Free Software Foundation Explains GPL 3.0 Vision

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2006-01-16 Print this article Print

The co-authors of GPLv3 release a document giving the rationale behind the changes proposed to the open-source license.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—The Free Software Foundation on Monday released a 21-page document that explains the rationale for the changes it has proposed to the GNU General Public License in the first draft discussion document of GPL 3.0. The document was released at the First International Conference on GPLv3 here at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology).
"Our goal is for the GPLv3 public discussion process to be as transparent and accessible as possible.
"We look forward to receiving many informative and helpful comments on the draft of GPLv3 from all relevant viewpoints across the free software community," said Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation and the licenses original author, and Eben Moglen, the FSFs general counsel, who drafted the first discussion version. While computer technology has changed since 1991, these changes were not primarily what motivated them to revise the GPL, but rather "the maintenance of users freedoms," they wrote in the document. In fact, the principal challenges to the free software community have been changes in the law, they wrote, especially the "unwise and ill-considered application of patent law to software. Software patents threaten every free software project, just as they threaten proprietary software and custom software." Any program could be destroyed or crippled by a software patent belonging to someone who has no other connection to the program, they said, adding that most countries have followed the direction of the United States in allowing software to be patented to at least some degree, and, by the end of the decade, commentators were criticizing the GPL for doing too little to combat patents. Read Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols commentary here putting software patents in terms of mutually assured destruction. "A programs own license cannot protect it from the threat of software patents. The only real solution to the problem of software patents is to abolish them. However, we can protect against attempts by some participants in a programs development to use patents against other participants," Stallman and Moglen wrote. GPLv3 brings an explicit patent license that covers any patents held by the programs developers, replacing the implicit license on which GPLv2 relied. GPLv3 also implements a narrow scheme of patent retaliation against those who undertake this precise form of aggression. "Our draft of GPLv3 makes clear that we do not entirely share the current enthusiasm of others in the free software community for including broad forms of patent retaliation in licenses. Theorists of patent retaliation have, in our view, overestimated the deterrent value of denying access to free software," Moglen and Stallman said. The draft license distinguishes between activities of a licensee that are permitted without limitation and activities that trigger additional requirements. The basic freedoms to privately modify and run the program are guaranteed, but the right to privately modify and run the program is terminated if the licensee brings a patent infringement lawsuit against anyone for activities relating to a work based on the program. "This narrowly targeted patent retaliation provision is the only form of patent retaliation that GPLv3 imposes by its own force. We believe that it strikes a proper balance between preserving the freedom of a user to run and modify a program, and protecting the rights of other users to run, modify, copy and distribute code free from threats by patent holders," they said To read about IBMs grant to open-source software users of access to innovations covered by 500 of its software patents, click here. The provision was particularly intended to discourage a GPL licensee from securing a patent directed to unreleased modifications of GPL code and then suing the original developers or others for making their own equivalent modifications, the rationale document said. Next Page: DRM threatens free software.

Peter Galli has been a financial/technology reporter for 12 years at leading publications in South Africa, the UK and the US. He has been Investment Editor of South Africa's Business Day Newspaper, the sister publication of the Financial Times of London.

He was also Group Financial Communications Manager for First National Bank, the second largest banking group in South Africa before moving on to become Executive News Editor of Business Report, the largest daily financial newspaper in South Africa, owned by the global Independent Newspapers group.

He was responsible for a national reporting team of 20 based in four bureaus. He also edited and contributed to its weekly technology page, and launched a financial and technology radio service supplying daily news bulletins to the national broadcaster, the South African Broadcasting Corporation, which were then distributed to some 50 radio stations across the country.

He was then transferred to San Francisco as Business Report's U.S. Correspondent to cover Silicon Valley, trade and finance between the US, Europe and emerging markets like South Africa. After serving that role for more than two years, he joined eWeek as a Senior Editor, covering software platforms in August 2000.

He has comprehensively covered Microsoft and its Windows and .Net platforms, as well as the many legal challenges it has faced. He has also focused on Sun Microsystems and its Solaris operating environment, Java and Unix offerings. He covers developments in the open source community, particularly around the Linux kernel and the effects it will have on the enterprise.

He has written extensively about new products for the Linux and Unix platforms, the development of open standards and critically looked at the potential Linux has to offer an alternative operating system and platform to Windows, .Net and Unix-based solutions like Solaris.

His interviews with senior industry executives include Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, Linus Torvalds, the original developer of the Linux operating system, Sun CEO Scot McNealy, and Bill Zeitler, a senior vice president at IBM.

For numerous examples of his writing you can search under his name at the eWEEK Website at


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