FSF Update Rules Commons Clause Non-Free
Written by Sue Gee   
Monday, 12 November 2018

The Free Software Foundation has added the Commons Clause to its list of non-free licenses among a number of recent updates to its licensing materials. Other changes clarify the GNU GPL position on translating code into another language and how to handle projects that combine code under multiple licenses.  

Back in August when Heather Meeker, a lawyer specializing in open source software licensing, drafted the Commons Clause, it provoked a big reaction among the developer community.

The Commons Clause is meant to be added to an existing free license to prevent using code commercially. As the FSF (Free Software Foundation) points out, this effectively renders what was "free", "nonfree". The FSF objects to the Commons Clause saying:

It's particularly nasty given that the name, and the fact that it is attached to pre-existing free licenses, may make it seem as if the work is still free software.


The advice from the FSF is that:

If a previously existing project that was under a free license adds the Commons Clause, users should work to fork that program and continue using it under the free license. If it isn't worth forking, users should simply avoid the package.  

Referring to the Redis modules that were the initial trigger for the Commons Clause, the FSF comments that it is pleased to see that people are already working to maintain free versions.

Another license recently added to the FSF's list of licenses is the Fraunhofer FDK AAC license. This too is controversial and the FSF states:

This is a free license, incompatible with any version of the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), but also contains a potential trap. While Fraunhofer provides a copyright license here, they explicitly decline to grant any patent license. In fact, they direct users to contact them to obtain a patent license. Users should act with caution in determining whether they feel comfortable using works under this license.  

A new addition to the FSF's Frequently Asked Questions about the GNU Licenses, explains what the GNU GPL says about translating code into another programming language. The blog post states:

In short, since copyright law treats a translation as a modified version of a work, translating a program into another programming language has the same consequences as creating a modified version.

This means that the translated program must be covered by the same version of the GNU GPL as the original. 

The final topic in covered in its update post, is about an update to Richard Stallman's License Compatibility and Relicensing, which helps with the situation of a project that combines code under multiple compatible licenses providing the instructions:

Start with a list of all the pertinent licenses. Then you can delete from the list any license which is subsumed by another in the list.

We say that license A subsumes license B when compliance with license A implies compliance with license B.

The article provides examples of this in action with the proviso that it might be expanded in future to cover more cases.


More Information

Recent licensing updates  - FSF

Commons Clause website 

License Compatibility and Relicensing

Related Articles

The Commons Clause - For Good or Bad

GitHub Adds Licensing Option


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Last Updated ( Monday, 12 November 2018 )