Open Debate Over GPL Heats Up

Opinion: Open source doesn't need division over something that can help unify and expand its universe of developers and ensure its continued commercial success.

The free software foundation is only about a month into a yearlong comment period for the GNU General Public License Version 3 draft that was released Jan. 16.

Already the proposed GPL update has created some spirited debate, which is a good sign: Participation in the process by all interested parties is critical to the eventual success of the license and, possibly, to the future of open source.

We will leave the fine, semantic points to FSFs founder, Richard Stallman, and general counsel, Eben Moglen, but enterprise developers should be aware of the key issues that the new license was written to address: patent language and DRM (digital rights management).

/zimages/7/28571.gifClick here to read a one-on-one interview with Richard Stallman from the GPL draft conference at MIT.

The handling of patent language in the GPL 3 draft could not be more straightforward: "The GPL makes it clear that any patent must be licensed for everyones free use or not licensed at all."

Sun Microsystems officials have said that patent ambiguity is one of the reasons Sun rejected GPL 2 for OpenSolaris and instead licensed the operating system under its own CDDL (Common Development and Distribution License). Now, GPL 3s handling of the patent issue is the main reason that Sun is considering the possibility of licensing OpenSolaris under both GPL 3 and CDDL.

The other hot-button issue in the new draft, DRM, is more complicated. Stallman, who has called DRM "malicious," also leaves no ambiguity about DRM in the license.

The draft contends that DRM is incompatible with free software because DRMs intention is to prevent users from accessing and modifying software as they will.

"The GPL ensures that the software it covers will neither be subject to nor subject other works to digital restrictions from which escape is forbidden," the license says.

We are no friends of DRM, but many commercial developers of embedded Linux programs are pushing for it. Theres no reason why they could not stay with GPL 2, but perhaps DRM can become an option rather than an ironclad part of the license.

/zimages/7/28571.gifLinus Torvalds hasnt ruled out GPL 3 for Linux. Click here to read more.

Those vendors that have a stake in DRM and still wish to see other changes the GPL 3 proposes should get together with the FSF to sort out this issue.

Underlying all these critical issues, however, is the notion of "freedom," freedom to share and change code to suit the needs of developers of all kinds.

Developers are also free to not pursue an interest in GPL 3, but we think most current stakeholders in Linux and open-source products owe themselves a look at the new draft.

Debate isnt division. Its a healthy part of this process—one for which all parties should be grateful. If debate grows into division, however, it can undermine the Free and Open Source Software initiative by validating the FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) that some proprietary software vendors would like to see sown in the ranks of FOSS advocates.

That would work only against the interests of corporate IT by reducing the leverage of free and open-source alternatives in lowering IT costs. Open source doesnt need division over something that can help unify and expand its universe of developers and ensure its continued commercial success.

We encourage continued debate over the GPL 3 draft and, ultimately, adoption of a final license that keeps the open-source movement vibrant.

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