Sunday, May 19, 2024

GPL Version 3 Hits The Home Stretch

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I can still remember the day two years ago when one of my fellow editors at told me he heard that the GPL version 2 (define)was going to be revised.

I rebuked him, noting that nothing would change with the GPL — so long as the SCO litigation over alleged copyright infringement in the license was ongoing. SCO, after all, had alleged that the GPL was unconstitutional and, as such, the license wouldn’t likely change since that might imply that the GPL was somewhat faulty.

How wrong I was, on many counts.

After 18 months of wrangling, intense debate and modification, the GPL version 3 is set to be officially released this week Its revision, the first major change to the primary Free Software license in 15 years, fixes faults with the existing GPL version 2, provides additional protections and introduces some new complexities, as well.

A Bumpy Road Traveled

The first true indications that the GPL was going to be revised came, all the way back in September of 2005. A process document defining how the new license would be discussed and rolled out was issued two months later in November.

It was in January of 2006 that the first draft was released . It was the first draft that laid the core foundation for all the discussion to come with its big words about Patents and Digital Rights Management (DRM).

“Software patents threaten every free software project, just as they threaten proprietary software and custom software,” the FSF (Free Software Foundation) wrote in its rationale behind the first draft.

Little did we or the FSF now at the time, that some eleven months later in November, 2006, a deal between Microsoft and Novell would make the FSF’s pronouncement ring louder than ever. The deal provides patent protections, or ‘covenants’ in the parlance of the agreement, to protect Novell users against any alleged patent infringement in Linux of Microsoft’s intellectual property.

On DRM, the first draft was extremely negative, with terms for the technology such as “Digital Restrictions Management” (rather the Digital Rights Management). It turned out to be language that was softened in the next draft and was something that lead counsel Eben Moglen publicly lamented.

The debate over the GPL version 3 began quicklyafter the first draft was released. HP, Google and Novell were among those that were positive on the new license.

Linus Torvalds, on the other hand, wasn’t. In January of 2006, Torvalds, the father of Linux, laid out his opposition to the GPL version 3. His position has barely budged in the intervening 18 months.

The second draft came out in July and softened the harsh edges about patents and DRM that were included in the first draft. Public comment again hit in a flurry, this time with HP voicing its issues with the new patent clauses.

The third draft of GPL version 3 was the one most influenced by the Novell Microsoft deal; it added provisions to try to prevent any similar deals in the future.

Richard Stallman, president of the FSF and principal author of the GNU GPL, said in a statement at the time: “The recent patent agreement between Microsoft and Novell aims to undermine these freedoms. In this draft we have worked hard to prevent such deals from making a mockery of free software.”

When the last call draft was issued on May 31st, it finally made the GPL compatible with the Apache 2.0 license. Still, more twists ensued. GPL version 3, according to Stallman, would not be compatible with GPL version 2.

“GPL version 2 will remain a valid license, and no disaster will happen if some programs remain under GPLv2 while others advance to GPLv3,” Stallman said in a statement.

The Road Ahead

On June 29th all that work culminates with the release of the final draft.

Whereas over the last 18 months we’ve had a lot of debate about what goes into the license, after June 29th the noise will be about why to use it and who is using it.

There is little doubt that for the foreseeable future we will live in a world in which there are both GPL version 2 and version 3 applications. There is little doubt that the two similar, yet incompatible, licenses will cause confusion for projects, developers and users as they navigate the licensing minefield.

The Free Software Foundation has not indicated whether it would retire the GPL version 2 at any point — not that I think it could, even if it wanted to. Fundamentally, the GPL has always been about Freedom. With the third license, patent and DRM freedoms are key, though they may not be for everyone, and they likely aren’t for Linux users.

The Freedom to choose licenses will not go away with GPL version 3. The debate in the coming months and years will be all about that choice.

This article was first published on

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