Signal and Noise in GPLv3

A look inside the debate over the new GPL, including comments from Linus Torvalds, Richard Stallman and Peter Brown.
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Since the third version of the GNU General Public License (GPLv3) was released last month, the reactions have been quick and furious. According to some, the adoption of GPLv3 is urgently needed to prevent threats to the continued existence of free and open source software (FOSS). According to others, the license will destroy the FOSS community, and reduce the Free Software Foundation (FSF), which produced the license, to an obsolete remnant without any power.

Which position is closest to the truth? To the outsider -- say, an executive trying to understand FOSS -- the answer can be hard to find. Supporters of both positions sound equally sure of themselves, and outsiders lack the background knowledge to evaluate exactly what is happening.

As is often the case, the answer seems to lie between the two extremes. GPLv3 is needed for the concept of free software to continue being effective, and, if its reception is unlikely to destroy the Free Software Foundation, its adaption rate will reflect and shape the changing role of the organization in years to come.

However, to arrive at this answer, you need to understand the reasons for the confusion surrounding GPLv3, as well as the old animosities and philosophical differences that add to it -- many of which are not only half-expressed or simply assumed in the discussions surrounding the license and its adoption.

Signal to Noise

The most basic reason for misunderstanding GPLv3 is the process that has produced it. The FSF, appreciating that a change in the license used by over three-quarters of all FOSS projects would have a major effect, threw the process open to unprecedented consultation. This included not only more than 50 people representing FOSS and corporate stakeholders on its main committees, but public meetings and a wiki. Any time you have thousands of people involved in a project, rumors are going to fly -- some accidental, some perhaps started deliberately for political reasons. Add a time period of 18 months and 4 drafts, some of which included major changes, and conflicting opinions and misunderstandings are inevitable.

Nor was this situation helped by the FSF's decision not to defend itself during the process. For instance, when Linus Torvalds launched a series of outspoken attacks in the media in the late summer of 2006, the only response was a blog entry from Eben Moglen, the chief drafter of the bill, inviting him to get involved in the consultation process, and ignoring the issues raised by Torvalds. Peter Brown, executive director of the FSF, explains that such responses were a deliberate policy, intended to ensure that discussion was not stifled by official responses. The policy achieved its aim, but at the cost of leaving rumors and misunderstandings uncorrected.

Another source of misunderstanding was the fact that the GPLv3 debate was many journalists' and executives' first exposure to the often anarchic world of FOSS development. Taking place on email and IRC, discussion in FOSS projects tends to be off-the-cuff and impassioned, with a heightened rhetoric that outsiders take far more seriously than participants.

In an email to me last month, Linus Torvalds, who has been portrayed in the media as GPLv3's main opponent, describes the language that he and other use on the Linux kernel mailing list as "blunt, to the point, and not very polite." When journalists quote pieces of it, he notes, often "the context of that language is then lost entirely" -- and he adds that "it's not just the text of the thread itself that is the context; the context is also how technical people discussing things amongst each other is in itself a very different context than a trade magazine article."

In other words, what may seem, by itself, to be an expression of undying hate and eternally-held beliefs is actually only the rhetoric of the moment, and is not necessarily borne out by later actions. Torvalds, for instance, may have strongly expressed reactions about GPLv3, but, aside from his willingness to speak to the media, those reactions did not lead to Torvalds mounting a campaign against GPLv3, or even to suggest that others not use it. In the end, Torvalds made perfectly clear that his decision to use GPLv2 was an entirely personal matter. GPLv3, he said, was "a viable alternative" -- simply not the one he preferred.

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