[R] licensing of R packages

Carlos Ungil carlos.ungil at GMAIL.COM
Fri Nov 14 10:42:41 CET 2008

I know the standard answer to this kind of question is "get legal
advice from a lawyer", but I would like to hear the (hopefully
informed) opinion of other people.

I would say that, according to the FSF's interpretation of the GPL,
any R code using GPL packages can be distributed legally only using
GPL-compatible licenses.

> Another similar and very common case is to provide libraries with the
> interpreter which are themselves interpreted. For instance, Perl comes
> with many Perl modules, and a Java implementation comes with many Java
> classes. These libraries and the programs that call them are always
> dynamically linked together.  
> A consequence is that if you choose to use GPL'd Perl modules or Java
> classes in your program, you must release the program in a
> GPL-compatible way, regardless of the license used in the Perl or Java
> interpreter that the combined Perl or Java program will run on.

If the reasoning above applies to R as it does to Perl, all R code
would be affected given that core packages like "base" are GPL.

The interpretation of the R Foundation (the copyright holder in this
case) seems more relaxed, but I wonder what is the intent of other
people distributing R packages under the GPL. Maybe some of them would
protest if R code using their package was distributed under a
non-GPL-compatible license. For example, I would expect the authors of
the GNU Scientific Library to defend that any package using "gsl" (a
wrapper on their GPL library) should be published under a
GPL-compatible license, being a derivative work (the FSF thinks so).

Another question is if that "strict" interpretation of the GPL could
be actually enforced, of course. Coming back to the GSL example, it
seems a more flagrant violation of the license is already happening:
http://www.numerit.com/gsl.htm (apparently the publisher of that
product thinks that linking to a GPL dll doesn't impose any obligation
to him, but the usual view of the FSF is quite the opposite; I just
found that page by chance, I don't know anything else about that
particular case).

I've noticed that this question was posed in r-devel a couple of years ago,
I'm surprised it didn't provoke more than one reply:



PS: By the way, I think FAQ 2.11 should be fixed: it states that "R is
released under the GNU General Public License (GPL)", without
specifying the version and linking to
http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html (GPLv3). However, the COPYING
file in the R directory corresponds to GPL2.

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