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Feature: Free Software

FSF should separate GPLv3 changes

By Bruce Byfield on October 17, 2006 (8:00:00 AM)

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Commentary: The process of producing the third version of the GNU General Public License (GPLv3) may not be doomed, but, as Linus Torvalds and other kernel developers heat up the rhetoric, it does seem stalled. If the process continues in the way that it has been going, a large number of current users of the GPL may not switch to the new license. Unless the free and open source software (FOSS) communities are willing to risk the possible consequences of that result, it's time for a change of tactics.

The trouble with GPLv3 is that it contains the accumulation of 15 years' worth of changes. Some of these changes, such as improvements in the clarity of the language or attempts to make the license more acceptable in a variety of international jurisdictions or to cover BitTorrent downloads, might be accepted with hardly a dissenting comment, if they could be agreed upon separately. Even those who prefer the GPLv2 would probably admit that such changes are necessary improvements that make the license easier to understand and use.

Others changes, such as language about digital rights management technologies and patents, are more controversial by several orders of magnitude. Yet stakeholders have no way to accept or reject the controversial elements separately; they must accept or reject the entire GPLv3. This either-or situation greatly reduces the odds of reaching a consensus.

One solution would be to give stakeholders a chance to accept or reject individual provisions while still producing a new license. I see at least two possible tactics that would achieve this result.

The first tactic is to model GPLv3 after the Creative Commons License, and divide the license into a general section and a series of conditions. The general section would be the text of GPLv2, perhaps modified by the changes for clarity and internationalization. The conditions would be the controversial provisions, which users could mix or match according to their preferences. This change would require massive rewriting, but is less far-fetched than some might think, considering that the drafters of GPLv3 have already taken a step in this direction in the second draft by making the Lesser General Public License simply a version of the GPL with an additional provision. The question is whether the Free Software Foundation would be content to leave the controversial issues as options. Also, the tactic could lead to the same situation that prevails in Debian with the GNU Free Documentation License, in which some forms of the license are accepted and others are not.

The second tactic is to back away from having all the changes accepted at once. Instead of winning consensus on every section at once, the goal would switch to phasing in the changes over several revisions, starting with the non-controversial parts. This approach would give everyone a chance to adjust to the changes, and to discuss the controversial ones as thoroughly as necessary. Most of all, it would safeguard the process. Instead of leaving the community with all or nothing, a series of revisions would at least give us a few improvements if the process broke down at any point. In other words, it would be the safe and responsible choice.

Perhaps just as importantly, it would also remove the false sense of urgency created by an arbitrary deadline. FOSS developers know better than to harness themselves to rigid deadlines; why shouldn't FOSS license-makers?

Given Eben Moglen's recent renewed invitation to the kernel developers to join the process -- an invitation that ignores questions about the process itself -- a change of tactics probably isn't going to happen. Adapting any new tactics would implicitly mean admitting that the present tactics are failing, and that admission would come hard after all the time people have invested in them. Yet the blow to the Free Software Foundation's prestige that a change of direction might cause would be nothing compared to the one caused by a complete failure of the process. Moreover, while the FOSS communities might survive the coexistence of GPLv2 and GPLv3, another possibility is that such a situation would remove one of the unifying elements of the community. In particular, as the recent discussion shows, it could make open source and free software supporters opponents rather than allies.

For all the praise it receives today, I suspect that GPLv2 would have been as much criticized as GPLv3 if consensus had been sought for it. Its acceptance probably had more to do with the fact that it was already available than with the perfection of its contents. Compared to the commercial software licenses that were most people's only point of comparison, it would have been too radical a change for everyone to accept.

Even though GPLv3 is in its second draft, it's not too late to consider changes to the process and the contents. The inconvenience of such midstream changes may be nothing compared to the consequences of staying on the present course.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.

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FSF should NOT separate GPLv3 changes

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 18, 2006 01:36 AM
IMHO they do a perfect job.

I do prefer the GPLv3 over the GPLv2, and I will use the v3 for all my software creations as soon as GPLv3 is finished!

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part of a larger framework

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 18, 2006 10:26 AM
IMO the FSF should work with an outfit such as OSDL or OSI that is chartered to develop a framework for interoperability of FOSS licenses. The goal should be, that the majority of FOSS software be released under licenses that have a intelligent degree of built-in interoperability between them, so people won't necessarily need a team of lawyers to figure out the implication of combining software released under licenses A, B, and C.

The FSF would not be the main player in this, but would be the representative of the "free software" point of view, as well as the interests of the GNU projects. The "license interop" organization should be one with much better ties with industry than FSF has, much more pragmatic and less visionary.

That would be a major service to the community and WOULD justify a new rev of the GPL and LGPL.

A year or two ago, OSI made an effort to reduce the number of "approved" FOSS licenses. This is the wrong approach - large companies won't hesitate to introduce new licenses tailored for their changing and specific needs. But just maybe, someone can bring everyone together to bang out a framework for these licenses so we don't have legal chaos when trying to combine software on from different projects and vendors.

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Onerous new terms and requirements

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 17, 2006 04:39 PM
It seems to me that under subsection 7.a, an author can simply add a permission that effectively counteracts or disables any other restrictive (sub)section of the GPL3.

Am I missing something?

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You don't get it...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 17, 2006 07:22 PM
For all the praise it receives today, I suspect that GPLv2 would have been as much criticized as GPLv3 if consensus had been sought for it. Its acceptance probably had more to do with the fact that it was already available than with the perfection of its contents. Compared to the commercial software licenses that were most people's only point of comparison, it would have been too radical a change for everyone to accept.


Thus undermining your whole argument. All the fuss will die down as soon as the license is completed. Those who like it will use it, those who don't will use GPL2 (which does not disappear when GPL3 arrives) or any other license of their choosing. No doubt some will write their own modified version of the GPL3, removing the DRM bits or whatever. Over time the value of the controversial sections will become clear (whether clearly good or clearly bad I don't know) and the use of the license will rise or fall accordingly.

I think the fact that the FSF has made this such an open process is commendable. But it is their process, and they should have final say over the product. If you don't like that, write your own license. The idea that the FSF is somehow coercing the community into using GPL3 truly distorts the situation.

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don't fix what ain't broken

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 17, 2006 09:11 PM
> may not switch to the new license
Uh-oh. How tragic. Especially if GPLv2 is good enough for them, huh?

--
Michael Shigorin

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Questions about process?

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 17, 2006 09:48 PM

Given Eben Moglen's recent renewed invitation to the kernel developers to join the process -- an invitation that ignores questions about the process itself -- a change of tactics probably isn't going to happen. Adapting any new tactics would implicitly mean admitting that the present tactics are failing, and that admission would come hard after all the time people have invested in them.


What questions about the process itself? I've gotten the impression that all the 'questions' about the process are nothing more than blatant lies. There was apparently only one developer that actually bothered to attend any of the conferences.



My question about the process is why kernel developers who aren't going to use the new license for practical reasons in the difficulty to convert are vocally screaming about something that is actually very benign, and still refusing to join the official process.



For the record, I'm personally pleased with how everything is going (sans some anti-GPLv3 and anti-Stallman FUD that has been in circulation), and I'm looking forward to the next discussion draft.

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"modular" license

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 17, 2006 10:30 PM
It is a good idea. Even now exist GPL and LGPL. I don't think that Stallman is going to accept it. It goes against his hardline left-wing beliefs.

DG

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Interview with Eben Moglen

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 17, 2006 11:03 PM
Eben Moglen explains much of the GPLv3 process and changes in a recent <a href="http://www.twit.tv/floss13" title="www.twit.tv">interview</a www.twit.tv> with FLOSS Weekly. Definitely worth listening to, as he touches on patents, DRM, and internationalization. GPLv3 discussion begins at about 27 minutes into the interview.

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You are missing the point...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 18, 2006 12:35 AM
RMS doesn't WANT you to be able to accept just some of his GPLisms...that misses the whole point. He wants to force everyone to use the new license, no matter what his handlers say.

Phasing in the changes in GPL v2.1, 2.2, 2.3 makes sense to everyone, but he's still "not gonna do it"...

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Re:You are missing the point...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 18, 2006 12:49 AM
RMS doesn't want to force anything on to anyone. The GPL is all about freedom. Thanks to RMS we have free software, he have helped push it enormously.

If you don't value your freedom, someone will sure as hell take it away from you. You want freedom, then you have to guard it and defend it.

You don't like the GPL? Then you are free to choose another license.

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Re:You are missing the point...

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on October 18, 2006 02:10 AM
It amazes me. So many are quick to criticize RMS and the FSF and they do it from such indefensible positions.

Perhaps truthful facts would help you make more convincing arguments? Or is slander all you have?

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Summary: I want my DRM!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on November 15, 2006 06:31 AM
"Stalled"? Where? "Controversial"? Where?

GPLv3 (so far) imposes (by default) no restrictions that GPLv2 doesn't. Adding DRM (without the keys) to a GPL-licensed work is already a GPL violation under GPLv2; the only problem is that the language of the license isn't clear on this, because when it was written, there was no DRM.

I don't see any reason why GPLv3 shouldn't be released on schedule, and indeed the article supplies none. The only controversy seems to be some petulant grandstanding by the lead developers of a single GPL-licensed project, who have steadfastly resisted constructive participation in the drafting process. Never mind the fact that it's unlikely that this project would be able to change licenses anyway, since they have thousands of contributors, and have eschewed any mechanism, such as an "or any later version" clause or assigning copyright to a non-profit organisation, which would enable them to switch without getting the permission of each one of these contributors (or their employers, or their next of kin, etc.).

The only advantage of the Creative Commons model of massive proliferation of incompatible licenses is to unscrupulous businesses who want to say "aren't we great, we're using a Creative Commons license!" while using the least permissive option available. For everybody else, the Creative Commons licensing mess is a train wreck.

One more time: GPLv3 is GPLv2 with additional clarity in the language, plus the ability (at the copyright holders discretion) of imposing one or more additional restrictions from a very small set of available restrictions, or one or more additional permissions. Nothing that was possible under GPLv2 will be prohibited by GPLv3, and GPLv3 will have the flexibility via optional clauses to do the same job as the LGPL and other commonly used free licenses, reducing the need for license proliferation and dual-licensing.

The only reason for "stalling" the release of GPLv3 at this stage would be a legal bug in the language where the wording of the license wouldn't achieve the intent of the license. Any talk of "controversy" is FUD.

Matthew Davidson.

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Reasons for not upgrading

Posted by: Administrator on October 17, 2006 09:22 PM
There Kernel Developers aren't going to upgrade to GPL 3 much for the similar reasons they haven't gone to C++. They have something that works very well, and there are too many gotchas in making the change.

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Create 15 incompatible licences? Crazy

Posted by: Administrator on October 17, 2006 08:12 PM


You think FSF should make 10-20 versions of the GPL, all of which would be incompatible with each other?




A driving goal of the GPL is to be a unifying licence. In the 80s, there was the Emacs Public License, and the GCC Public License, and seperate licences for each GNU project, then Richard realised that this was terribly inconvenient and never beneficial, so he made a general one.




I think you're blowing the complaints of the Linux kernel hackers out of proportion. When <a href="http://www.fsfeurope.org/projects/gplv3/" title="fsfeurope.org">GPLv3</a fsfeurope.org> is released, they can use it if they want. I really hope they do. They can think about it for a few years first if they want. They can wait and see how it pans out. (Actually, they'll have to think about it for a few years while they <a href="http://fsfe.org/en/fellows/ciaran/ciaran_s_free_software_notes/about_gplv3_can_the_linux_kernel_relicense" title="fsfe.org">work out their copyright situation</a fsfe.org>).

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Section 7a touches on this

Posted by: Administrator on October 17, 2006 08:40 PM


Section 7a provides an infrastructure for adding exceptions. One exception, written by FSF, is an exception which says that the software can be linked to proprietary software. This exception, plus the GPL, is what the LGPL is.




If the kernel developers still don't like the DRM clauses in GPLv3 when it is finalised, they can adopt an exception saying that when you distribute the software with hardware, if any codes are needed for modified versions of the software to run on the hardware, you don't have to give the recipient those necessary codes. I'd prefer they didn't add that exception, but they can, and that way they still get the internationalisation, the patent protection, the BitTorrent fixes, etc.




Right now, I think the most important thing is to get informed about GPLv3, (here's a good starting place: <a href="http://www.fsfeurope.org/projects/gplv3/" title="fsfeurope.org">http://www.fsfeurope.org/projects/gplv3/</a fsfeurope.org>), and read the discussion drafts, and make comments.

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