letter objecting to the MySQL purchase. Endorsing, or seeming to endorse, the practice of selling proprietary exceptions to GPL'ed software seemed entirely out of character with Stallman's comments on Free Software up to that point. To clarify, Stallman has written up an essay that spells out his opinion on exceptions and when they're acceptable.

According to Stallman, it's acceptable to sell exceptions to copylefted software — but not to sell proprietary versions of a free program or to sell proprietary extension to a free program. Got all that? Here's how RMS sees the situation:

We must distinguish the practice of selling exceptions from something crucially different: proprietary extensions or proprietary versions of a free program. These two activities, even if practiced simultaneously by one company, are different issues. In selling exceptions, the same code that the exception applies to is available to the general public as free software. An extension or a modified version that is only available under a proprietary license is proprietary software, pure and simple, and no better than any other proprietary software.

If this seems an unlikely position for Stallman to take, he explains later that if he were to consider exceptions unacceptable because they allow embedding within proprietary software, then it would mean finding software under the X11 license unacceptable for the same reason. Stallman considers it "too extreme" to condemn the X11 license for allowing embedding in proprietary software, so it isn't a good reason to condemn GPL exceptions either.

What is consistent and expected is that Stallman reassures the reader that the Free Software Foundation isn't going to practice exceptions, even if he doesn't find them unacceptable.

From a more pragmatic point of view, exceptions mean — at least in theory — that more software will be released under Free Software licenses. Companies can use copyleft to work with the FLOSS community and know that other parties can either buck up code or dollars to use their work. No matter how you slice it, exceptions are better than not having code released under FLOSS licences at all.

What Stallman doesn't touch on is copyright assignment, and whether it's "acceptable" for companies to require assignment so they can continue to sell exceptions even to work that the company didn't create. Few people would consider it unreasonable for a company to re-license its own work any way it sees fit.

But what about projects that require assignment so they can take Free contributions and make them non-Free? Ultimately, that may never be an entirely solved problem. Companies continue to struggle with the question of providing a fair deal to their contributor community and find a way to monetize the development they put into the software. It's nice that Stallman agrees that companies have a right to sell exceptions, but there's a lot more to address.

Joe 'Zonker' Brockmeier is a longtime FLOSS advocate, and currently works for Novell as the community manager for openSUSE. Prior to joining Novell, Brockmeier worked as a technology journalist covering the open source beat for a number of publications, including Linux Magazine, Linux Weekly News,,, IBM developerWorks, and many others.