Public debate on GPL 3 draft begins

Free Software Foundation releases the first public discussion draft of the General Public License version 3.

The Free Software Foundation on Monday released the first public discussion draft of the General Public License version 3, shedding light on proposed reforms to the document's patent and digital rights management provisions.

The GPL version 3 draft can be downloaded from the FSF's Web site, which also includes an explanation of the changes and an online commentary section. The revised GPL is the subject of a conference this week at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The foundation is revising the GPL for the first time in 15 years, and this time the organization is accepting suggestions from the broad base of people and organizations now involved in the free software and open-source software movements. Over the last decade and a half, the GPL grew from an academic curiosity created by programmer and FSF founder Richard Stallman into a critical foundation of much of the software realm.

The GPL governs countless open-source projects, including the Linux kernel, the Samba file server software and the MySQL database. "It's tremendously important," Tom Carey, an intellectual property attorney at Boston-based Bromberg & Sunstein, said in an earlier interview. "Probably most lawyers who have an active practice in the software area have read the GPL and committed its essence to memory, which is something you can't say about any other license."

The proposed GPL revisions include expected changes in several areas:

• Provisions to make sure digital rights management mechanisms don't curtail software freedoms;

• An explicit grant of patent rights by anyone redistributing GPL-governed software;

• A retaliation clause that prohibits an organization from using privately modified GPL software if it files a patent infringement lawsuit relating to that software;

• And new terms describing how copyright holders may add additional licensing terms, such as more-severe patent retaliation provisions, to GPL software.

Regarding the new patent provisions, Aberdeen Group analyst Stacey Quandt said, "GPL 3 is an improvement over its predecessor." But she also predicted the issue "will likely spark debate." In addition, in the GPL 3 draft, it's "not necessarily clear what constitutes a derivative work," a central concept that describes modified versions of a program, she said.

The FSF hopes to complete GPL version 3 by Jan. 15, 2007, but is giving itself until March 2007. A second discussion draft is planned to be released June, with a possible third in October.

GPL-governed software is widely used in the technology industry. However, there are many other open-source licenses in use. Sun Microsystems, for example, is touting its Community Development and Distribution License as an alternative.

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