The Free Software Foundation has moved to clarify what it says is inaccurate information being presented about the second discussion draft of the next version of the GNU General Public License.
The foundation also used the opportunity to put to rest once and for all concerns that it will try to force people who have software licensed under the current GPL (Version 2) to relicense that software under GPL 3.
The Sept. 25 clarification closely follows the release of a position paper signed by many of the top Linux developers, in which they announced their objections to the proposed GPLv3.
In the position paper, which was released on Sept. 22, leading Linux developers Andrew Morton, James E.J. Bottomley, Greg Kroah-Hartman, Christoph Hellwig and six others explained in detail why they “reject the current license proposal.”
While Linux founder Linus Torvalds did not sign that document, he has voiced his objection to Version 3 of the GPL. In a note to the Linux Kernel Mailing List on Sept. 24, Torvalds explained why he didnt sign it but why he thinks GPLv2 is the best possible open-source license.
John Sullivan, a program administrator for the FSF in Boston, said in a Sept. 25 news release that was also e-mailed to parties interested in GPLv3 that the foundation has no power to force anyone to switch from the current GPLv2 to GPLv3.
“We intentionally wrote GPLv2 (and GPLv1) so we would not have this power,” he said.
Software developers will continue to have the right to use GPLv2 for their code after GPLv3 is published, “and we will respect their decisions,” Sullivan said, adding that a free software license cannot contain “use restrictions” that would restrict what can be done with it.
“Contrary to what some have said, the GPLv3 draft has no use restrictions, and the final version wont either,” he said, but pointed out that GPLv3 will prohibit certain distribution practices that restrict a users freedom to modify the code.
This was designed to “thwart the ways some companies wish to use free software—namely distributing it to you while controlling what you can do with it. This policy is not a “use restriction”: It doesnt restrict how they, or you, can run the program; it doesnt restrict what they, or you, can make the program do. Rather it ensures you, as a user, are as free as they are,” he said.
While Peter Ulander, vice president of software marketing at Sun Microsystems, agrees that GPL 3 will be just one of many open-source licenses available to developers and vendors and that there is no obligation on anyone to use it, he is wary of fragmentation.
“The creation of GPL 3 also does not dissolve GPL 2, which will still exist once the next version is in place,” he said. “But it will be interesting to see what the uptick of GPL 3 will be by the open-source community once it is released, particularly Linux, especially once some of the components that make up the Linux operating system start being licensed under GPL 3. That could result in fragmentation, as it appears the Linux kernel will remain under GPL 2.”
In addition, while the current GPLv2 relies on an implicit patent license, which is dependent on U.S. law, GPLv3 contains an explicit patent license that “does the same job internationally,” Sullivan said.
He also corrected the misperception that GPLv3 would cause a company to “lose its entire [software] patent portfolio,” saying that this is not the case.
“It simply says that if someone has a patent covering XYZ, and distributes a GPL-covered program to do XYZ, he cant sue the programs subsequent users, redistributors and improvers for doing XYZ with their own versions of that program. This has no effect on other patents which that program does not implement,” he said in the e-mail.
Sullivan also said, in very strong terms, that “if we could abolish every entitys entire portfolio of software patents tomorrow, we would jump at the chance. But it isnt possible for a software license such as the GNU GPL to achieve such a result,” he said.
However, the FSF is hoping that GPLv3 can solve a part of the patent problem and is in negotiations with organizations that have substantial patent inventories, in an attempt to mediate between their conflicting “extreme” positions. Sullivan did not name those companies, but IBM, Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft are among the companies with the largest software patent portfolios.
“We hope to work out the precise details of the explicit patent license so as to free software developers from patent aggression under a substantial fraction of software patents. To fully protect software developers and users from software patents will, however, require changes in patent law,” he concluded.
While Rich Green, executive vice president for software at Sun, declined to say whether Sun is one of the companies talking to the FSF about the explicit patent license, he did note that software patents do not have to equate to limitations on the use of that technology. He pointed to Suns OpenSolaris project and the fact that the company is also working on open-sourcing Java as examples of how patented technology can be used in a positive way.
Editors Note: This story was updated to include comments from Suns Peter Ulander and Rich Green.