[Rcpp-devel] GPL and R Community Policies (Rcpp)

Dominick Samperi djsamperi at gmail.com
Wed Dec 1 19:21:27 CET 2010

This post asks members of the R community, users and developers,
to comment on issues related to the GNU Public License
and R community policies more generally.

The GPL says very little about protecting the the rights of original
contributors by not disseminating  misleading information about them.
Indeed, for pragmatic reasons it effectively assumes that original authors
have no rights regarding their GPL-ed software, and it implicitly leaves
it up to the community of developers and users to conduct themselves in a
fair and
reasonable manner.

After discussing these matters with Richard Stallman I think
we more-or-less agreed that a GPL "copyright" notice is nothing
more than a way to deputise people to serve as protectors of the
principles of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). It has nothing to
do with protecting the "rights" or the "ideas" of original
contributors. There is no peer review, no requirement to
explain your contributions, and anybody can essentially
do as they please with the software provided they retain
the copyright/FSF deputy notice---of course, you can
always work-around this last restriction by modifying the
implementation and placing it in a new file, because
nobody is checking (GPL doesn't require it).

The GPL is all about "freedom", not responsibility. It is entirely
focused on "deregulation", not on the protection of intellectual
property or professional reputations. It serves the useful purpose
of making great software more widely available, but it does not
dictate how people should behave and should not be used
as a moral compass.  (See recent book titled
"You are not a gadget: a manifesto", a rejoinder to the
GNU manifesto.)

As a counterbalance I think the community of developers and
users need to play a more active role in the evolution of
shared values and expectations. In this spirit I respectfully request
that the R community consider the following.

The author line of the latest release of the R package
Rcpp (0.8.9) was revised as follows:

From: "based on code written during 2005 and 2006 by Dominick Samperi"

To: "a small portion of the code is based on code written during 2005 and
2006 by Dominick Samperi"

As it is highly unusual (and largely impossible) to quantify the relative
size of the the contribution made by each author of GPL'ed software, this
effectively changed an acknowledgment into a disparaging remark. It
is also misleading, because I am the original creator of the Rcpp library
and package (it was forked by Dirk Eddelbuettel and is now effectively
part of R core development). Incidentally, the README file for
Rcpp 0.6.7 shows that my contributions and influence were not
confined to the period 2005-2006.

A look at the change history of Rcpp would quickly reveal that to be
fair other authors of Rcpp (and perhaps other R package authors)
should have their contributions qualified with "a small portion of the
or "administered by", but this is precisely the kind of monitoring that
inspired Richard Stallman to say we must "chuck the masks" in the
GNU Manifesto.

It is obviously a great benefit for the R community to have Rcpp actively
supported by the R core team. I am very grateful for this. What I do
have a problem with is the fact that my contributions are disparaged
by people who have benefited from my past work.

It seems to me that there are two possible resolutions. First, if my
name is used in the Rcpp package it should be used to provide fair,
accurate, and courteous acknowledgement for my past contributions.
Second, if this is not possible, then my name should not be used at all.
If the second option is selected then the only place my name should
appear is in the copyright ("deputy") notices.

Incidentally, the fact that the word "copyright" is profoundly misleading in
the context of GPL is not a new idea, and the word "copyleft" is
sometimes used instead. But copyleft is not used in source files
because this would unlink GPL from the well-established legal
framework associated with "copyright", making it more difficult for
the FSF to enforce its principles (the critical link is provided by
the copyright holders or "deputies").

A final clarification: authors of original works do retain a legal
copyright on  their original work in the sense that they are free
to modify this work and release it as non-free software (or
under a different free license), but this has no effect on the
version that was released under GPL. The latter version and
all of its progeny belong to the public (or to the FSF from
a legal point of view).

Please feel free to express your opinion on these matters.

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