Subject: Re: law from the bottom up
From: Richard Stallman <>
Date: Tue, 28 Sep 1999 09:03:43 -0600 (MDT)

    The problem with fighting over the meaning of words is that in the end you
    cannot win.  The great unwashed has latched on to the term "viral" in the
    context of GPL, and is unlikely to let go.

Over the years, people have told me over and over again that I cannot
win this battle or that, and I should give up.  When I have ignored
them, I have often had at least partial success.  So I've learned that
it is wisest not to pay too much attention to this kind of advice.
Especially when a person who objects to the goal tells me it is
impossible, that is likely to be wishful thinking.

    My personal opinion is that "viral" in this context is a good term.  As an
    analogy it isn't bad -- it illicits reasonably good intuitions about choosing

If you think it is a good analogy, you have probably been led astray
by a common misunderstanding of the GPL.  Comparing the GPL to a virus
leads people to form what they think is an understanding of the GPL,
that it works like a virus.  But that isn't correct.

Bruce Perens has explained how it actually works and why it is not
like a virus.

      As a value word it is highly loaded.  It makes people sit up and pay
    attention. Heck, it got some of them engaged enough to insult you. At this
    stage, controversy is *good* for free software -- it's free advertising.

The Free Software movement can get plenty of controversy based on its
actual views; manufacturing controversy by misrepresenting what we do
is not helping us.

I don't agree that this particular comparison is endemic among the
"great unwashed".  It seems to be nursed by a few people who want to
attack the GPL.  By confronting them I will achieve one thing or

So I'm going to continue to raise the issue when I see a person
comparing the GPL with a virus.  I can tell which people are doing it
unthinkingly and which are grinding an axe.  With the former, I point
out in a friendly way the implications of what they said, and they
stop.  With the latter, I give them too a chance to stop; but if they
stand firm, I know what to do.

So, would you please stop comparing the GPL with a virus?  It's an
insulting thing to say.