GPL 3 to Take on IP, Patents

The Free Software Foundation is working on the first revamp of the GNU General Public License in 13 years, an update that focuses on intellectual property licensing and patent issues.

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.

/zimages/3/28571.gifSteven 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.

/zimages/3/28571.gifClick 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.

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