Rewriting GPL No Easy Task

It's been 14 years since major changes have been made to the GNU General Public License, and there is a need for a new version; however, there will be significant challenges, claims FSF's Eben Moglen.

BURLINGAME, Calif.—In 1991, Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, rewrote the GNU General Public License and simply put the final version out over e-mail; that was the last time the GPL has seen significant change.

Reworking this current version, however, is not going to be quite so easy, Eben Moglen, the legal counsel for the FSF and a law professor at Columbia University, said on Tuesday in an address titled "GPL v3—Issues of Substance and Process" here at the OSDL Enterprise Linux Summit.

Acknowledging that the GPL needs change, having survived for 14 years and will probably see its 15th birthday, Moglen said, "We are, to be frank about it, pushing our luck."

While the process of adopting GPL Version 3 is under way, as first reported by eWEEK in November, Moglen cautioned that "before we touch it, we had better walk around it for a while."

"It is designed to be a copyright license that works all around the globe, so whoever rewrites it had better put on their global copyright harmonizing hat in order to do the task productively," he said.

Changes will also be made to the Lesser GPL, or LGPL, and there will probably be technical changes to this before GPL Version 3 is released. Moglen also said the GPL will be changed more frequently after Version 3 is released.

The rewriting of the GPL will induce humility in lawyers and, if hackers were capable of humility, it would induce this in them as well, he quipped

/zimages/6/28571.gifClick here to read eWEEKs interview with Linus Torvalds on the GPL rewrite.

"Like it or not, Mr. Stallmans decision on the license is final," Moglen said. "The challenge is that this process cannot be done by just one man. So, before we start changing it, we had better be aware how difficult this is going to be and of all the things that will come loose once we start shaking it."

The latest version of the current GPL license, known as GPL Version 2.2 and dated August 2004, is not that different from the present license. "The goal is not to turn the toaster into a spaceship, it doesnt need that. But the license has to continue to serve so many functions and groups that the process of radical interpretation is just not appropriate," he said.

Version 3 of the license will also be written to allow its translation in a way that GPL 2 does not. The document will also be translated into many languages and gain some legal traction as a result, he said.

The next GPL license document needs to have as a goal the ability to be translated more clearly, Moglen said, admitting that some word choices in GPL 2 could have been better made and certain phrases better defined. "Phrases like without charge might have been better defined in 1991, and a certain amount of FUD [fear, uncertainty and doubt] might have been avoided," he said.

But both Moglen and Stallman are committed to not changing the length of license by more than 10 percent, and also to not having any significant portion of the license appear changed by the people who are going to use it.

"The license also needs to be changed as the art of computer programming has changed since 1991. But those changes in programming paradigms are neither better nor worse than the paradigms they replaced or of those that will replace them going forward," Moglen said.

Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, told eWEEK that the GPL is not perfect, and one of his issues has been how verbose it is. "Nothing is ever perfect," Torvalds said. "So while I may have some niggling concerns with the GPL, they are in the details, and, in the end, I actually think that the GPL simply is the best license for the kernel."

Moglen defended the need for a longer license, saying that computer programming has changed since 1991 and that there will be changes to the language around the paradigm of programming changes, resulting in "much arm waving and breast thumping about these changes."

Next Page: The issue of Web services.