Free to Be GPL 3?

A second discussion of the draft sparks debate over proposed changes.

At the end of last month, the free Software Foundation released a second discussion draft of the GNU General Public License Version 3.

Were now in the midst of a public comment period and, perhaps fortunately for those of us who chronicle such matters, theres already been a good bit of shocked pearl-clutching and huffy protestations to recount.

Most of the complaints seem to center around branding FSF founder Richard Stallman as an ideologue who cares less about the business models of IT and consumer electronics vendors and more about free software as an end in itself—a ridiculous complaint, since Stallman has never claimed to be anything less than a strident advocate for free software as an intrinsic good.

While much of whats changing in the GPL amounts to clarifications—such as those targeted at enabling the GPL to operate more comfortably under the copyright laws of countries outside of the United States—its the opinion of the FSF that an up-to-date GPL must expand to cover circumstances not countenanced back in 1991.

Software patents have exploded, and, according to Sun officials with whom Ive spoken, the lack of clear patent grant provisions in the GPL 2 was one of the sticking points that led Sun to draft its own CDDL (Common Development and Distribution License) for OpenSolaris. Still, Hewlett-Packard has reportedly voiced concern for the patent language in this second GPL 3 draft.

More controversial, yet arguably in keeping with the spirit of the GPL, are provisions regarding DRM (digital rights/restrictions management, depending on whom you ask) that prompt the question of whether free software embedded with cryptographic signatures that block unfettered use can still qualify as free.

The bottom line is that the GPL 3 will be only as important or powerful as the software that developers and vendors release under it. If a developer or vendor doesnt like the GPL 3, they dont have to use it for their projects and have the option of not distributing or building upon the works of developers whove chosen to use the license.

At the same time, Stallman and the FSF also have choices. On one hand, they may opt for a GPL 3 that maximizes freedom over the business and development model values of other current GPL stakeholders—and end up with a license that nobody uses.

On the other hand, they can scale controversial provisions back (possibly making some optional) and hang onto the major free software projects that put the GPL on the map in the first place. The Linux kernel project, which Linus Torvalds has promised not to move to the GPL 3 as currently written, seems like a good place to start.

Senior Analyst Jason Brooks can be reached at jason_brooks@ziffdavis.com.