Copyleft.next and the Future of GNU General Public Licenses

A bigwig at Red Hat launches a new licensing project, fueling major speculation.


You Can't Detect What You Can't See: Illuminating the Entire Kill Chain

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"I am puzzled as to why this might be thought a newsworthy story at all," says Richard Fontana, talking about his new licensing project, Copyleft.next (formerly, GPL.next). "Copyleft.next is just a toy research project, motivated initially by a mere desire on my part to learn more about using Git."

Fontana is perhaps being mildly disingenuous. Although the importance of Copyleft.next has been greatly exaggerated, he is not ruling out the possibility that it might play a role in the development of future versions of copyleft licenses such as the GPL family of licenses.

If nothing else, the project seems to reflect the critique of GPL licenses that Fontana has been quietly making for some months now, which deserves wider recognition and discussion.

Fontana is responding directly to the recent coverage of the project. Intended as an effort "to develop an improved strong copyleft free software license" -- that is, GPL-like licenses -- according to its About page, the project was quickly noticed last week as it was discussed on the Twitter-alternative Identi.ca.

Although the end of the week is usually a slow time for news, an article by Simon Phipps quickly appeared, and the story was picked up over the weekend by other sites covering free and open source software (FOSS).

Despite Fontana's claim that his main interest lies in learning more about the Git version control system, in retrospect the interest was inevitable. Although Fontana emphasized repeatedly that the project was entirely personal, and that he was not representing Red Hat or anyone else, anything he says about licensing is likely to be picked up by the FOSS media.

After all, together with Eben Moglen, Fontana was ghost-writer for the third version of the GPL (GPLv3), and he is currently Open Source Licensing and Patent Counsel at Red Hat. Consequently, when Fontana talks about licensing, the FOSS community listens.

Not only that, but circumstances combined to make the project suggestive. To start with, it was announced near the fifth anniversary of GPLv3, at a time when many observers suggest that GPL licenses are becoming less popular.

Add Fontana's statement that Copyleft.next was not supported by the Free Software Foundation and the fact that the project was initially reported -- erroneously -- as a fork, and the room for speculation was almost infinite.

Was Fontana trying to prod the Free Software Foundation into action? Was he repudiating his own work on the GPLv3? Taking a bold new direction to preserve the GPL family of licenses?

Given Fontana's initial reluctance to discuss what he was doing -- a reluctance overcome only by the continual requests for more information -- in the absence of hard facts, you could make the announcement of Copyleft.next mean almost anything.

Not that Fontana didn't offer hints that the attention was overblown. In particular, he wrote on the Note to Journalists page that "All communications with journalists shall be handled by the Copyleft.next Marketing Committee, which does not exist yet and probably won't exist for at least another year or three. For the avoidance of doubt, Simon Phipps is not considered a journalist."

However, many observers either missed such comments or failed to see any humor in them. For the most part, everyone took the project seriously as an effort by one of FOSS's major legal experts to address the possible future needs of FOSS licensing. Under these circumstances, Fontana's disclaimer becomes understandable.

The Critique Behind the Project

So why mention the episode at all? It is hardly the first time that misinformation has spread through the FOSS community. Nor, at this point, is CopyLeft.next more than potentially important.

However, the same cannot be said of the critique that helps to drive the project. This critique deserves more attention, and, if nothing else, the excitement over CopyLeft.next can help to make it better known.

Most lawyers are trained to think in terms of precedent. However, in Fontana's case, this training amounts to an unusually strong interest in research and history for their own sake. Consequently, when attempting to answer the question of whether GPL licenses are in decline and losing ground to the so-called permissive or BSD-style free licenses that allow restrictive relicensing, Fontana's first step is to consider the online records.

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Tags: open source, Linux, Red Hat, software licensing, GPL, GNU

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