Challenge with ABCL on a commercial project: Licensing

Steven Nunez steve_nunez at
Fri Aug 7 12:27:28 UTC 2020

I nearly had ABCL into an upcoming project, until I checked the license. I should have looked at this before I embarked down this path, but for some reason assumed that since ABCL is a relatively young implementation it was using Apache/MIT/BSD or something similar.
Here's the opensource clause from the contract:

1.1              OPEN SOURCE SOFTWARE.  To the extent that the Company develops orprovides any software to <Customer> under this Agreement, without <Customer’s> priorwritten consent, that <Customer> may grant or withhold in its sole discretion, nosuch deliverable shall incorporate, link to or call upon any Open SourceSoftware.  “Open Source Software” means any software that is generally availableto the public in source code form under (i) licenses substantially similar tothose approved by the Open Source Initiative and listed at, or (ii) any copyleft license (including aReciprocal License), or (iii) any other license that contains terms thatrequire, whether or not conditionally, disclosure of any source code.

This clause, or one very much like it, has been in every contract for the last 10 years or so, or at least since the BusyBox debacle. Most of the time companies have a list of pre-approved licenses, with MIT/Apache/BSD almost always being on it. Note the specific exclusion "any copyleft license" and any license in any form that might cause disclosure of source code.
Reading the ABCL FAQ and web page, it seems the intention is to avoid compelling a company from releasing their source code:

The use of Armed Bear Common Lisp (ABCL) is covered by the  GNU General Public License with Classpath exception, meaning that you can use ABCL in your application without the requirement to open the sources to your application.

However there's a few problem with this:   
   - It has the words "GNU General Public License", which rings loud alarm bells with corporate lawyers (and is disqualified by clauses ii/iii anyway)
   - Whilst the intention is to allow ABCL to be mixed with proprietary code, the IP equivalent of ambulance chasing lawyers may still see it as an opportunity for profit. It's worth reading the BusyBox saga if you're not familiar with it.   

   - It's never been tested in court
The last point is worth elaborating on. I once cornered a friendly corporate lawyer at one of our company drinks functions and showed him the LLGPL and asked what he thought. His response put it all in perspective. He said:

"It looks fine to me, but it's never been tested in court. Would you take an open source project and deploy it to production and bet the company's livelihood on it, without testing it first?"
I guess I can't blame them really. Would you want stick your neck out for something with potentially catastrophic consequences, when there's plenty of alternatives? Lisp has enough of an uphill climb just on the technology front, this is the nail in the coffin.

   - Would the current maintainers of ABCL consider relicensing it under a MIT, BSD or Apache license?
   - If so, do we have a list of all the contributors?
   - If so, how many are there and are they contactable?

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