GPLv2 or GPLv3?: Inside the Debate: Page 3

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Lockdown technologies

GPLv3 contains two sections dealing with technologies that restrict user's ability to use software as they choose. In Section 3, GPLv3 specifies that no software covered by the license will be covered by laws that prevent circumvention of digital rights management (DRM) technologies. In other words, if software is released under the GPL, then cracking any DRM it includes is legal. Since, to date, DRM schemes have all been cracked sooner or later, this provision alone neutralizes them.

Yet Section 6 goes even further by stating that, if any technologies that restrict software are used, then the source code for them must be distributed along with the source code for the rest of the program. This provision covers both DRM technologies, which requires authentication by legitimate users, and what the FSF refers to as TiVoization -- the use of hardware controls to prevent modified versions of the software from running. So-called because the TiVo was one of the first examples of the technology, TiVoization is described by Peter Brown as circumventing GPL2 "in spirit, not technically." According to Brown, the provision against it is needed to further the FSF's goal of empowering all computer users. "The Preamble is pretty clear that the purpose of the GPL is to protect user's freedoms," he says.

However, Linus Torvalds takes a different view, one that is shared by many kernel developers and no doubt many other developers in the FOSS community. While Torvalds has softened his criticism of GPLv3 in recent months, provisions against TiVoization -- a term that Torvalds refuses to use, calling it unfair -- remain his major reason for rejecting the new version of the license.

In an interview with Forbes magazine in March 2006, Torvalds explains why he prefers GPLv2 to GPLv3. "To me, the GPL really boils down to 'I give out code, I want you to do the same,'" Torvalds says. "For example, the GPLv2 in no way limits your use of the software. If you're a mad scientist, you can use GPLv2'd software for your evil plans to take over the world ('Sharks with lasers on their heads!!'), and the GPLv2 just says that you have to give source code back. And that's OK by me. I like sharks with lasers. I just want the mad scientists of the world to pay me back in kind. I made source code available to them, they have to make their changes to it available to me. After that, they can fry me with their shark-mounted lasers all they want."

On the Linux kernel developer's mailing list, Torvalds has recently re-stated this position in an often heated and abusive exchange with Alexandre Oliva, one of the directors of the FSFLA, a Latin America-based organization with close but unofficial ties with the FSF. The choice of license for the kernel, Torvalds says at one point in the discussion, is "about keeping me happy. That's my primary (only) motivation for a license....I want to be able to use other people's improvements."

For Brown, this position summarizes the basic distinction between the open source and free software philosophies. Advocates of the two philosophies have much in common, including the same licenses, and the terms are often used interchangeably, especially by those outside the communities. Nor do they represent two separate views so much as opposite ends of a spectrum of opinions. However, essentially, the open source philosophy is mostly concerned with the quality of software produced by the licenses, while the free software philosophy sees the licenses as a means to ensuring the rights of computer users.

"When we talk about computer users' freedom, we mean computer users -- not computer programmers, not the most powerful people in society," Brown says. "And certainly in the software community, those with the most power are the developers. So it's understandable that they wouldn't see [TiVoization] as a problem. They want the freedom to lock down computer users."

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