August 6, 2006

GPL v3 and The Rule Against Perpetuities

One thing that has always bugged me about the GPL is that has a clause that allows escalation to new versions.

There is this bizarre and old rule in law known as the Rule Against Perpetuities or RAP.

Now, the RAP is often considered to apply only to real property - land.

But the statutes that today restate, in statutory language, the RAP, are not always clear that they apply only to real property.  For example, here in California the rule is embodied in the probate code.  Now, I'm no expert in probate, and I have not researched the issue, but I do wonder whether here, or in other states, that perhaps, just perhaps, it might be possible that as we programmers die, our rights under the GPL might descend to our heirs and be subject to the RAP.

And why might the GPL, in such a circumstance, be potentially in trouble?  Because the escalation to new version creates an uncertainty, a kind of contingency that casts a shadow over all the rights conveyed by the GPL.

This is probably a pretty far-fetched concern.  And it really probably amounts to no more than a hill of beans in this crazy world.

I have come to dislike the GPL - as a writer of software I have to be very careful these days to check on the licenses of the open source packages I use.  I avoid blending GPL based code with my own code - I don't like the fact that the GPL, like some bad horror movie, is filled with the ghosts of the programmers who contributed to the GPL code.  As a programmer myself, I greatly appreciate their work and have empathy with their concerns.  However as a person who sells software based products, the GPL raises questions in the minds of my customers as to the title of software in the product.

I have released code under the GPL.  But I prefer, when I do put my code into the open, to use a MIT/BsD style license - one that cauterizes my rights over how successors might use my code.  In that way I feel that I'm really contributing to the evolution of open source far more than I would had I used the GPL and let my cold dead hand forever, or at least as long as the copyright applies, lay upon use of my work by others.  I want my gift to not have any GPL-like strings attached.

Posted by karl at August 6, 2006 12:43 AM