GPLv2 or GPLv3?: Inside the Debate

The new GPL is engendering plenty of disputes, ranging from business to technical to personal. Where’s open source heading?
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The third version of the GNU General Public License (GPL) won't be released until the end of June. Yet, already, it is proving one of the most controversial developments ever in the free and open source software (FOSS)communities.

Some question whether a new version of the GPL, the license for an estimated 75% of free software projects, is needed at all. And, while language changes to improve international use are relatively uncontroversial, other changes in the new version are hotly debated, including the section about patents, with its language to prevent a reoccurrence of the Microsoft-Novell deal signed in November 2007, and sections that restrict the use of the license with lockdown technologies.

How legitimate are these concerns? Should software developers and distributors move to the new version or stay with the second version of the GPL? What will happen if some parts of the FOSS world, such as the Linux kernel, stay with the second version while other software uses the third version?

These questions are not easy to answer. The language of GPLv3 has changed dramatically since the first discussion draft was released in January 2006, but many people's perceptions of the license have not kept pace with the changes. Myths abound, aided by the sensationalism of the mainstream computer media, which frequently -- often willfully -- misinterprets the hyped-up rhetoric of the FOSS world as more serious as it is. Nor has understanding been aided by the fact that the Free Software Foundation (FSF), which is drafting the new license with the help of the Software Freedom Law Center, has adapted a policy of not answering criticisms, even when they become personal attacks, in order to avoid stifling discussion.

However, now, with the last call draft of the third version in circulation, it's time for a closer, calmer look at the issues.

The reasons for the new version

Even the reason for GPLv3 is a matter of dispute. In September 2006, a group of Linux kernel developers that included Andrew Morton and Greg Kroah-Hartman released a statement that suggested that, since the second version of the GPLv2 has been so successful in the fifteen years since its release, "we are extremely reluctant to contemplate tampering with that licence except as bug fixes to correct exposed problems." So far, the letter continued, "we have not found any bugs significant enough to warrant such corrections."

Similarly, Linus Torvalds, the leader of the Linux kernel project and one of the GPLv3's most vocal critics, suggests that the reason for the new license is that the FSF "noticed that there were other things that they wanted to do, and that were not not covered by the GPLv2."

However, to Richard Stallman, the FSF's founder, nothing has changed in GPLv3 except that language has been added to cover new loopholes that have emerged with the development of new technology. "In GPLv1," Stallman says, "I knew of two ways that people could try to make free software effectively proprietary. One was by adding additional license terms, and the other was by not releasing the source. So GPLv1 said you couldn't do either. Then, in 1990, I found out about another: that patent holders could threaten developers and make them impose restrictive conditions on subsequent users.”

Continues Stallman: “So GPLv2 added Section 7, which says that, no matter what other conditions are imposed on you, you can either distribute with full GPL freedoms or not at all. Now we've found out about two other ways to try to make free software effectively proprietary: one of them is TiVoization [the use of hardware based lockdown technologies], and the other is the Novell-Microsoft deal, so we're trying to block them both. And any time we find some new threat to a user's freedoms, we will try to block it."

In other words, unlike the kernel developers, Stallman and the FSF do see significant bugs. Rather than radically altering direction, they are simply moving to correct them. Many of these bugs are relatively minor and uncontested, such as the language that excludes the users of file-sharing software like BitTorrent from having to provide the source code along with binaries. Or the new ways to distribute source code, such as including written offers for the source code or providing access to it on a network server. As Brett Smith, FSF compliance engineer, suggests, such changes are simply "bringing GPL into the Internet culture."

The trouble is, not all the changes are just a matter of changes in technology. The major issues, although sometimes based on technology, also invoke philosophical and personal issues.

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