GPL Co-Author Spells Out License Goals

By Peter Galli  |  Posted 2006-01-19

GPL Co-Author Spells Out License Goals

CAMBRIDGE, Mass.—Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation and co-author of the first draft discussion document for the GNU General Public License Version 3, said he is confident in the ability of the draft license to deal with the major issues that have emerged since the GPL was last updated 15 years ago: license compatibility, patents and Digital Rights Management.

He also said he hopes that it will not be another 15 years before the new license is updated.

"Aside from little details, the draft license is good. It does the right things about the various issues that have come up," he told eWEEK in an exclusive interview at the first draft discussion document launch event here.

Click here to read a one-on-one interview with Richard Stallman from this weeks GPL draft conference at MIT.

While the next version of the GPL will not be able to stop the spread of DRM (Digital Rights Management), it can stop GPL-covered software from being perverted into part of a DRM system, he said.

"This is something that people have spoken about doing, people who thought that it was actually better to have supposedly free software twisted into DRM than to have DRM implemented some other way," he said.

Read more here about the changes laid out in the draft GPL 3.0 license.

"Why do I say twisted? Its because they would be using a program that was nominally free, in that its source code had a free software license on it. But, practically speaking, the users would not be able to exercise the freedoms that define free software, so it would not really be free software," Stallman said.

With this in mind, Stallman and Eben Moglen, the FSFs general counsel and co-author of the daft, decided to put in provisions to make sure that people were given whatever signature codes they needed to be able to run their modified versions of software, and so that these could really do what the original version could do.

"If they wont do that, then they cant distribute at all, because they would be distributing the code wrongly," he said.

Asked how much more pervasive he thought DRM would become, Stallman said that powerful companies have already, to a substantial extent, imposed DRM on people.

Many audio and video works and transmissions are already only available in DRM-controlled formats and can only be understood by non-free software.

Read more here about the rationale behind the proposed GPL 3.0 changes.

"There is no hope of making free software to handle it, and in many countries that would be illegal. They keep changing the Codec, and so, even if you did some reverse engineering and figured out the format and what is needed to decode it—in a place where that was legal—soon there will be another Codec.

"So what people have to do is reject these formats. People should never install these players. They have to stand up for their own freedom or they will lose it. That is what history has shown us for years," he said.

Next Page: Patents and retaliation.

Patents and Retaliation

With regard to the issue of patents, Stallman again conceded that the GPL could not make them go away.

"There is literally nothing that software developers can do to protect themselves against the dangers of patents, except not allow patents in their country. We have just found out that the European Union is going to make another attempt to impose software patents," he said.

The draft license also does not, in any way, change the criteria for licenses to qualify as free software licenses, he said.

But what it does is make the GPL compatible with a larger subset of those. If a free software license allowed a modified version to be distributed under the GPL, then it was compatible with the GPL, he said.

"We have artificially changed the GPL so that a larger range of those licenses will be compatible. The incompatibility is always unfortunate in itself, but the whole point of the GPL was to ensure that other restrictions could not be added," Stallman said.

Linux vendors and distributors like Red Hat and Novell were calling for GPL 3.0 to address the issues of patents and license compatibility. Click here to read more.

Asked about the fundamental basis for the previous incompatibility of some free licenses with the GPL, Stallman said that in some cases the licenses mentioned certain trademarks, had the requirement that the command to download the source code could not be removed, or contained aggressive patent retaliation clauses.

The kinds of patent retaliation that the current draft of the license would allow are limited and directed only against things that are clearly wrong.

Stallman said the FSF was also hoping that, in the future, some of those license drafters would decide to make their patent retaliations compatible with the GPL so that their licenses could be compatible.

Asked about what he wanted to see come from the discussion process now that the first discussion draft was public, Stallman said he hoped that a lot of people would be checking it carefully to find instances where the current words would not have the right effect, so that the wording could be fixed at the draft stage.

"This is just a discussion draft and is not yet a version of the GPL, and so does not apply to any programs. But we want any problems to be found before we make an official release of GPL version 3.0 and, so, we need lots of people looking for problems," he said.

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