GPL Draft Faces Challenges, Linux Insiders Warn

The draft's creators prepare for a daunting process, with input expected from many fronts.

Supporters of the next GNU General Public License are girding for an onslaught of comment and controversy, but they remain confident that the open-source community will survive and be made stronger for the effort.

A draft of the next version of the GPL, the most widely used free-software license, is due early next year. The GPL was created by Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman, who last updated it in 1991.

GPL Version 3 is being written by Stallman and FSF General Counsel Eben Moglen, who said hes acutely aware of the daunting challenges of the task as well as the huge potential for disruption and infighting.

"I have butterflies in my stomach about it," Moglen said at the LinuxWorld Conference & Expo here last week.

But he said hes hopeful the experience will also be a creative one "where [the open-source community] can realize they are linked together, that they cant pull this apart and that it is too big to fail."

Moglen said that as many as 150,000 individuals as well as 8,000 organizations, governments, foundations, groups and businesses around the world are expected to contribute to and comment on GPL Version 3.

"This is an enormous number of people, who all have a vast diversity of opinions," he said.

Some users of Red Hat Inc.s Red Hat Enterprise Linux, such as Ken Burbary, director of engineering at marketing company Campbell-Ewald Co., in Warren, Mich., said they are concerned that there is too much fracture in Linux already.

/zimages/4/28571.gifFounders strive to "do no evil" in the GPL 3 rewrite process. Read more here.

"While the issue of the GPL doesnt really affect me personally, there are already too many forks, too many incompatible distributions, and this license issue just confuses things more. Im beginning to think there can be such a thing as too much choice," Burbary said.

Moglen, however, said the scope of changes in the new GPL is conservative and may leave users wanting more rather than less. Moglen said that if the current working draft were put on the table as GPL Version 3, people would say, "Is that all?"

The big issues that will be addressed are trusted computing, patent and copyright issues, application service provisioning, and globalization.

Martin Taylor, general manager of platform strategy at Microsoft Corp. in Redmond, Wash., said he expects to see significant strains develop during the GPL draft process between commercially vested Linux vendors and the general open-source community.

"The fact that there has been a proliferation of open-source licenses from vendors like IBM and Sun Microsystems Inc., which eschewed the GPL and created the CDDL [Common Development and Distribution License] for its OpenSolaris project, already underscores the fact that the vendors are finding ways to monetize and protect their technologies," Taylor said.

An executive at a leading technology provider who requested anonymity because of his relationship with the FSF said he is not concerned about all the "sound and fury that will occur, as I expect this to be around the edges as opposed to the substance."

But, in reference to Microsoft, he said he is worried that the open discussion will be deliberately misinterpreted by those who want to make it appear chaotic. "That worries me more than the actual discussion process itself, which will be lively," he said.

/zimages/4/28571.gifClick here to read more about the challenges involved in rewriting the GPL.

The public will have a year to comment on the GPL Version 3 draft. The final version is expected in early 2007, more than 15 years after GPL Version 2 was released.

Next month, advisory committees will be organized to represent major parts of the community, such as vendors, users and developers, Moglen said. "We will use those committees first to consult with us about how to consult with the communities they represent, so as to help us with comment and the organization of the comment on the substance of the license," he said.

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