The GPL is not an EULA

Before I get to the meat of this blog post, let me make sure nobody would misunderstand for a lawyer. What you’re about to read is a half-rant about Free Software projects distributing Windows binaries with pretty much default installer settings. It is in no way legal advice, and it is not being provided by someone with any semblance of legal training.

If you follow Foone or me on Twitter, you probably have noticed one time or another our exchanges of tweets about GPL in Windows installers.

The reason for this annoyance is that, as Foone pointed out many times in the past, licenses such as GPL and MIT are not EULAs: End-User License Agreements. They are, by design, licensing the distribution of the software, rather than its use. Now, in 2020 a lot of people are questioning this choice, but that’s a different topic altogether.

What this means for a consumer is that you are not required to agree to the GPL (or LGPL, or MIT) to install and use a piece of software. You’re required to agree to it if you decide to redistribute it. And as such the install wizards’ license dialogs, with their “I accept the terms” checkboxes are pretty much pointless. And an annoyance because you need to actually figure out where to click instead of keep clicking “Next” — yes I realise that the tiniest violin may be playing at that annoyance, but that’s not the point.

Indeed, the point why I make fun of these installers is because, at least to me, they show the cultural mark of proprietary software on Windows, and the general lack of interest in the politics of Free Software from pretty much everybody involved. The reason why the installers default to saying “EULA” and insisting on you to agree to it, is because non-Free Software on Windows usually does have EULAs. And even the FLOSS installer frameworks ended up implementing the same pattern.

VLC, unsurprisingly, cares about Free Software ideals and its politics, and went out of its way many years ago to make sure that the license is correctly shown in its installer. For a few other projects, I sent patches myself to correct them, whenever I can. For others… well, it’s complicated. The WiX installer toolkit was released years ago by Microsoft as open source, and is used by Calibre and Mono among others, but it seems like the only way to have it show a non-EULA screen is to copy one of its built-in dialogs and edit it.

As I said recently on Twitter, we need a reference website, with instructions on how to correctly display non-EULA Free Software licenses on Windows (and any other operating system). Unfortunately I don’t have time to go through the releasing process as I’m about to leave the company in a few weeks. So either it’ll have to wait another couple of weeks (when I’m free from those obligations), or be started by someone else.

Until then, I guess I’ll provide this blog post as a reference to anyone who asks me why am I even complaining about those licenses.

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