Sprucing up open source's GPL foundation

The license that forms the legal underpinnings of Linux--and a software industry revolution--is being updated for the first time since 1991.

Modernization is coming to the General Public License, a legal framework that supports a large part of the free and open-source software movements and that has received sharp criticism from Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.

GPL author Richard Stallman said he's working on amendments that could deal better with software patents; clarify how GPL software may be used in some networked environments and on carefully controlled hardware; and lower some barriers that today prevent the mixing of software covered by the GPL and other licenses.

In the 13 years since the current GPL version 2 was released, the license has moved from the fringes to the center of the computing industry. GPL software is now common at Fortune 500 companies and endorsed by most large computing firms. But that prominence has made some eager for an update.


What's new:
The General Public License, the legal foundation for free and open-source software movements' collaborative philosophy, is being modernized to deal with new realities in the software realm.

Bottom line:
Observers believe the GPL could be improved to better deal with a world that involves patent lawsuits, locked-down hardware and publicly available Web services--all items on the GPL agenda.

More stories about the GPL and other licenses

"The GPL has become the pivot point of a multibillion-dollar industry. Frankly, I don't think it was designed for that," said Mark Radcliffe, an attorney with Gray Cary who has studied the GPL and other licenses extensively.

For example, some would like to see clarifications that could help reduce the threat that using GPL software could entangle users in patent litigation. And the GPL could be better adapted to recent industry initiatives such as building sophisticated Web services on the Internet and boosting security through trusted computing methods.

Ordinarily only attorneys give much thought to the legal documents that govern how software may be used. But the GPL is different.

The license is the agreement that helped show that cooperation can work in an industry dominated by competition. And the most persuasive illustration of its power is Linux, a rising threat to computing giants such as Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.

The GPL governs the programming instructions called source code that developers write and then convert into the binary files that computers understand. At its heart, the GPL permits anyone to see, modify and redistribute that source code, as long as they make changes available publicly and license them under the GPL. That contrasts with some licenses used in open-source projects that permit source code to be made proprietary.

Another requirement is that GPL software may be tightly integrated only with other software that also is governed by the GPL. That provision helps to create a growing pool of GPL software, but it's also spurred some to label the license "viral," raising the specter that the inadvertent or surreptitious inclusion of GPL code in a proprietary product would require the release of all source code under the GPL. Gates in particular derided the license as "Pac Man-like," evoking an image of a GPL software module gobbling its way along and forcing the release of source code it touches.

Thus far, that scenario hasn't come to pass. The GPL, though, has threatened Microsoft in another way: It helped foster a vast, vibrant programming community.

Microsoft is keenly watching the arrival of the new GPL, which Stallman said likely will be labeled version 3. But the company probably won't see changes to that core provision separating GPL and proprietary code.

"Overall it's going to be the same," the globe-trotting Stallman said in a telephone interview from Morocco. "I don't expect anyone releasing

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