Eben Moglen predicts broad embrace of GPL 3

Open-source legal expert is bullish about the prospects for the upcoming new version of the General Public License.

SAN FRANCISCO--Eben Moglen, the law professor and open-source legal expert who has helped lead the revision of the General Public License, is predicting broad success for the upcoming new version.

"I predict that within the first year of adoption of GPL 3 there will be a net uptake by parties currently not using GPL that will be great in magnitude," Moglen told an audience here Tuesday at the Open Source Business Conference. That uptake will include "dozens of commercially important projects capable of choosing any license they want where they today use licenses that don't call for hard copyleft."

Copyleft, a term coined by Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman, refers to a key requirement of the GPL that an individual or organization that changes and distributes software must make those changes public. Some more "permissive" open-source licenses such as the Apache License permit changes to be kept secret and open-source software to be tightly incorporated into proprietary software.

Moglen is overseeing a contentious process of revamping the GPL, the most widely used license in the free and open-source software realm. Moglen, a Columbia law school professor and former IBM programmer, is stepping down as counsel to the FSF, but he remains active in another group called the Software Freedom Law Center.

Early drafts of GPL 3 triggered significant objections from several parties, including Linus Torvalds, leader of the GPL-covered Linux kernel. But the third and most recent draft of GPL 3 met with fewer gripes, and Moglen was bullish about its prospects.

Eben Moglen
Credit: Columbia
Law School
Eben Moglen

"We're four weeks from finished now, and we have consensus on large, important major changes," Moglen said. "Everybody is equally browned off, and that is how it should be, but we're all finishing together."

Drafting the new GPL, like writing open-source software, is a collective exercise in which numerous parties depend on one another, he said. "Everybody is so heavily embarked in everybody else's boats, and the consequences of failure are so far-reaching, people have no choice but to share their ideas and seek compromise and coexistence," Moglen said.

The GPL has the power to enable open-source software to dethrone Microsoft from its position of dominance, Moglen said. "The time is rapidly approaching when the GPL is capable of leveling the monopolist to the ground," he said.

Microsoft, with its packaged, proprietary software, has wiped out profit margins for hardware and services, he said. "The tax imposed by software was so high," he said. "Nobody has ever successfully calculated the harm done by Microsoft to the world. The number is too vast."

One provision Stallman considered but rejected for GPL 3 was some mechanism to deal with modifications to GPL software available as a network service. Under GPL 2, an entity that modifies the software but doesn't distribute it need not publish the changes, and that will continue under GPL 3, even if that software is available over the Internet through mechanisms today called application service providers or software as a service.

"The rights of a person who receives a service are different from the rights of a person who receives software as a program object," Moglen said.

Google in particular widely uses open-source software internally for services available publicly. It makes some open-source software changes publicly available, such as its modifications to the MySQL database. The free and open-source movement will apply other pressures to make sure such companies don't abuse the privilege, Moglen said.

"If you want to protect your business model, you must be model citizens of the environment. If you shrink, political pressure will grow to constrain your rights to secure the rights of everyone else," Moglen said. "Upon the behavior of Google much depends."

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