Python modules and the GPL: I still don't get it

I've never understood if you can use GPL python modules (or packages) in GPL-incompatibly licensed code. Today I re-read the GPL looking for this and am tempted to think yes, you can. The GPL says:

  1. You may copy and distribute verbatim copies of the Program's source code as you receive it [...]

This is simple enough, what if you need to change it? This gets more interesting:

  1. You may modify your copy or copies of the Program or any portion of it, thus forming a work based on the Program, [...] provided that you also meet all of these conditions:


    1. You must cause any work that you distribute or publish, that in whole or in part contains or is derived from the Program or any part thereof, to be licensed as a whole at no charge to all third parties under the terms of this License.


These requirements apply to the modified work as a whole. If identifiable sections of that work are not derived from the Program, and can be reasonably considered independent and separate works in themselves, then this License, and its terms, do not apply to those sections when you distribute them as separate works. But when you distribute the same sections as part of a whole which is a work based on the Program, the distribution of the whole must be on the terms of this License, whose permissions for other licensees extend to the entire whole, and thus to each and every part regardless of who wrote it.

As I uderstand this it means you can happily ship a GPL python module next to a GPL-incompatible module, even when the second uses API calls from the first. As long you are always offering to give the source of the GPL module, including modifications if you made any, you are fine. The two modules are individually identifiable sections and can be reasonably considered independent and separate works, or so I reckon at least.

But wait, the non-GPL module uses the API of the GPL module, is it still independent and separable then? In my humble opinion the GPL says it must be reasonably considered independtent and separate, so yes. It's feasable to take away the GPL module and replace it by another one that offers the same API, hence I would argue they are separable (feasable and easy are not synonyms!).

According to my reasoning it should also be legal to use GPL C libraries in non-GPL programs as long as you use them as shared libraries and not as a static library. But why does the Lesser General Public License (LGPL) exist then? Qoting the the LGPL preamble (emphasis mine):

When a program is linked with a library, whether statically or using a shared library, the combination of the two is legally speaking a combined work, a derivative of the original library.

The ordinary General Public License therefore permits such linking only if the entire combination fits its criteria of freedom. The Lesser General Public License permits more lax criteria for linking other code with the library.

Now a shared C library is linked by the dynamic linker before the application gets started. If the library is not present the application will fail horribly, I guess this is why they consider it legally speaking a combined work. When using a python module the python interpreter will happily start and depending on how the application is written can fail gracefully or even provide partial functionality.

The GPL FAQ argues that it depends on the technical means used to run the final application whether the modules should both be GPL or not. The arguments seem to suggest that if code runs in shared address space as GPL-licensed code, then the whole must comply to the GPL. Given that translation of a work is considered a derrivative we can assume python translates the python code (interprets it) and then executes the results in the same address space, therefore all must comply to the GPL (including python itself).

I'm still hard pushed to call the non-GPL module a derrivative work of the GPL module however. And in a lenghty article (apparenlty written by real lawyers, definitely worth a read!) the authors argue that legally it depends on a lot more then the technicality to determine if a work becomes a derrivative work or not (and that's where it all revolves around: if its a derrivative and you distribute it the GPL applies). This does indeed seem a lot more logical: imagine you accept the interpretation in the GPL FAQ, all you need to do to distribute the two modules is use pyro or some other form of inter-process communication (excluding shared memory according to the GPL FAQ, this again I find hard to accept) and use the APIs of the modules over this IPC layer.

The above article describes how some courts have judged this derrivation question and gives a couple of pointers itself. Essentially it common sense, but that's hard to qantify as even the GPL FAQ fails. I should really summarise the factors in a paragraph here, but I was formally trained to be an engineer and not a lawyer so am not used to summarising lawyer articles (and frankly I'm too lazy to perform the exercise right now). Beside I'd probably skip a lot of subtle points so you're best off reading the article yourself.

I do have a conclusion however: if you have a python module which is not GPL-compatible but uses the API of another python module covered by the GPL chances are you are fine if: (i) you are not taking away market share of the GPL module. And (ii) you are not derriving or extending the creative work or copyrightable content of the module. But there's no distinct line, common sense is your friend (and enemy).