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Re: Question about automatic generation of GPLv3 COPYING file

From: Brian Cameron
Subject: Re: Question about automatic generation of GPLv3 COPYING file
Date: Wed, 17 Sep 2008 02:31:55 -0500
User-agent: Thunderbird (X11/20080825)


However, just populating the file with an arbitrary license seems an
error-prone way to enforce the standard.

It's not arbitrary.  Actually, until the switch to GPLv3, I cannot
remember anyone complaining about this feature of Automake.  I don't
think anybody ever complained that automake did not cater to BSD-
licensed projects here by default, for example.

This issue really is about setting the defaults in the presence of a
license that is not universally accepted.

I think it is more than that.  Although people may not have noticed this
issue before, I think it is good to discuss and consider how automake
should best work.

The question is: do we need to cater for people who both don't read the
documentation and don't take care of writing a COPYING file themselves?
(Yes, this is a bit pointed.)

Basically, I agree that is the question.  However I would probably word
it differently and say something like "should automake error on the side
of caution when making decisions about how code should be licensed."

When I read technical documentation, I find I often need to read it
a few times before I fully understand and grasp all the implications.
So I think to suggest that only people who don't read the documentation
could be unaware of a specific feature isn't really fair.

People who might decide to use
autotools to build non-GNU programs might not be familiar with the
"GNU Coding Standard" or be aware that automake silently enforces a

But it doesn't "enforce" it!  It merely adds a sensible default COPYING
file (and what we're discussing is whether that "sensible" is good).  It
doesn't scribble in your README "This package is licensed under GPLv3,
see the COPYING file", neither does it put copyright notices at the top
of your source files.  Really the presence of some license in the
COPYING file is not sufficient to declare the project's license fully,
I think we've already agreed to that.

Yes, I agree "enforce" was a bad word choice.  Obviously there is no
enforcing going on.  I should have said something like "...silently adds
a license if a COPYING file doesn't exist".

There might be some confusion.  However, as I already explained there is
already clearly some confusion about the way it currently works.  Note
the following bug reports.  Clearly the authors of these modules were
not aware of the ramifications of automake changing its default license
to GPLv3:

Were any of them aware of the feature at all?  I.e., that COPYING was
added, but in prior automake versions is contained the GPLv2 text?

I am not sure.  Perhaps some of those module owners were depending on
that feature.  If so, then the default license changing to GPLv3 may
have caught them unawares.  I am not sure how well the automake
community communicated to users that they might need to consider the
implications of their modules moving to GPLv3 if they were depending
on this feature.  I am a module maintainer (of the GDM module), and I
wasn't made aware of this change by any announcement from the automake
or any other free software community.  But perhaps I didn't read the
right docs or mailing lists.

To me, this sort of confusion is really more serious than any confusion
like "where did my autogenerated COPYING file go".

None of the bug reports were about COPYING files that were gone or
overwritten.  That would be really bad style.

I was just trying to say that bad style (not following the GNU Coding
Standard) is probably better than incorrect or confusing licensing
information.  But that's just my opinion.

Currently Sun does not allow GPLv3 code to integrate into Solaris, which
is why this is a particular issue at Sun.  So, until this issue is
resolved, I guess Sun will probably have to avoid updating to the latest
versions of automake which generate a GPLv3 license.  Though, disabling
the feature by making 'foreign' the default might also be an option.
Hopefully, Sun will approve of the GPLv3 license soon, so this issue
just goes away.

Ah, so this is the heart of the matter: Sun hasn't approved of GPLv3
code, and Automake might, if the developer was not diligent enough to
take care of the license, add a GPLv3 file.

This is what raised the issue to my attention.

However, I was not previously aware that automake created a COPYING file
for you if one was missing.  Once I became aware of this feature, I
didn't really like the idea of module license information ever being
generated automatically.

You say "taking care of the license" when I think you mean "knowing to
create a COPYING file" or "knowing you have to follow the GNU Style
Guide if you use automake".  Some users might think they have taken
care of the license but also might not be following this style guide.

Look, I'm really the wrong person to discuss license matters with.
I hate the topic, I generally try to stay out of these discussions,
and could personally care less about the default mode of operation
of Automake.  I'd prefer a poll of all users, were this question not
one where FSF might have an interest in.

That seems reasonable.  I am just one person and I think it is smart to
get the opinions of more people before making any decisions.

Changing the automake sources should be a one-line patch.
Getting this patch into FSF Automake sources will probably
be hard (i.e., I'd guess RMS will likely disapprove of it).
I've cc:ed him.  Perhaps he can let us know his thoughts about this

FWIW, the Cc: doesn't appear in the message I received.  You might want
to send him the whole discussion per mail.

Looking in my Sent mailbox, I bcc:ed him, so I imagine he will still
respond if he thinks this thread is interesting enough.

However, it does seem that the authors of any source code should be
"free" to pick the license of their choice and never have a tool
silently and automatically license code for them.

Which is what automake does: if you have chosen, it will not override
your choice.  Please, don't twist the facts.

Sorry, you are right.  Again, poor word choice on my part.

However, you are assuming that all users of automake understand the
GNU Style Guide and that automake is enforcing it by automatically
adding licensing information to your module if you don't follow the
style guide.  I don't think that knowing to create a COPYING file is
really the same thing as choosing a license.


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