FSF Faces New GPL Challenges

After 13 years, the Free Software Foundation will update the GPL, and the to-do list is a long one.

Whats a long time in the technology business? Is it 18 months, as in Moores Law? Is it two years, which is the least amount of time before "Longhorn" comes out? Some might even say 30 seconds is a long time, if thats how long it takes to open the fantasy-football scoreboard Web page on a Sunday afternoon.

How about 13 years, five months? Thats old enough to be an adult, according to Hebrew law. What could be that old in the tech business? If you guessed the GNU General Public License Version 2, take another 5.25-inch floppy disk out of the supply closet.

Thats correct. Since the GPL was last updated, a lot has happened in our world. We have elected and re-elected Bill Clinton and are now about to embark on George W. Bushs second term. The Web was invented, and the browser was born, adopted by Netscape and subsequently steamrolled by Internet Explorer. Microsoft was found to own a monopoly in Windows and still has had time to pay off most of its legal bills. OS/2 died. Red Hat was launched. Compaq acquired Tandem and Digital Equipment, and Hewlett-Packard acquired Compaq. The dot-com bubble inflated and burst. My two sons were born. The Twin Towers fell, as did Saddam Hussein. But through it all, the GPL was the same as it has always been (read it at gnu.org/copyleft/gpl.html).

But all thats about to change, and with it, perhaps, the open-source business. As eWEEK Senior Editor Peter Galli reported last week, the Free Software Foundation is preparing to redraft the GPL and update it for todays computing world.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read about how efforts to revise the GPL could put additional pressure on Microsoft.

The to-do list of the FSF is a long one. For instance, GPL Version 3 will address the patent, intellectual property and copyright issues brought about by The SCO Group in as well as the indemnification programs that have followed; it will also try to account for differences between U.S. and European copyright law.

We pointed out in eWEEK earlier this month that intellectual property licensing is the proverbial other shoe waiting to drop.

As open source proliferates, the chances that a major lawsuit—maybe over the FAT (file allocation table) file system or other such ubiquitous technology—will emerge are growing. Vendors such as Microsoft, Sun and Novell are lining up to protect their customers, and others will follow. The GPL must address this need.

Other issues include how to deal with Web services technology, which is based on reusable and easily distributed modules of code. The group also wants to address security and the concept of "trust" and trusted operating systems regarding what software is allowed to run on what systems.

All of these are important topics, but many uncertainties remain, not the least of which is the process by which the license will be amended. FSF founder and author Richard Stallman doesnt speak in public much and would not comment for eWEEKs GPL story in the Nov. 22 issue.

Eben Moglen, FSF general counsel, did say he is authoring the new license along with Stallman and that a draft will be opened to the community for comment. But the amount and type of comment solicited now will be radically different from that of 1991. The stakes are much higher; big businesses rather than individual developers are the real stakeholders here, and they will want to have their say.

Though the possibility for change is great, I seriously doubt the ultimate spirit of the GPL will be harmed. Developers will still be able to modify software for their needs and be able to distribute it under the GPL—software that is free as in free speech, not as in free beer.

What will really determine the success of the next generation of the GPL is how well the FSF leaders keep that spirit intact yet still listen to the needs of todays open-source developer—be he or she an individual or a large corporation. If they are successful in that effort, maybe GPL 3 will be able to outlive its ancestors.

Scot Petersens e-mail address is scot_petersen@ziffdavis.com.

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Scot Petersen

Scot Petersen

Scot Petersen is a technology analyst at Ziff Brothers Investments, a private investment firm. Prior to joining Ziff Brothers, Scot was the editorial director, Business Applications & Architecture,...