VLC Multimedia Player Shows Changing Open Source License Is Hard, But Possible

from the easy,-it-isn't dept

Licenses lie at the heart of open source — and many other kinds of “open” too. That’s because they are used to define the rights of users, and to ensure those rights are passed on — that the intellectual commons is not enclosed. Their central importance explains in part the flamewars that erupt periodically over which license is “best” — many people have very strong feelings on the subject.

Those heated discussions are one reason why it’s rare for an open source project to change its license — usually it’s just easier to stick with what you’ve got rather than provoke another argument over which new license should be adopted. But there’s another major impediment to changing the licensing: the need to get absolutely everyone who has contributed code to agree formally.

That’s not a problem when the code has been assigned by contributors to a single entity, often a software foundation, as happens with components of Richard Stallman’s GNU (GNU’s Not Unix) project. But the individual copyrights of perhaps the best-known open source code, that of the Linux kernel, have not been assigned in this way. That makes the prospect of contacting the thousands of people who have contributed code, and getting them to agree to a license change, not just hard, but probably impossible, not least because some of them may be dead. For this reason (and because Linus Torvalds doesn’t want to change it anyway), Linux is likely to remain licensed under the GNU GPLv2 for the foreseeable future.

Another project where the copyright on code contributions has not been assigned to some central body is the popular multimedia player VLC. Since this is a major project with many hundreds of contributors, you might think it would be similarly impossible to get all of them to agree to a license change. And yet, against the odds, VLC has done just that, thanks to the tireless efforts of Jean-Baptiste Kempf. A fascinating post explains how he achieved this:

The initial license change for libVLC [VLC’s main engine] was completed a few months later in December 2011. This involved about 150 developers and 80,000 lines of code. If a developer did not respond to the re-licensing request, that developer’s code was rewritten.

But sorting out libVLC was easy compared to the rest of the code:

Then came the task of contacting the authors of the various plug-ins and modules, focusing on the playback modules first. This was a bit more challenging, involving some 300 developers and 300,000 lines of code. Kempf was kind enough to describe his methods for doing so in a few blog posts. He began with details of how to correctly compile the list of names and email addresses and the measures he took to appropriately narrow that list down to remove dupes, people who had already responded in the first relicensing phase, and so forth. His response rate for the initial emails was only 25%, with 25% bouncing and 50% not responding. This had to be frustrating but not entirely surprising. To deal with the remaining 75%, Kempf employed a variety of methods that could be described as stalking or resolutely resourceful, depending on your perspective; social media, the telephone directory, whois lookups, friends or co-workers, and showing up where they work were all fair game.

Impressive stuff, not least because Kempf did manage to get every single person to sign off in the end. Still, as the post quoted above goes on to note, you might think this is an extremely strong argument for using a contributor’s assignment that licenses or assigns copyright to some central organization. But VideoLAN, the non-profit group that produces VLC, is located in France, which recognizes the creator’s “moral rights”, introducing a further complication:

Moral rights include the right of attribution, integrity, disclosure and withdrawal, and are based on the rationale that there exists a personal and inalienable bond between authors and their work. As such, moral rights cannot be assigned or waived.

That means even in the presence of an assignment, authors would still need to give their permission for a license change that would be valid in any country that recognizes moral rights.

The VLC experience confirms that changing a license is not something to be undertaken lightly. But it also shows that with perseverance it can be done — once the flamewars have subsided, of course.

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or identi.ca, and on Google+

Filed Under: , ,

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “VLC Multimedia Player Shows Changing Open Source License Is Hard, But Possible”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
R says:

GPLv2 Allows License Upgrades

But the individual copyrights of perhaps the best-known open source code, that of the Linux kernel, have not been assigned in this way. That makes the prospect of contacting the thousands of people who have contributed code, and getting them to agree to a license change, not just hard, but probably impossible, not least because some of them may be dead.

This isn’t necessary. The GPLv2 explicitly states that anything licensed under it can be licensed under later versions of the GPL, so if there was any interest in moving Linux to GPLv3, all you’d need is a flag day after which all patches were understood to be under the new license. The only reason the kernel is GPLv2 is because Linus likes it that way, and because any license change that is sufficiently controversial will result in a fork under the previous license.

Arne Babenhauserheide (profile) says:

Re: GPLv2 Allows License Upgrades

That?s not true. Different from creativecommons licenses, with GPL, the developer explicitely states which licenses apply – except if he just gives no version (than all versions are ok). The default header says ?version 2 or later? but some projects like Linux decided that they do not trust the FSF, so they use only ?version 2?.

? If the Program specifies a version number of this License which applies to it and “any later version”, you have the option of following the terms and conditions either of that version or of any later version published by the Free Software Foundation. If the Program does not specify a version number of this License, you may choose any version ever published by the Free Software Foundation.?

Bob Jonkman (profile) says:

OpenStreetMap changed its license

Glyn, you may want to check with someone from the OpenStreetMap project. Over the last two years or so they’ve transitioned their mapping data from a Creative Commons license to the Open Database License. This affected thousands of contributors, who had to sign off in order for OSM to retain their data. More details at https://wiki.openstreetmap.org/wiki/Open_Database_License


Andrew D. Todd (user link) says:

It's Supposed To Be Hard.

In a democracy, major policy changes are supposed to be “hard but possible.” Going to the Lesser GPL License was a major policy change. The strict GPL license was formulated at a time when the big companies had an overwhelming advantage in terms of masses of secret proprietary code, which they could just recompile with minor additions and alterations. Hence the fear of “embrace and extend.” This condition no longer obtains– the corpus of open-source code has become sufficiently large and comprehensive, and it is the proprietary companies which are increasingly feeling trapped by their business model. At any rate, the VLC leadership had to go to the trouble of making its case to all the interested parties. This isn’t something they will have to do very often. I suppose at some future date, they might, possibly, want to go to BSD License, and that would involve another round of negotiations, but that is a problem for another day.

As an aside, Open Source, to be true to itself, should compile as late as possible, say, during the installation process. There should be as few incomprehensible binary blobs as possible. Great sections of the GPL may become practically irrelevant in a context where it is the end-user who actually does the patching, compiling, and linking of code. If there is effectively no distribution of derivative works, the portions of the GPL dealing with such derivative works become moot.


Chris Maresca (profile) says:

Not unique, not the first

Mozilla was the first very large OS project to this about 10 (?) years ago. It had far more contributors (in the thousands), so it was a lot harder.

Interesting story, but really not news – pretty much everyone in the open source community knows what it takes to change licenses, a number of project have done so over the years.


Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop »

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...