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GNU is Not Unix

GRASS Geographic Information System now under GPL 78

Spatialy Challenged writes "The GRASS Geographic Information System (originally developed by the US Army Corps of Engineers) is actively being developed and has now been released under the GPL. GRASS has a good core architecture, but is missing the interoperability and GUI features of commercial desktop GIS. I would sure like to see this software evolve into a KDE/Gnome GUI plus OpenGIS CORBA/SQL/COM interoperability. I'm sure it has the potential to blow the socks off of the big commercial names. "
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GRASS Geographic Information System now under GPL

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  • I notice that the software is gpl and such. But what about the datafiles? Do we still have to pay 500 dollars to get the data? Or is that going to go up on a FTP site somewhere?
  • GRASS actually seems pretty strange compared to ARCVIEW.

    GRASS isn't really competing against ARC/View it's market is the same as ARC/INFOs. Having used ESRI products I can say it would be nice to have another option. ESRIs bug fixes are slower than MS and often the bugs are real show stoppers. (Metric units anyone? :( )

    I'm presently looking into using GRASS for a project and if it has the functionality I require it should save me 10's of thousands of dollars in licenceing fees. (Both ESRI and OS -Soloris or TRU64- because ARC/INFO will not run on linux.)

  • Oh come now. It's not flamebair. It's a joke. A joke!

    Have people no senses of humor!?

    Max V.
  • When I was working for the VA, we released all the source code used (except for the encryption ones) on CD-ROM for anyone to use. We were required to sell it for the cost of duplicating the information. This wound up being $10-15, since it was about 5 years ago, and CD duplication was expensive.
  • You've funded a great deal of research and development to make this software component and all of a sudden, the government releases a similar component and allows anyone to make a product that competes with yours at a much lower cost than you had to expend. A good question, in general terms. However in this particular case, there is no "all of a sudden", GRASS has been around, and public, since 1982. Does anybody here know if any of the current big GIS players have used any of the PD GRASS code?

  • The other thing that would be nice is if the government would start making the datasets we paid good tax money for available for reasonable fees.

    Agreed. A lot of other people think the same way. New Zealand just drastically reduced their digital base date prices: from $2 million to $1,500 for the nation wide set. While $1500 is not pocket change for a student or small company, at least it's reacheable. See this url [] for details.

    A group of us are working on the Canadian government to follow suit. There's a petition at: []. For some press see this article [].


  • Grass Documentation Project: /

    From Grass to ArcView:
    http://www.geo .pdf []

    From .e00 to GRASS:
    http://www.geo html []
  • I cross posted your message to the GRASS mailing list. []

  • I don't know what scripting facility GRASS has...

    Any kind you want. ;-) GRASS follows the unix paradigm of being modular and command line oriented, so you can use perl, or python, or tcl, or whatever you like.

  • Any kind you want. ;-) GRASS follows the unix paradigm of being modular and command line oriented, so you can use perl, or python, or tcl, or whatever you like.

    Fsck, I love it.
  • by mouseman ( 54425 ) on Saturday October 30, 1999 @11:00AM (#1575496) Homepage
    The feds can own copyrights only by transfer.
    Too often, they get around this by hiring some company to do the work and let them profit off the copyrights in addition to paying them for the work.
    Unfortunately, that does happen. Though, based on my reading of the copyright law, I believe the practice of using copyright transfers to get around the requirement that government works be PD is expressly forbidden. However, IANAL.

    The idea behind the law should be obvious: stuff developed with public money should be free for unrestricted use by the public who paid for it.
    That is the opinion I most often hear, but I don't think that's the reason government works are PD. For example, as you pointed out, works developed by private contractors are generally owned by those contractors, even when the development was paid for entirely out of taxpayer dollars. Furthermore, even if the government owns a copyright, the work is still public property, in the same sense that government-owned streets or buildings are public property. You don't have "unrestricted use" of the streets, even though you paid for them, because the interests of the public at large are best served by imposing some restrictions.

    Rather, I think the real reason government works aren't copyrighted is that there's no reason for them to be. The purpose of copyrights is to promote the development of valuable works for public consumption, by giving the creators the oportunity to profit from selling copies of the works, and thus an incentive to develop them. Works developed by the government are already developed specifically for the public good (at least in theory), so there's no need for an additional profit motive.

    Of course, that doesn't explain government-owned patents.

    I hate to see this stuff disappearing from the public domain into the chains of the GPL.
    I think you're confused here. If something is in the public domain, it cannot disappear from the public domain unless all copies disappear. Furthermore, government agencies are required to make their (non-classified, PD) products available to the public at a reasonable fee (to cover costs), so just because government-developed software is released under the GPL doesn't mean you can't obtain a PD version.

    However, anyone can take that PD software, make some trivial changes, copyright it and release the result as proprietary, GPL, or whatever.

    I actually think in many ways the GPL serves the public better than releasing it PD. Look at the TIGER/LINE data that Bruce Parens released under the GPL. Before that, there were dozens and dozens of companies taking that data (acquired at considerable public expense), making proprietary modifications and reselling it. All perfectly legitimate, but also wasteful, since anyone who wanted commercial-quality maps that weren't subject to someone else's copyright would have to go back to the PD version and duplicate the work that has been done dozens of times before. On the other hand, any improvements made the the GPL'ed version will be free to everyone, so no one needs to reinvent the wheel.

  • Strangely, I found out about this yesterday, when I followed the lwn [] link to the FreeGIS [] web site newly created by Jan-Oliver Wagner in Germany.

    This site has links to a number of other interesting free software GIS packages, as well as a couple of sources of data.

    It is my hope that a real free GIS community will develop. I have a personal interest in this, as I think my libart [] 2D graphics rendering library has the potential to render maps at a much higher quality than most proprietary GIS packages today (i.e. antialiasing, semi-transparent layers, combining vector with image data). If there's anyone who's interested in integrating libart's cool rendering capabilities with the cool free software GIS apps, both current and future, please get in touch.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    The site has a spatial data link that will send you on your way to data.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I've worked with salmon population and fishery models for a number of years. This past year I was instructed to create "spatially explicit" population viability models using GIS. I checked out the ESRI stuff and another high end package. I eventually selected GRASS however. The big commercial packages offer lots of pretty features but provide lame extension languages. I've seen people hit walls with these systems and end up stuck. I use Grass to dump spatial data and process it using a combination of C++ and Python. This combination is proving very effective.
  • by tal ( 20116 )
    For more GIS checkout
  • You young whippersnappers, complaining about gettin' GPL'ed software... Why, back in my day, if we wanted a GPL'ed version of a product, we had to write it ourselves! We bootstrapped Linux on our PCs, and we liked it! We had ta write the dang-nabbed code for emacs in vi, and we liked it! It took four days for each build attempt of cross-target gcc on a Sun, and we liked it! You damn whippersnappers complainin' about gettin' your source code fer free sure makes me hot unner the collar. Damn kids today, got no respect, they don't know the value of what they got because they never had to work fer a thing.
    Beer recipe: free! #Source
    Cold pints: $2 #Product

  • The Guile webpage is itself up to date but the documentnation isn't. The Guile reference manual particulary.

  • The deal with a multi-person cooperative effort is that no one person holds the copyright any longer.

    Linus essentially no longer holds the copyright to Linux fully because much of the work has been contributed by others.

    In order to change the license, one would have to notify and obtain approval from all copyright holders, or remove their code from the project.

    I think it's horribly unethical, because when I contribute code to a project it is done under the rules defined by the license the project exists in at the date of my submission.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Just what is the legality of releasing something that was developed with public money under something like the GPL? Any comments from lawyers or others who might know?
  • Further evidence that the GNU folksa are working on creating an open army to take over the world by force. Revolutionary socialism, and all that rot.

    Max V.
  • If it was developed with public money, it's a pretty good idea to let the public have access to it, especially under the GPL. This basically ensures that it'll be 100% public.

    Now if they were to have deicded to charge $10,000 licensing fees (IE: License for Profit), and viciously go after anyone who used it without paying it, then I'd be questioning the legality.
  • by Anonymous Coward
    I think you're underestimating unix people's interest in GIS. Don't forget that most software written for unix compiles on linux, BSD, slowlaris, etc - including the majority of boxen people use for scientific / military / engineering applications. Thus even niche interest apps tend to get developed quite vigorously - eg. FEA / CFD codes are often open-source these days, Varkon parametric 3D cad software is going open source (sloowly), Maverik virtual environment software is GPLd, the eros os has been GPLd. All these are large, serious applications, with limited markets. Nonetheless, they stand to benefit considerably from the opened development model.
  • Yes, the GNU Hurd is on the attack! Stampede!

    As they unleash the emacs flamethrowers...
  • by hey! ( 33014 ) on Saturday October 30, 1999 @07:01AM (#1575512) Homepage Journal
    From what I can see, most places that get GIS's end up either pouring tons of resources into them for doubtful return, or end up occaisionally playing with them, producing one or two interesting maps and then falling by the wayside.

    The key I think to give the average user the ability to use spatial analysis is to develop custom built applications that support specific tasks and analyses. I'm doing that right now in the public health sector. The problem is the licesnsing is a bear. The vendors don't want it to be too easy to develop applications with GIS functionality because it affects there bread and butter business. One vendor requires you buy licenses in blocks of 40, for example.

    The other thing that would be nice is if the government would start making the datasets we paid good tax money for available for reasonable fees. The fact that people take them and simply resell them at lower prices (which presumably is fair market price) means that the government's revenues are not maximized for these resources.
  • Note that your argument also applies to Microsoft and others using the BSD TCP/IP stack. (Thinking back to flame wars in the past....)

    In many of the license wars here on slashdot, it's often forgotten that certain software was developed either directly or indirectly with government funding, usually as part of the national defense infrastructure, but also for the good of the public as a whole (commercial and noncommercial interests included).
  • I currently work at CERL, where GRASS was originally developed and there are still a number of hard core GRASS fans around in the GIS community. I've seen an app developed in tcl/tk/GRASS and redeveloped in ESRI's ARC/INFO/Visual Basic and beyond VB database capability (which the developer found useless anyway) it looked isn't much you can't do in GRASS that you can do in the industry standard products.

    10 years ago GRASS had the capabilities that ESRI is just implementing into ARC 8. All GRASS needs is the GUI and it should be a big competitor. I wish I had more time... I'd love to be part of that!

  • I don't think the previous poster was talking about GPL vs. commercial licenses, but about GPL versus less restrictive licenses, the idea being "if I paid for this with my tax dollars, I should be able to use it in my commercial products as well as in my free products".

    I don't think that would necessarily be a better or more "fair" way to do it, however. Imagine you're in the business of selling GIS systems. You've funded a great deal of research and development to make this software component and all of a sudden, the government releases a similar component and allows anyone to make a product that competes with yours at a much lower cost than you had to expend.

    Random hackers releasing the same code into the public domain would hurt you just as much, but at least they weren't paid by the government.

  • If I recall, it used to say it was public domain software, because it'd been developed with government funds. I haven't played with it since the days of DOS, though; I could very well be mistaken. I remember it being somewhat hard to use, but quite featureful.
  • I'm mildly intrigued. Could you explain?
  • by edgy ( 5399 ) on Saturday October 30, 1999 @07:12AM (#1575520)

    I think they had a long article in Linux Journal about using GRASS under Linux instead of the commercial alternatives, and even in the state that it is in currently, it saved them a lot of money and allowed them to use scripts and tools like Tk and others to be able to automate things to allow them to process a lot more data a lot more quickly.

    The project was completed tens of thousands of dollars under budget and they experienced none of the problems they used to see with other systems.

    This is a good thing. They spoke very highly of GRASS and its potential. I'm not in the field at all, but this is another victory for free software.
  • Ok, HP's doing it, small developers in iowa are doing it, the Army's doing it, soon, everything'll be gpl'd.
    It's the *chic* thing to do nowadays if you've got something of value:
    Ok, i think i'll GPL my totally k-rad product and then lo-and-behold, maybe lots of linux freaks'll want it.

    It's really nothing more than a PR thing anymore (in my opinion). Nowadays, if you've got a nice lil' linux app, you've really got only 1 option: GPL it. Anything less would be uncivilized and most likely heavily criticized.

  • by timothy ( 36799 ) on Saturday October 30, 1999 @07:17AM (#1575522) Journal
    This story reminds me a little bit about the French senators who want computer programming done for France to be open sourced -- it demonstrates the value that can be salvaged from tax money that's already been spent.

    Is there a good reason that it could not simply be a standard clause in the contracts surrounding comptuer programming done for any government agency that the result must be reusable, barring previous conflicting licensing terms? There are all sorts of other standards imposed on nearly every government contract, and this is one that might actually add some value.

    Remember, the only way the government buys something is with money it's already taken from you for your benefit, or with money it promises it will take from you later. (Also for your benefit.)



  • It depends on whether the licence terms permit changing the licence. True public domain code or a typical BSD licence does allow incorporating the code into a produce under a different licence. Anyone using a licence that permits this is presumably willing for people to do that.

    GPL does not permit this, that's the fundamental difference between GPL and BSD type licences.
  • Umm, is freeware not a contraction of Free Software? And GPL is the license for free software, correct? So how is freeware incorrect? Sure, it would be horrific to call GPL software public domain, or shareware, or something, but whats wrong with calling it freeware? (other than it sounding lame as hell)
  • by GPSguy ( 62002 ) on Saturday October 30, 1999 @08:13PM (#1575528) Homepage
    As things stand now, implementing a GIS is non-trivial. You've got to be well-trained in the software, knowledgable in databases, and have a clue about geodesy. Without these, and other key components, you have a program that ends up making maps which are then of questionable utility.

    I firmly agree with paragraph 2, however. I foresee the day when the "GIS Industry" fades away save for the academics teaching it, and they're going to fade to obscurity only a bit more slowly. Spatial representation of data is a fairly natural method of analysis and display. That it's not been widely implemented so far has, as much as anything, been the result of database limitations... and more in theory than applicaiton implementations. Indeed, I'm willing to bet that within 10 years, perhaps less, the "big names" in GIS software in the industrial markey will be looking at the Microsofts, Corels, Applixes, and other suite makers, and wondering how the market got there.

    As for datasets: yes, our money paid for their development. A lot of them are available for free, or the cost of duplication. You've got to know where to get them... In Texas, the Texas Natural Resources Information Service (TNRIS: has a lot of geodata for the whole state available for download... for free. Storage limitations preclude putting ALL of the data out that way, but they're working on that, and the cost of distribution for non-downloadable data is restricted by state law to the costs of duplication, media and delivery.

    Landsat-7 data are available from USGS now for about 1/2 the cost of scenes from previous birds. USGS is developing a warehouse of older SPOT-Image data that they're trying to make available for duplication costs only.

    SO: There's a lot out on that front. You have to look, I have to scout out tidbits at the meetings. Now: Can someone tell me why the DoD National Imagery and Mapping Agency's Level 1 (10m) Digital Terrain Elevation Models (DTEDs) are classified for the Continental US? Because of that, I can't get the new NGS densifications of height vs. local gravity in Geoid99!
  • Checked lately? I think you'll find there's now a vector component to GRASS.

    And, ESRI is thumbing their noses at Linux as a passing fad... or so they've told me. Matter of fact, so is ERDAS.

    Research Systems may well give ERDAS a run for their money: I've had real good results lately with their IDL/ENVI suite for remote sensing, even if I can't get AVHRR data to load.
  • Amen. I find it amazing that ESRI didn't learn its lesson from AML. They seem to have the attitude that extension languages should only allow you to perform large scale operations that they provide, but they give you no way to write your own.

    On the off chance that anyone who works for ESRI is reading: Please give your users a decent language or give them a decent API to run against.

    (Suddenly remembering one if the reasons I left my last job where I had to deal with this stuff...)
  • Question: Does GRASS have the capabilities of ARCview's Avenue scripts, and plug ins like Spatial Analyst?
    It strikes me that these matrix ops add the most value to a GIS visualization tool.

    Computers are useless. They can only give answers.
  • Wasn't it Bruce Perens a while back got hold of some library of GIS datasets and was going to GPL them? What ever happened with that? Is there any sort of "matchup" between GRASS and that data? Could the two be combined to make a GPL "mapquest" type engine?

    I know this is such a "niche" thing, but personally, I would *love* to have a CD of GIS data for my area that I could use along with a GPS and my laptop to track some of the data I "create" from my hobby as an amateur botanist. i.e. being able to do things like record GPS locations of plant ranges for certain species I've been able to find and recording and accurately mapping locations of sample collection sites and so forth. As it is, if I do record them, I have to wind up plotting them on a paper map of the "Rand McNally Road Atlas" type of thing. It would be nice to be able to regenerate new maps electronically any time I wanted.


  • by jabbo ( 860 )
    Maybe now they'll use autoconf and automake. GRASS was a nightmare to install when I did it for my former boss.

  • GRASS actually seems pretty strange compared to ARCVIEW. Laying aside GRASSLANDS (which I know little of) to use it you pretty much had to do things on the command line or write a shell script for it.

    So for scripting capability it is about the only way you can make it usuable for complicated projects.

    As for add-on like SA, I think most of that capability is already built in but I'm not sure. I don't regularly use GRASS, I've just had to understand what was going on in few projects.

  • Yup. Those have been available for some time from Perens' FTP site and a number of mirrors -- or (if you've got a Federal Repository Library handy, which my university does) you can just get the unencumbered originals.

    I'm not familiar enough with GRASS to say whether it'll work with that data, but if you want to know what you can do with your laptop, head over to Bruce's website (, is it?) and join the mailing list for software using the data.
  • I'm sorry, but having used GRASS and having spent 4 years working with Arc/Info.

    No comparison... GRASS does not have a chance.

    Yes, GRASS is fairly popular with the government and university segments because the licensing for Arc/Info is rather expensive. But Arc does so much more...

    It's funny. This mediocre product mentions that it's now under the GPL and slashdot goes hyper for it.

  • On the off chance that anyone who works for ESRI is reading: Please give your users a decent language or give them a decent API to run against.

    What not happy with the COM based model of ARC 8 using VB or VBScript? ;)

    They still are pretty screwy about it. As I understand it you will have the ability to use the ARC 8 COM objects and the old SDE.



    "Copyright protection under this title is not available for any work of the United States Government, ..."

    The feds can own copyrights only by transfer.

    Too often, they get around this by hiring some company to do the work and let them profit off the copyrights in addition to paying them for the work. What a deal!

    The idea behind the law should be obvious: stuff developed with public money should be free for unrestricted use by the public who paid for it. Certainly not just for the GPL mob who have paid a minuscule fraction of the taxes that pay for the stuff.

    I hate to see this stuff disappearing from the public domain into the chains of the GPL. It's often marked "GPL" at its first publishing even though that has no legal standing. This unethical action usually works, though because nobody but those around the jerk that does it knows the stuff is in the public domain. Even someone knows the stuff is being mislabled, there is little that can be done because it is legal.

    I think you'll find examples of this in the Linux kernel, some of which seems to have been developed by people on Federal payrolls and/or Federal computers.

  • The theory is that since the data in question is useful to such a small percentage of the overall US population, charging just those who care about the information for the data (and transfer) costs is perfectly ok. No need for every person in America to subsidize the needs of 1% of its citizens.

    That being said, a fair amount of data is available on the net at no cost. The USGS elevation data for the US is downloadable from the USGS. One company will package up to 20 MB of the US Census Bureau Tiger Line data sets for download as one zip file.

  • and i thought it was a good idea done bad (but this was the first time i used any GIS software or even heard about such a beast).

    Why i think this was done bad may be because of my lack of experience and my lack of training on it. basically, all I learned was via the web or books I searched at the library.

    While it's a great way to learn computer science for me (because i already have enough knowledge to understand new things), this wasn't the most effective thing to learn ArcView or GIS philosophy in general.

    The scripting language included inside ArcView looked great on paper, it was easy to use and it even was object oriented, but it seemed to be designed like a Mac: it is easy for users knowing nothing to computer but when you know about computers and want to do real programming you're stuck.

    Of course this may come from lack of information, but the simple fact that I couldn't find this information was very frustrating.

    I hope some /.er used it and can correct me and provide me some usefull links. Even if this was just for my work experience and I may never use it again it interested me and I would LOVE to change my POV.

    I don't know what scripting facility GRASS has but one thing that would be cool would be to see someone add a Guile interface.

    BTW, is there some not-outdated Guile informations? If there are I can't find them
  • Ok, no Java, but you might take a look at Python. :-)
  • I've used some of the commercial GIS tools, and the worst aspect of most of them was the clunky interface. Why does GRASS have to have a GUI? I personally would be happier with a command line tool that could output data into different formats. One export format for a vector-based graphics displayer, one export format for a raster-based graphics displayer, one for VRML, one suitable for plotting with Gnuplot or whatever, one for importing into a database, etc.

    Isn't that the Unix way? A series of small, fast, specialized tools to do something, not one huge, monolithic tool that tries to be all things to all people? If the developers of GRASS created a strong backend, with ties to SQL and customizable export capabilities, with a well-documented API and perhaps minimal Tk/GTK/Qt/whatever hooks, then GRASS would end up being a much more poweful and flexible tool.


  • I don't think the public money aspect is important.

    The issue I have with an open source project suddenly changing licensing schemes, especially one which has been around for a long time is...

    Did you bother to ask *EVERYBODY* who had contributed to the project since it started?

    Let's say I have the open source project called 'widget', and it's released under an older typical open-source license which is BSD style with a clause for non-commercial use only.

    Joe, and George, and Susie all contribute to the project at various points. Joe writes a major part of the project, and then gets a new job and disappears.

    A few years later George suggests they change the license to GPL so that they can get to post articles about the widget project.

    Can they do this? Without Joe's permission? I don't believe they can.

    If you can do this, without getting the consent of every single developer who ever touched the code... Then I can also take the Linux kernel and rerelease it under a SCSL without getting anybody's permission.

  • There are binaries available for most platforms.
  • Well gee - how much does Arc/Info cost? Perhaps that's why Slashdot is "hyper" for an alternative?

    I mean, that's sorta like all of a sudden BMWs are being given away, but "oh, well a Rolls Royce is so much nicer..."

    GRASS does not have a chance? Against what? The issue is not competition, it's availablility. Of course it has a chance. Anyone who wants to use it, can, and it'll be around in perpetuity. That sounds like a pretty good "chance" to me. :)
  • by Anonymous Coward
    Only the copyright holder of the code can change the license.
    i.e. Only Linus could release a version of Linux tomorrow under the SCSL. Random people off the street couldn't.

    And also, all previous versions of linux would still be under the GPL. So if Linus did do this (and it's not very likely...), someone else could just continue development from the last GPL version, calling it FreeLinux or something, however FreeLinux would have to be GPL in perpetuity, since it is a derived work of an original GPL codebase.

Never buy from a rich salesman. -- Goldenstern