GPL Could Put Heat on Microsoft

Efforts under way to revise the popular GNU General Public License could put additional pressure on Microsoft by the time it tries to push its long-awaited Windows upgrades out the door.

Efforts under way to revise the popular GNU General Public License could put additional pressure on Microsoft Corp. by the time it tries to push its long-awaited Windows upgrades out the door.

As eWEEK reported last week, the Free Software Foundation is working to revamp the GPL—the first such rewrite in 13 years. Eben Moglen, general counsel for the Boston-based FSF, who is co-authoring the new license with FSF founder Richard Stallman, has declined to say when Version 3 of the license will be ready.

"We need it to be right, and the community needs to be available and adopt it and make good out of it," Moglen told eWEEK.

But several sources close to the FSF said that from a strategic point of view, the best possible timing would be to have a draft of the next version of the GPL ready before the end of next year. Following that, a global summit on licensing would be convened in 2006, the sources said.

Such a schedule would align with Microsofts planned release of the next major Windows client and server upgrades, code-named Longhorn, which are due in late 2006 and early 2007, respectively.

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"The [new-license debate] would take place while Microsoft is consumed with the difficulties of shipping the Longhorn client," one source said.

Potentially more damaging for Microsoft, the timing around the Longhorn client and server releases will be when enterprises begin making key decisions on whether to stick with Windows or go to Linux or other open-source platforms. "Thats the time of maximum vulnerability for [Microsoft], and thats the moment when it would be in [free softwares] favor to have a new license in place," the source said.

That process should begin this winter with some institutional realignment and resource allocation in the open-source community. Many institutions that support open source realize the need for an updated and stronger GPL, particularly following the lawsuit in which The SCO Group Inc. claims IBM gave away proprietary Unix code to the open-source community that found its way into the Linux operating system.

Microsoft officials declined to comment on the potential timing of GPL 3, but a source close to the Redmond, Wash., company said Microsoft is not concerned that any Longhorn delays will give Linux an advantage. "I dont think a more compelling license changes the inherent nature of what Linux brings to the table, but it does further indicate Linux moving in a more commercial direction," the source said.

Changes planned for the next GPL release will focus on several broad topics that reflect the dynamic change in the software industry since the early 1990s—intellectual property licensing, copyright and patent issues, the question of how to deal with software used over a network, and concerns around trusted computing.

The FSF wants the free- software community involved in the process. "If Stallman and I came forward and said, This is our philosophy of software freedom for the next 10 years, and no one had the chance to tell us what they were actually doing with software, it would probably not work very well," Moglen said. "Its important to have the conversation and to see where we are. The GPL is very close to being the constitution of an industry."

Big Linux vendors agree a community dialogue is in order. Mark Webbink, deputy general counsel for Red Hat Inc., in Raleigh, N.C., said the issues are important, particularly those relating to making the GPL work within legal systems around the world. Red Hat is "confident that Eben [Moglen] and the FSF will have an open, expansive dialogue before setting forth another model," Webbink said. "The more compelling the new model, the more widely it will be adopted."

Bruce Lowry, a Novell Inc. spokesperson in San Francisco, said Novell appreciates the efforts of the FSF to take into account input from those engaged in licensing under the GPL. "Novell applauds the FSF for its openness in this endeavor," Lowry said.

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