Symbian’s EPL versus the Linux GPL.

At the request of a valued reader I’m going to attempt today to provide a quick and dirty rundown of the key differences between the software license covering Symbian’s new open OS and the GNU General Public License that’s served the Linux community for many years.

Note that much of what follows has been cobbled together from Wikipedia pages, so feel free to enlighten and/or correct in the comments below this post…

The GNU General Public License (or GPL) seeks to codify the Four Software Freedoms coined by Richard Matthew Stallman — specifically:

  1. The freedom to run it.
  2. The freedom to study and adapt it.
  3. The freedom to redistribute it.
  4. The freedom to improve it.

It’s important to note that under the GPL authors can still release software commercially — that is, charge for it. But unlike most commercial software the end user is free and clear to modify what they’ve paid for, and even charge for the result should they so desire.

The Symbian Foundation has chosen the Eclipse Public License (EPL) for their opened-up OS.

The EPL is recognized and approved by the Free Software Foundation and is similar to the GPL but not compatible with it. Specifically, code licensed under the GPL supersedes any other license — so if software contains bits with EPL and GPL code, that software must, under the terms of the GPL, be released under the GPL.

The Eclipse Public License contains a patent retaliation clause that has been apparently been dropped from the latest draft of the GPL. This clause gives protection to the software author from users seeking to sue over patent concerns.

Finally, the EPL provides a legal means by which additions to a software project can be licensed, commercially or otherwise, as separate works. Note, however, that the GPL offers pretty much the same thing.

So if you’re wondering why the Symbian Foundation chose the EPL over the GPL, I guess that second point — the patent retaliation clause — would be it.

16 Responses to “Symbian’s EPL versus the Linux GPL.”


  • I… uh… hmmmm… I think… mmm… if we… oh… nevermind.

  • I… uh… hmmmm… I think… mmm… if we… oh… nevermind.

  • I noes, I barely understand this myself!

    I Really wish someone from the Symbian Foundation would weigh in on this — I just left a comment on the official Symbian blog, which may or may not be live as you read this…

  • I noes, I barely understand this myself!

    I Really wish someone from the Symbian Foundation would weigh in on this — I just left a comment on the official Symbian blog, which may or may not be live as you read this…

  • (Re: http://osi.org) Finally, a place where I can stock up on breeding rods!

  • I admit it, I requested this. It was kind of mean of me as I knew what you’d be up against, having done my major research paper in law school on the then-forthcoming GPLv3. I’m evil, I know it.

    I have NOT read the EPL yet, so i am not going to weigh in on that or even a comparison. What I think it useful to analyze and remember in these scenarios is the restrictions placed upon the code when adopting an open license. Yes, we all think about open source as this great freedom machine, but that is strictly from a user point of view. For the developer community, open source (and especially the GPL) can place more restrictions on what they can do than any other license that is chosen.

    Normally, I wouldn’t advocate yet-another comparison of public licenses, but seeing as this the first really major mobile OS that has gone with (you can argue Android, but it doesn’t have the install base… yet) an OSI-approved license (that’s http://opensource.org, not the humourous-in-this-context http://osi.org ) I think it might be worth a multi-part series. After all, computing and information is going mobile, and it is as important that we have open options in our hand as well as on our desk.

  • I admit it, I requested this. It was kind of mean of me as I knew what you’d be up against, having done my major research paper in law school on the then-forthcoming GPLv3. I’m evil, I know it.

    I have NOT read the EPL yet, so i am not going to weigh in on that or even a comparison. What I think it useful to analyze and remember in these scenarios is the restrictions placed upon the code when adopting an open license. Yes, we all think about open source as this great freedom machine, but that is strictly from a user point of view. For the developer community, open source (and especially the GPL) can place more restrictions on what they can do than any other license that is chosen.

    Normally, I wouldn’t advocate yet-another comparison of public licenses, but seeing as this the first really major mobile OS that has gone with (you can argue Android, but it doesn’t have the install base… yet) an OSI-approved license (that’s http://opensource.org, not the humourous-in-this-context http://osi.org ) I think it might be worth a multi-part series. After all, computing and information is going mobile, and it is as important that we have open options in our hand as well as on our desk.

  • (Re: http://osi.org) Finally, a place where I can stock up on breeding rods!

  • (Re: http://osi.org) Finally, a place where I can stock up on breeding rods… ;)

  • (Re: http://osi.org) Finally, a place where I can stock up on breeding rods!

  • (Re: http://osi.org) Finally, a place where I can stock up on breeding rods!

  • I work for the Symbian Foundation, although I had no part in the original licensing decisions.

    I’d just like to add that you’re not really comparing like with like. The EPL is a weak copyleft license, like the LGPL, rather than the strong copyleft of the GPL. Using the GPL, particularly GPLv3 is a very, very uncomfortable thing for hardware manufacturers – it may oblige them to release the source to lots of code which they often don’t own (because they license it from third parties – e.g. optimised codecs, input methods, drivers, DRM solutions).

    The EPL, or LGPL allows fairly unrestricted linking to proprietary code (there are some static linking issues with the LGPL, which might be part of the reason for the decision). However, the patent clause you mention was probably also a significant factor. It’s worth noting that the member-only Symbian Foundation License (SFL) for the code has a clause which covers patents for hardware/software combinations – going further in this area than the EPL.

    Also, many of the board members of the Symbian Foundation have participated in the Eclipse project for tools at some point, so their legal departments are comfortable with the license.

    I’d argue that for most people, a weak copyleft license actually gives them more freedom than a strong copyleft license like the GPL. Developers can choose to keep some of their code closed, even if it plugs in to a system framework – thus better protecting their investment in the development of it. If a user doesn’t want to use proprietary code (and there are very few of these in global terms) they can choose not to. However, if they’d like the option of using something, open or closed, then they can choose to do so. The important thing is that the core platform is fully functional without proprietary code, so those that choose to can modify and rebuild it. Choosing a weak copyleft license for the platform helps to ensure this (although doesn’t quite guarantee it) whereas a more liberal license like Android’s Apache license makes it much less likely.

    The downside of this decision is that it currently prevents cross-fertilisation of code from one system to the other (e.g. porting of drivers – although the frameworks are very different so this isn’t that easy). I’d like us to explore the possibility of dual licensing all or part of the platform under the GPL or LGPL (which has a GPL conversion clause). Not sure if that will get anywhere though.

    Hope that helps!

  • I work for the Symbian Foundation, although I had no part in the original licensing decisions.

    I’d just like to add that you’re not really comparing like with like. The EPL is a weak copyleft license, like the LGPL, rather than the strong copyleft of the GPL. Using the GPL, particularly GPLv3 is a very, very uncomfortable thing for hardware manufacturers – it may oblige them to release the source to lots of code which they often don’t own (because they license it from third parties – e.g. optimised codecs, input methods, drivers, DRM solutions).

    The EPL, or LGPL allows fairly unrestricted linking to proprietary code (there are some static linking issues with the LGPL, which might be part of the reason for the decision). However, the patent clause you mention was probably also a significant factor. It’s worth noting that the member-only Symbian Foundation License (SFL) for the code has a clause which covers patents for hardware/software combinations – going further in this area than the EPL.

    Also, many of the board members of the Symbian Foundation have participated in the Eclipse project for tools at some point, so their legal departments are comfortable with the license.

    I’d argue that for most people, a weak copyleft license actually gives them more freedom than a strong copyleft license like the GPL. Developers can choose to keep some of their code closed, even if it plugs in to a system framework – thus better protecting their investment in the development of it. If a user doesn’t want to use proprietary code (and there are very few of these in global terms) they can choose not to. However, if they’d like the option of using something, open or closed, then they can choose to do so. The important thing is that the core platform is fully functional without proprietary code, so those that choose to can modify and rebuild it. Choosing a weak copyleft license for the platform helps to ensure this (although doesn’t quite guarantee it) whereas a more liberal license like Android’s Apache license makes it much less likely.

    The downside of this decision is that it currently prevents cross-fertilisation of code from one system to the other (e.g. porting of drivers – although the frameworks are very different so this isn’t that easy). I’d like us to explore the possibility of dual licensing all or part of the platform under the GPL or LGPL (which has a GPL conversion clause). Not sure if that will get anywhere though.

    Hope that helps!

  • It does indeed… Many thanks, and congrats on the big news!

  • It does indeed… Many thanks, and congrats on the big news. :)

  • It does indeed… Many thanks, and congrats on the big news!

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