Ubuntu: About FreeBSD and GPL License



Question:

I have a question about Unix and Linux and their licenses.

If you choose to make an operating system based on the Linux kernel then you have to distribute it for free under the GPL License, but if you choose to make an OS based on the Unix kernel (example: an OS based on FreeBSD) do you have permission to make it closed-source and to take copyrights making it a proprietary software distributing it non-free?

So if somebody chose to make an OS based on FreeBSD can they sell it as their own modified version, taking copyrights or something like that? This question arose because I know that Mac OS X is based on FreeBSD and it should have used FreeBSD licenses, and OS X is a non-free, closed-source proprietary software.

So, can you do that with Unix? Or does Apple have some sort of "agreement"?


Solution:1

If you choose to make an operating system based on the Linux kernel then you have to distribute it for free under the GPL License,

That's not quite true. You can make an OS based on the Linux kernel with no constraint whatsoever, as long as you keep it for yourself. If you distribute an OS based on the Linux kernel, then you have to distribute the source code of the kernel (or any other part where you've used code from the Linux kernel). You don't have to distribute the rest. For example, most Linux distributions include some proprietary software; the GNU GPL doesn't constrain software that is distributed together with software covered by the GPL.

but if you choose to make an OS based on the Unix kernel

There is no such thing as “the Unix kernel” â€" not anymore. There are many Unix kernels, of which the Linux kernel is one. Some of them are based on the original Unix from Bell Labs (Solaris, HP-UX), others are not (*BSD, Linux, MINIX).

(example: an OS based on FreeBSD) do you have permission to make it closed-source and to take copyrights making it a proprietary software distributing it non-free?

FreeBSD code comes under a BSD license which is extremely liberal and includes the right to distribute proprietary software based on the BSD-licensed software. FreeBSD is not derived from the original Unix product, which was a commercial product. (BSD was originally companion software for a commercial Unix, and eventually they rewrote all the parts under a free license.)

So if somebody chose to make an OS based on FreeBSD can they sell it as their own modified version, taking copyrights or something like that? This question arose because I know that Mac OS X is based on FreeBSD and it should have used FreeBSD licenses, and OS X is a non-free, closed-source proprietary software.

Yes, the FreeBSD license allows that.

So, can you do that with Unix? Or does Apple have some sort of "agreement"?

You can't do that with the original Unix product, but that hasn't existed as a product for a long time (and there never really was a single Unix product except at the very beginning). You can do that with the Linux kernel (and with the GNU userland, too), as long as you distribute the sources for the GPL parts that you distribute (including your modifications if you modified the sources); you can keep the source of independent components (separate programs and libraries) for yourself. You can do that with FreeBSD, with basically no constraint.


Solution:2

If you choose to make an operating system based on the Linux kernel then you have to distribute it for free under the GPL License

No, you have to distribute it under the terms of the license. You don't have to do it "for free". The term free WRT open source software can be confusing, thus the mnemonic "it's not free as in beer" meaning, the concept of free vs. non-free here has nothing to do with money.

So if somebody chose to make an OS based on FreeBSD can they sell it as their own modified version, taking copyrights or something like that?

No, they can't claim a copyright on material that already has one. However, the FreeBSD license is more permissive than the GPL; it is presumably still in play with regard to OS X, covering relevant parts of the kernel code.

I believe you can (and some people do) distribute closed source OS's that use the linux kernel, however, you can't make proprietary changes or include the predominantly GNU userspace in that.


Solution:3

The GPL does not restrict your ability to sell software, it only mandates that anyone who has your binary is also entitled to the source code used to build that binary.

For example, you could fork the Linux kernel and the entirety of the GNU userland, make whatever changes you want and sell your OS for $1,000,000 to anyone who would pay for it. The caveat is that anyone who gave you that million dollars for your OS must also be provided the source code with all of your changes in it. They could turn around and re-distribute your product for free to anyone and everyone (this is because the GPL is viral and all of your additions to the GPL code are also GPL). The general strategy in this scenario is to focus on selling support or updates (see: Redhat) rather than the core OS.

The BSD license is more commercially friendly and allows you to sell your OS without distributing the source code. Note that this does not affect the copyrights of the BSD code. Licenses and copyrights are related, but they are not the same thing.

The ability to sell your OS won't be impacted by the choice of the above licenses, it will only effect whether you have to distribute your source code to anyone who buys your OS.


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