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Thread: Is there any loophole in the GPL license?

  1. #1

    Thread Starter
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    Oct 2008

    Is there any loophole in the GPL license?

    One of the biggest problems with GPL is that while it gives significant rights to the end user (the ability to demand you give them a copy of the source code for your entire software), it actually takes away rights YOU have as a programmer (if you want to sell software and keep your source code a trade secret, well you are so out of luck). For example if my program (EXE file) depends on a library (DLL file) that is GPL, then I am required to attach the GPL license to my software as well. This means, not only will I be required to give access to the source code of the external library (not a big deal), but also required to give access to the source code of my own software (completely unacceptable to be FORCED to give away a trade secret).

    I understand why the GPL was invented. It was invented by people who were angry at commercial software developers who wouldn't let them see their source code, so they decided to protest by creating the GPL, and encourage hobby programmers to use it with software and libraries they wrote. The problem is now a lot of hobby programmers have used GPL to license software EXEs (makes sense) and also with libraries (DLLs) they wrote (something which is an abomination, as no DLL should ever use GPL, because it infects every single other piece of software that uses that DLL file). As a result, this attempt to compensate for commercial software's anti-copying licenses, has ended up OVERCOMPENSATING. This overcompensation for proprietary licenses has in effect created an entire set of libraries that are UNUSABLE in commercial applications. Technically, you can still put the software up for sale even if it's covered by GPL (due to the software using a GPL licensed DLL file), but NOBODY is going to buy it. They will all just download your source code and compile their own copy for free. You would be LUCKY if even ONE PERSON bought your software.

    And this brings me to the exact topic specified in the title if this thread. Is there a loophole I can use, as a programmer, to keep the source code of my software's EXE file a trade secret, even if it uses a GPL licensed DLL file? For example, can I create my own wrapper DLL file that is linked to the GPL licensed DLL, and then have my actual software (EXE file) link directly ONLY to my wrapper DLL? In so doing, I would be required divulge both the code of the GPL licensed DLL and also the wrapper DLL, but would I also be required to divulge the source code of my EXE in such cases? What if I provided the 3 files as separate download links on my web page (one for the EXE, behind a pay wall of course as I'd be selling this, one freely accessible link for the wrapper DLL, and one freely accessible link for the GPL licensed DLL), or even only provided only links to my EXE (behind a pay wall) and wrapper DLL (free download), while telling users of my software to download the GPL licensed DLL from the official website for that DLL (and providing no direct links to the GPL licensed DLL from my own website), and then simply provide instructions to the user to copy all the DLL files into the same folder as the EXE file before running the program? Would any of these methods prevent me from being legally obligated to divulge the trade secret source code in my EXE file?
    Last edited by Ben321; Mar 31st, 2021 at 03:40 AM.

  2. #2
    PowerPoster techgnome's Avatar
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    May 2002

    Re: Is there any loophole in the GPL license?
    It seems that it is ambiguous and up for debate, and depends on how it "derivative work" is interpreted.

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  3. #3
    Super Moderator Shaggy Hiker's Avatar
    Join Date
    Aug 2002

    Re: Is there any loophole in the GPL license?

    I'm not terribly sympathetic to the view, personally. If you are using a dll written by somebody else, you are going to pay whatever price they charge, or else you are stealing it. That price may be cash. You'd probably be fine with that, so long as the cash was not completely unreasonable. For example, I'm using a third party suite of controls. I paid for that, and for the most part, that's fine. However, a few of their controls require every USER to own a license, not just the developer, and that's something I can't tolerate because I lack the means to manage that licensing, and we don't have the money (it's not commercial software, so there's no revenue stream). My solution is to simply not use those controls from the suite. That's a pity, because one of those controls would be really useful, but the price for that control is too high, even though the cost for the rest of the controls is not.

    You're facing the same thing, except that there is no cost for the dll you want to use...aside from a cost you aren't willing to pay. If the dll was commercial, you could buy it and pass the cost along to your consumers. If the cost of the dll was so high that passing the cost along to your consumers guaranteed that nobody would buy your software due to the cost, then you wouldn't use the commercial dll. That's what I'm facing with that one control, and that's what you're facing, as well. The cost of using that GPL dll that you want to use is that licensing requirement. Your options are Take it or Leave it.

    Somebody else put in the effort to create that dll. You want to use it with no strings attached? Tough. The GPL is the string they attached for you, that license requirement for the control I wanted to use is the string attached for me. If you decide you'll ignore the string, as I could, it's a form of the very thing you are objecting to: You want to use something somebody else created for free while making sure that others can't use what you create for free. You can't. Live with it. Do your own work.
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  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jun 2013

    Re: Is there any loophole in the GPL license?

    Quote Originally Posted by Ben321 View Post
    Is there a loophole I can use, as a programmer, to keep the source code of my software's EXE file a trade secret, even if it uses a GPL licensed DLL file?
    No - there is no "loophole".
    When you do that (including a Dll which comes under GPL - with your commercial App),
    then any EndUser you deny the Source for your whole App can sue you for it, period
    (with some help from the FSF, who established enough precedents in the meantime).

    If you don't like that, then simply don't use "this Dll which is protected by the GPL" (it is that easy).

    Try to develop the Dll-functionality yourself - or find a different one:
    - either with a less restrictive license - like e.g.: LGPL, MPL, BSD, Apache etc.
    - or pay for a commercially licensed Dll

    Besides, you have it all wrong with your reasoning "why the GPL was invented".

    IMO, we should all be thankful that it exists - because it has a "political dimension" (for every human on this planet)...

    These days, humans live in the "information-age" (where IT + software is *everything*).
    This will become ever more apparent over the next decades (due to exponential growth in this area).
    And i shudder to think, what "IT-landscape" we would have (or evolve into) - without the GPL-based software-stack,
    and its protection from "overbearing commercial interests in the IT-sector" (which was the sole reason it was invented).

    Without the GPL as the always present "zero-cost"-counterpart (which in the meantime offers whole IT-ecosystems without license cost for the end-users), the "big players" would utterly dominate the whole shebang commercially in the meantime - and endusers would pay through their nose for every little piece of "information-processing".

    And it's exactly this "quite hard to swallow" license-terms, which ensured "the growth" of GPL-based software, so that the "GPL- and FOSS-based stack" we look at today, developed into that "powerful alternative which cannot be ignored" in the first place -
    (e.g. - but not only - when big, commercial vendors define their current prices for their "next big thing").

    IMO, the GPL was a "streak of genius" by Stallman, who had the foresight to push the whole thing through before it was too late.

    Well, that said - what Dll are we talking about here? (I'm quite sure, an alternative Dll with a less restrictive license can be found).


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