GPL 3 to Take on IP, Patents

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2004-11-22

GPL 3 to Take on IP, Patents

With a relatively hostile environment that has pitted proprietary software against open source as a backdrop, the Free Software Foundation, the steward of the GNU General Public License, is working on the first revamp to the license in 13 years.

The GPL, the most widely used free-software license, was created by FSF founder Richard Stallman, who last updated it in 1991. The changes planned for the next release, Version 3, a draft of which is due next year, focus on several broad topics that reflect the dynamic change in the software industry since the early 1990s—intellectual property licensing and patent issues, the question of how to deal with software used over a network, and concerns around trusted computing.

Steven Vaughan-Nichols says its about time the GPL was revised. Click here to read his column.

Also addressed will be the differences between the English-speaking countries copyright law and that of Western Europe, said Eben Moglen, general counsel for the foundation, who is authoring the new license with Stallman.

"[The GPL] is now serving beyond what we would have said was its projected life," Moglen said. Software and the industry have changed radically over the past 10 years, "so theres a certain amount of cleaning up to do that simply has to do with settling the license into the contemporary environment," he said.

Any changes made to the GPL will need to confront some difficult issues. For example, patent defense clauses will be a big topic of concern for GPL 3, Moglen said, and talks will center on the use of copyrights to retaliate against patent law. "We perceive some difficulty and enormous complexity in the fact that the GPL is a worldwide license and the global law of patents is not uniform," he said.

Con Zymaris, CEO of Cybersource Pty. Ltd., a Linux and open-source solutions company in Melbourne, Australia, agreed that patents are a big issue. The GPL currently prevents downstream developers from purloining the work of others by tying their right to redistribute that code to their complete acceptance of the GPL, he said. "If similar machinery can be introduced to ward off software idea patent attacks, this would benefit all users of the code," Zymaris said.

Click here to read about The SCO Groups claims that the GPL is unconstitutional.

Moglen said the internationalization problems that copyright laws present to the GPL are small compared with the difficulties involved in dealing with the heterogeneous nature of the worlds patent system. "What we will do in the next version will unquestionably be affected in some very important ways by patent law and by globalization," he said.

The next version of the GPL will address the current industry situation as well as what developers see as the problems of the future.

Next Page: Share and share alike.

Share and Share Alike

These include making a decision about Web services. Currently, if developers write an application using GPL parts and if that application is distributed, users must abide by the GPLs requirements of share and share alike, Moglen said. But the right of private modification is also an important right that needs to be sustained, he said.

Another important area is trusted computing, "which means computers you cannot trust," Moglen said, adding that if the FSF uses its leverage correctly, it could affect what kinds of trust are recognized in the network.

"But if we dont use our leverage correctly, we could wind up in a world where free software is injured very badly, where you can modify code but you cannot do anything with that modified code because the hardware will not run that code because it cannot be signed Microsoft or IBM," he said. "If that happens, free software will be excluded from hardware, and that is not an outcome we can tolerate."

"[Trust is] a critical point and extends well beyond the IT industry," said Zymaris. "We, as IT professionals, must act as stewards for the coming century, which, more than any previous era, will be built atop information technology. If we want a free society in the future, we must prevent any organization or collective from attaining such a level of immense control over the platforms of the future."

Moglen declined to specify when GPL 3 will debut. "We need it to be right, and the community needs to be available and adopt it and make good out of it," he said.

There is also a great deal of work to be done to allow the large number of stakeholders who have grown up around the GPL to have an opportunity to express Opinions and to have their thoughts taken into account in trying to frame the best possible license, Moglen said.

The FSF may start soliciting the input of the open-source community as early as this year. The primary goal is ensuring that code licensed under the current version of the GPL, Version 2, can be combined with code licensed under Version 3, said officials of the Boston-based FSF.

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