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4.8 Standards for Dynamic Plug-in Interfaces

Another aspect of keeping free programs free is encouraging development of free plug-ins, and discouraging development of proprietary plug-ins. Many GNU programs will not have anything like plug-ins at all, but those that do should follow these practices.

First, the general plug-in architecture design should closely tie the plug-in to the original code, such that the plug-in and the base program are parts of one extended program. For GCC, for example, plug-ins receive and modify GCC’s internal data structures, and so clearly form an extended program with the base GCC.

Second, you should require plug-in developers to affirm that their plug-ins are released under an appropriate license. This should be enforced with a simple programmatic check. For GCC, again for example, a plug-in must define the global symbol plugin_is_GPL_compatible, thus asserting that the plug-in is released under a GPL-compatible license (see Plugins in GCC Internals).

By adding this check to your program you are not creating a new legal requirement. The GPL itself requires plug-ins to be free software, licensed compatibly. As long as you have followed the first rule above to keep plug-ins closely tied to your original program, the GPL and AGPL already require those plug-ins to be released under a compatible license. The symbol definition in the plug-in—or whatever equivalent works best in your program—makes it harder for anyone who might distribute proprietary plug-ins to legally defend themselves. If a case about this got to court, we can point to that symbol as evidence that the plug-in developer understood that the license had this requirement.

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