The GPL and secrecy

Francois-Rene Rideau
Fri, 14 Jan 2000 03:36:23 +0100

Dear Richard Stallman, dear cybernethicians,

In a recent slashdot discussion, someone reasserted the often-expressed
opinion according to which a company may choose to keep modified GNU GPL'ed
software secret, as long as it didn't distribute either source or binaries
of it, just like anyone is free to make private modifications of such code
and not redistribute. My take is that this is a slight but definite
misinterpretation of the license, and I would like to hear other people's
opinions, and particularly your (RMS') ruling as GNU founder,
maybe with a clarification page on

In my interpretation, a license is personal -- towards individuals only.
Companies are not individuals and have no right as such.
It is individual programmers who have the absolute right to
copy, modify, and distribute software (as claimed by the GNU GPL,
but as I contend no human law can ever claim otherwise).
Hence, if any individual employee or contractor of a company is given
a binary, then the same individual is also entitled source code and
accompanying rights, according to the license (or natural law).
In such an event, the company, or rather, the individuals who manage
the company, have no right whatsoever to prevent the employee or contractor
to republish the modified sources, or else, they would be themselves
in breach of the license. So that yes, if everyone in that company is happy
and friendly and agrees, then the sources (and binaries) won't go out
of the company; but if anyone in the company who was handed the software
decides to republish it, then there it goes, and no one can sue him;
he may be fired and not re-hired, but cannot be considered to have faulted,
and may not be deprived of legitimate compensation for losing his job
(as possibly defined by law, convention, and/or his work contract).

Conclusion: the "company" (i.e. its managers) cannot decide to keep
software secret. The people in the company individually decide,
possibly but not necessarily in mutual consent.

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