Founders Strive to Do No Evil in GPL 3 Process

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2005-08-10

Founders Strive to Do No Evil in GPL 3 Process

SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.—With patent pressures growing in the computer industry, the licensing foundation for a majority open-source projects is under review. On Wednesday, industry heavyweights here will seek to reassure the community over the process slated for the GNU General Public License 3, offering a statement of principals to govern that process, and a timeline to judge its progress.

The first discussion draft of the next version of the GNU General Public License (GPL) Version 3 is currently on track to be released in the first week of January 2006. Then, after a year of public comment and the writing of the final text, the final version should arrive early 2007—more than 15 years after GPL 2 was released.

But, even before that first draft version is released, will come a document that says how the process is going to take place and when it will be over. That process document is slated for release around the beginning of November this year, according to Eben Moglen, the general counsel for the Free Software Foundation.

GPL 3 aims to address a range of issues facing open-source developers and vendors, including intellectual property licensing and patent concerns, the question of how to deal with software used over a network, and trusted computing. However, the changes and its process present the potential to disrupt the Linux community, just as its gaining some traction in the enterprise.

The GPL, which is the most widely used free-software license, was created by Free Software Foundation (FSF) founder Richard Stallman, who last updated it in 1991. The initial draft of Version 3 is being written by Stallman and Eben Moglen.

"We are going to set the rules before we start the game. I want people to know how it is going to be played and I want people to know when it is going to be over. I want to limit uncertainties, not increase them," Moglen told eWEEK in an interview at the annual LinuxWorld San Francisco conference on Tuesday.

The FSF was also committed to conducting the GPL 3 process in a transparent way, with all the cards out on the table, he said.

Along with the release of the first discussion draft of the license would come a rationale document that would explain why every change was made and also why some things were not changed. "I want to give reasons, as this is a conversation we are starting, not an election," Moglen said.

"This is not going to be treated like an election campaign. This is a seminar and we are going to come to the table prepared, so that the conversation starts off in an intelligent and moderate and thoughtful way," he said.

Click here to read more about changes planned for GPL 3.

Also on the cards for September is the formation of advisory committees that will be organized vertically around major parts of the community, from vendors to major users to the major development projects and unaffiliated developers, Moglen said.

"We will use those committees first to consult with us about how to consult with the communities they represent, so as to help us with comment and the organization of the comment on the substance of the license. We will also use the best off-the-shelf free software technology that we know of in the world for e-deliberation," he said.

Moglen declined to be more specific about what that software might be, saying he was actively studying the matter and would soon announce what looked like the best solution. He has also been doing a large amount of research and studying to figure out what the scale of the process is likely to be.

"After studying a lot of large e-deliberation events in the Net, from the W3 Consortium to the Linux Kernel mailing list and the Debian process, I have concluded that we ought to forecast for as many as 150,000 individuals to have comments on GPL 3 and there could be as many as 8,000 organizations, governments, foundations, groups and businesses around the world that may want to contribute. This is an enormous number of people, who have a vast diversity of opinions," Moglen said.

Click here to read more about how changes in business models are changing open source.

As such, three guiding basic principles would be established at the outset of the process: first, do no harm; second, adopt no provision whose consequences you might not understand; and third, respect all stakeholders equally, he said.

Next Page: Downplaying the Expectations

Downplaying the Expectations

Only then would the process of lifting license text begin, and at which point "everybodys favorites are going to come out of the woodwork and we are going to drown in them for months. We are going to flounder around in thousands of proposals. Even I am going to be mystified at the sheer scale of what everybody thinks they want, and slowly we are going to evolve a way to pick through all of this and make sense of it all," he said.

But Moglen appeared to downplay expectations of just how broad and sweeping those changes might be, saying that when the process was over people would say "you mean we did all that just to make these few small changes. All that work for this license. Its almost the same as the old license."

Linux founder Linus Torvalds said the GPL needs only "minor" rewrite. Click here to read more.

Moglen said he would then tell them that the final license was not the reason for all the hard work, but rather so the community would believe, care, buy-in and trust the license.

"The passion they have is the beauty of this [process]. This is all going to be about a copyright license on computer programs! This matters so much because the license is about freedom and they care about freedom," he said.

Asked just how much of the license had been changed to date, Moglen said that if the current working draft were put on the table as GPL 3 people would say "is that all?

"Sure, we have left some hard decisions for the end, but when the first discussion draft hits the street, people will say it is conservative," he said.

The reason? The FSF wanted to start off following the rules it wanted everyone else to adhere to, "and that means it is not going to look like a radical departure. It is going to look like a minor adjustment, like more of the same, as it should, because the license has been working. Im not fixing a broken roof. We are starting with a need to update, to deal with things that have changed in the last 15 years, of which there are a few," Moglen said.

The big issues that would be addressed lay around trusted computing, patent and copyright issues, application service provision, Europeanization, globalization of technology, recognition of the vast array of legal systems around the world in which free software is now made, shared and distributed.

Click here to read how SCO claims the GPL is unconstitutional.

"Those are the big issues. There are no questions about where all the pieces are. People know. There will be business model protection for all business models. So, there will be a lot of pulling around the edges, but it is the center that we are working on. We are not going to change the license in any major way," Moglen said.

But Moglen is also very aware of the enormous challenges of the task and the huge potential it has for disruption, in-fighting and controversy. While he acknowledged that it will be an enormously disruptive experience, it will also be an enormously creative experience "where they realize they are linked together, that they cant pull this apart and that it is too big to fail," he said. In a thinly veiled reference to Microsoft Corp., he said that the total number of people who wanted the GPL to fail could be counted on the fingers of one hand, just as long as one finger was used to designate "the monopoly."

Could GPL 3 put additional pressure on Microsoft by the time it tries to push Windows Vista out the door? Click here to read more.

Members of the community would also discover that it was very fatiguing to disagree and realize that as burdensome as it would be to come to a consensus, agreement prove better than disagreeing, Moglen said. The end result would be the realization that we are all in the boat together and it has to float for everyone."

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