Programmer at Large: What is this?

Version 9, 21 January 2089

Copyright (C) 2089 Free Software Foundation, Inc. <>
Everyone is permitted to copy and distribute verbatim copies
of this license document, but changing it is not allowed.

I stared at the words on my HUD. It wasn’t the point. I knew it wasn’t the point. But still… I had to ask.

“Wiki, what is this?”

“It’s the software license that the code is provided under. The GNU General Public License, or GPL, was a series of licenses widely used in pre-diaspora civilisations on Earth.”

“Elaborate. What’s a software license?”

“In large contiguous civilisations with strong contract law it is common that rather than selling software you sell licenses, which grant the buyer the rights to use the software in a particular way.”

“I don’t understand. Why would you ever buy that instead of the software?”

“Typically the software is not made available for purchase.”


“Because the sellers feel that that would limit their ability to sell licenses – the purchasers could simply turn around and undercut them.”

“No but why were they able to do that at all? Why didn’t they immediately get out-competed by people who were selling software?”

“I don’t have a short answer to that question. There is currently a 650 millivote bounty on this question, and I can provide you with several detailed ethnographic studies on the subject if you wish to attempt one?”

“No, never mind”

“OK. Would you like to leave a bounty?”

“Sure. Add, say, 5 millivotes to the bounty.”


“What does the license require?”

“It requires that if you provide the software to anyone then you must provide the source code.”

“Sorry, what?”

“I don’t understand. What are you confused by?”

“How were people providing the software without providing the source code? Isn’t the software the same as the source code?”

“At the time that this license was popular it was common that the version of the software that would be provided with a license was in a purely binary form that allowed the software to be executed but not easily modified.”

“You mean they were just providing people with build artifacts?

“That’s correct.”

My skin crawled. You can’t crew an interstellar trader without some exposure to local cultures, and the nature of software archaeology is that you often have to understand the historical context in which things were written, but it’s rare to run into such direct evidence of outright perversion.

“Do people still do that?”

“Approximately 30% of planetary civilizations we visit engage in this practice, but it is commonly understood that it does not make sense for interstellar trade so we rarely encounter the practice directly.”


The wiki is silent. It’s programmed not to respond to simple exclamations like that.

“Are we compliant with the terms of the license?”

“As far as we can be. Many of the terms of the license refer to concepts that no longer exist or apply to us, and the rest are automatically satisfied by modern software practices. It is generally felt that the creators of the license would be very happy with how we use the software.”

“But we wouldn’t be compliant if we deleted the license header?”

“That is correct.”

“Would it matter if we did it anyway?”

“No entity who could enforce the license still exists. However, the last experiment at removing it globally caused 4,197 build steps to fail, and a 11253CE vote in our inherited constitution declared them to be important cultural heritage which should be preserved.”

“OK, fine, but what if-“

At this point my distraction alarm pinged. I’d passed some threshold of deviance from my intended task and it was making sure I was aware of that.

I could override it – this was a lot more interesting than the mess I was supposed to be looking in to, and I didn’t really feel like spending the time it would take to learn whatever ancient grounder language this C++ was right now – but it was right, I was way off track.

Which probably meant my mind was wandering and it was time to take a break. I waved my HUD into casual mode and exited my pod to head for the common area.

Next Chapter, “What’s your name?”.

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2 thoughts on “Programmer at Large: What is this?

  1. Pingback: How to make good things | David R. MacIver

  2. Pingback: Programmer at Large: What’s your name? | David R. MacIver

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