GPL and the web

A few years ago (two or three), I saw Richard Stallman at FISL where he said that things like Webmail were bad ’cause you don’t have any control over the software it runs in the server. In a way, he is right: How do you have any control over your data if you don’t have any control over your software? How can you be sure that the server isn’t doing something nasty with your information since you have no way to request the source code?

Requesting the source code is one of your rights if you are using a GPL-licensed software. That way, you can be sure that the application is not sending your information to someone else or looking for things it shouldn’t. But the GPL says that distributed software should have its code available; in a web 2.0 world, nobody is distributing any software: it simply is there. Therefore, even if you run a GPL application, do lots of modifications, because you’re not distributing it, you don’t need to make your changes available to the world.

The thing that was bothering me, though, is related to some web apps/websites I used at some point. They had this pretty cool thing and I was wondering “Is that something I know, like WordPress, Drupal, Joomla or whatever?” but, in the end, I couldn’t find anything that would say what they were using in the backend. And, just now, I was wondering how the GPL would apply to such websites.

Besides the GPL, there is another very useful license: The modified BSD license or simply “BSD”. The only rule the BSD license requires (compared to the “5 freedoms” GPL enforces) is that you can’t remove the copyright from the original authors. You may add your name, but the original copyright must appear somewhere. I wondered, then, if the GPL would have such requirement. I’m not a lawyer, but I think this does:

5. Conveying Modified Source Versions.
b) The work must carry prominent notices stating that it is released under this License and any conditions added under section 7. This requirement modifies the requirement in section 4 to “keep intact all notices”.

That, to me, sounds exactly like the BSD. So, if you’re using a GPL software in your webserver, you must point, somewhere, that the engine behind your powerful site is copyright the original authors.

Now you must ask yourself this: How many websites out there are using WordPress with a modified theme that completely removed the “Powered by WordPress”? Or sites that chose (not sure why) the GPL version of the jQuery and didn’t mention that anywhere?