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Feature: Legal

FSF celebrates release of GPLv3

By Bruce Byfield on June 29, 2007 (5:01:00 PM)

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The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is scheduled to mark the official release of the third version of the GNU General Public License (GPLv3) today at noon with a ceremony in its Boston office that features a lunch for local free software activists and the announcement of several GNU projects switching to the new license. Richard M. Stallman, FSF's president and founder, plans to repeat remarks about why developers should move to GPLv3. Video coverage of the ceremony is slated to be available from the FSF Web site.

Today also marks the unveiling of the final text of the Lesser GNU General Public License (LGPL). Under GPLv3, the LGPL is no longer a separate license, but a special case of GPL.

The release comes after 18 months of intensive public consultation, and another couple of years of internal planning by the FSF before that. In a move unprecedented in both the free software and legal communities, the FSF, together with the Software Freedom Law Center, convened four committees consisting of more than 50 community and corporate representatives to help write the license. Comments from the public were solicited at meetings around the world, and on a site where anyone could add their thoughts on the text of the license. The actual license was written by Stallman based on advice and suggested wording by Eben Moglen and Richard Fontana of the Software Freedom Law Center, with input from experts such as David Turner, former complilance engineer at the FSF.

Some people in the community criticized the process because the committees could only advise on issues, and some claimed that one or two of the committees were inactive or stifling the concerns of various stakeholders.

However, criticism of the first draft was not long in coming. When it was released in January 2006, it was immediately subjected to a detailed critique by the Debian community, which was concerned that some language might make the license incompatible with that project's standards for free software.

The second draft attracted even more criticism, with about 20 kernel developers releasing an open letter questioning the need for the revision, and Linus Torvalds making headlines by opining that language in the draft aimed at reducing the effectiveness of various lockdown technologies -- especially hardware ones, which the FSF calls "TiVoization" -- was an unwarranted intrusion on developers' freedom of choice. Torvalds also expressed a deep-seated distrust of the FSF and its aims, and announced that the Linux kernel would continue to use the second version of the GPL rather than switch. Although Torvalds was mellower about the third draft, which came out in March 2007, his objection to the TiVoization language remained unchanged.

To these remarks, Peter Brown, executive director of the FSF, responded in March, "We do nothing new in GPLv3. It's just an update. People claim that we are reaching beyond software. But if you ask anyone who's actually read GPLv2, they know that the purpose of free software is to give people freedom, and those who suggest that taking away freedom is part of GPLv2 have just missed the point."

The original schedule called for the process to be completed in January 2007, but issues arising from the Microsoft-Novell agreement in November 2006 and the wish to block similar deals in the future delayed the third draft until March.

The third draft angered many members of the free software community because it contained a grandfather clause that excluded deals made prior to March 28, 2007. However, Brown says that this compromise was made to keep Novell in the community, and would expire with the deal.

The third draft was also marked by criticism by the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), which released a paper claiming that the license would "force third parties to surrender patent rights ... unrelated to development of contributions to GPL code." However, aside from the fact that ACT is widely seen as front for Microsoft's interests, this criticism suffered credibility when major patent holders such as IBM and Sun Microsystems not only failed to express public criticism of the language about patents, but announced their intentions to use GPLv3 as soon as it was finalized.

On May 28, a last call draft was released. Brown describes this draft as "the best agreement that we were all going to get to." Since then, the process has gone much as planned. "We haven't really found many mistakes at all," Brown says. "There have been many bits of cleanup, but most people looking at the license won't spot any major changes from the one people saw on May 28."

What comes next

With the final release of GPLv3, one of the FSF's first priorities is to encourage development teams in GNU projects to switch to the new version by July. The Affero GPL license, a variant of the main license intended for distribution of free software over a network, is also expected to be finished shortly, as well as a revision of the GNU Free Documentation License. The FSF is also planning a project called LibrePlanet for next fall that will help coordinate the efforts of free software activists.

However, for now, Brown says, the main step is to help people understand the license after all the changes in language and the criticisms aimed at it. "We don't see the GPLv3 process as coming to an end," Brown says. "In a sense it's only from today that we have enough text. So this is where the work begins. There's a lot of work to be done beyond the actual words themselves to get people to understand the license."

Although Palamida, a software vendor whose products include an application for tracking licensing issues, estimates that more than 5,500 projects intend to switch to the new license, Brown expects it to be adopted only gradually. "This license is meant to be around for many years, so we don't expect everyone to switch immediately," he says. "But we expect that, over time, people will see the advantages to switching. But we won't know until years after."

Looking back at the last 18 months, Brown regrets the heated expression of dissent from Torvalds and other kernel developers, but notes that the exchange has clarified the difference between open source advocates, whom he characterizes as being interested mainly in providing choices for programmers, and free software supporters, whose main concern is to increase users' freedom.

"I think we would have all preferred it if the communication with the kernel hackers had been more part of the process," Brown says. "It could have been a more productive discussion, rather than an us and them approach. That was in some ways disappointing.

"The good thing was that it helped elevate the discussion in the sense that we quickly got to a point of clarity about actual desires. Very clearly, we have an understanding of Linus Torvalds' opinion about GPLv3 and TiVoization. He's happy with TiVoization."

In addition, Brown suggests, "More people now understand it's the GNU operating system using the kernel called Linux," and they're more aware of the licensing issues and the philosophical stances behind them. "The educational aspect of GPLv3 has, in my opinion, been the greatest success," he says.

Brown also hopes that the revision process has set a new standard for other projects revising their license. "We like to think that this experience of public outreach can be undertaken by other projects," Brown says. "I think it's very beneficial to the entire community to discuss these issues. For such a public thing as free software, it's a vital process that any other major project should consider when revising their own licenses."

Update: The GPLv3 has been submitted to the Open Source Initiative (OSI) for approval.

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

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