Certain issues seem to come around over and over again. One of those,
certainly, is that of closed beta tests of Linux distributions. Can a
distributor run closed beta tests and still comply with the GPL? The
straightforward answer is certainly "no." If you distribute GPL-licensed
software to somebody else, you can not restrict their right to further
distribute that software.
That does not stop distributors from doing closed beta tests, however.
Corel did it. Caldera (oops...SCO Group...) has done it. Lindows has done
it. And UnitedLinux is doing it. The closed beta period ends on
September 23, at which point the UnitedLinux beta, with source, will
be available to all. In the mean time, however, one might wonder how the
current closed beta is being kept closed.
At the UnitedLinux press conference, FSF director Bradley Kuhn asked about
the terms of the non-disclosure agreement that was signed by the beta
testers. The UnitedLinux spokesperson evidently agreed to disclose those
terms. To help them remember, Mr. Kuhn has sent out an open letter on behalf of the FSF asking them
to follow through:
Even as you release your new product to the public, the past
situation must be clarified. Not only does the community deserve to
know, but I also believe it behooves you to put to rest and clarify
the legal ambiguities that arise naturally from doing a "closed
beta" of GPL'ed software.
It remains to be seen whether UnitedLinux violated the GPL, or whether it
just picked a set of beta testers who, of their own will, chose not to
distribute the UnitedLinux beta.
Closed betas will always raise this sort of issue however. They are also
unnecessary. There are distributors, with MandrakeSoft and the Debian
Project at the top of the list, who do all of their development and beta
testing work in the open. In return, they get a wider pool of testers, the
assistance of the free software development community, and the knowledge
that they will not be accused of GPL violations. Distributions, too, are
free software development projects; they benefit from frequent, public
releases. Is it really worth the trouble to keep a Linux distribution
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