Its About Time the GPL Was Revised

Opinion: Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols thinks although there will be a bitter battle, there's no way around it: The GPL must be revised.

In a way, its surprising that it has taken the Free Software Foundation so long to decide to revise the GNU General Public License, or GPL. This core software license of both the free software and open-source worlds has long had its critics inside and outside the software community.

For example, Linus Torvalds, creator of the poster child operating system of the GPL—Linux—has never been completely happy with the GPL. Indeed, for a while, there was talk about shifting Linux from the GPL to another license. Hes far from the only one.

If you look at the Open Source Initiatives home page, youll find more than 50 approved open-source licenses. Thats ridiculous.

I make my living tracking this kind of stuff, and I cant tell you off the cuff what the difference is between the Common Public License and the Qt Public License. Or, more importantly, I cant tell you without a lot of study how youd mix and match code from almost any pair of licenses, except the so-called classic licenses: the GPL, LGPL, BSD and MIT.

You shouldnt need to be an IP attorney to be a developer, and there are times that I wonder if thats where were going.

/zimages/1/28571.gifClick here to read more about the differences between the major open-source licenses.

And, as Eben Moglen, the Free Software Foundations general counsel, points out, we now live in a world where software patents, and not copyright, are becoming the critical IP (intellectual property) issue. With that being the case, changing the GPL is no longer just a good idea; its a necessity.

It will not, however, be a simple or quick process. The reason we have all those licenses in the first place is that everyone and their uncle have their own idea on what makes the ideal open-source license.

I foresee a long, bitter dispute, but it is a dispute that must happen, that must be resolved.

While people will spar over the small, but important, details of the GPL, the bottom line is that the GPL has been the foundation of open-source software. It must be revised in a way that works and gathers widespread support.

We need to work in a world where there are four or five open-source licenses, not dozens. If the FSF fails in this task, the free software and open-source movements may well falter.

But, perhaps even more important than that, the struggle to revise the GPL reflects the larger problem that software patents pose for the entire technology community. If we are to continue to innovate, the dragon of software patents must be slain. It is my hope that the forthcoming debate on the revision of the GPL will help push patent reform forward both in the United States and around the world. Senior Editor Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols has been using and writing about operating systems since the late 80s and thinks he may just have learned something about them along the way.

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