RE: Linux GPL and binary module exception clause?

From: Jason Kingsland
Date: Wed Dec 03 2003 - 18:25:15 EST

Kendall Bennett wrote:
So does this exception clause exist or not? If not, how can the binary modules be valid for use under Linux if the source is not made available under the terms of the GNU GPL?

The exception does not exist, at least not as a clearly stated license ammendment or similar.

There was some email discussion on this topic with input from the various Linux contributors some time back, but no firm conclusion. It's archived here:

This led indirectly to the introduction of the GPL license flag for kernel API calls, so that authors who specifically don't want their code used by binary modules can mark it as such.

By inference, this essentially provided a defendable position that binary loadable modules are OK so long as they don't use API calls explicitly defined as GPL only. Otherwise why else would such a flag have been introduced?

Many vendors use this as an excuse not to release their software under GPL. They are distributing GPL derived works in a binary-only format and are in violation of the Linux kernel copyright as far as I am aware.

This doesn't make it any more legal - but I suspect that it's a case of risk assessment on a case by case basis.

One assessment could be that the Linux authors are not likely to sue for copyright violation because they'll never get together and agree to enforece the GPL in this scenario, due to such differing opinions.

There are many instances of companies either ignoring the GPL license for their Linux-derived products, or at least not providing source for kernel modules they develop to support their proprietary hardware.

Just look at where Linux is embedded it consumer electronics (cellphones, DVD players etc) and how many of those are shipped with GPL license, source code or the required offer of source code.

From time when a GPL violation is brought out into the open on Slahsdot,
this mailing list or elsewhere. There is never any concerted effort by Linux authors to defend the copyright and insist on GPL compliance.

Part of the problem is that for Linux, copyright is not assigned back to any one person or entity therefore it's more difficult for any individual to try and 'fight the cause' of GPL compliance. Another problem is that Linux is global, and many of the binary-only vendors are in the far-east where the culture is perhaps less concerned about copyright law, US or otherwise.

So it seems that there is nothing do loose, anyone can take Linux and do whatever they please with it and not have to be particularly worried about contributing back to the community or complying with the rules of the commons, because nobody is likely to enforce the requirements against them.

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