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GPL 3 not expected to split free-software world

Despite open-source developers' concerns, Free Software Foundation's general counsel predicts no difficulty in moving to third version.

3 min read
Some developers are concerned that the introduction of the third version of the GNU General Public License could split the free-software world, but the Free Software Foundation is confident that these fears are unfounded.

The FSF has denied that there is a risk that free-software projects could fork when the next version of the GNU General Public License, or GPL, becomes available.

Over the last few weeks, free-software developers from various projects have expressed concerns about the next version of the GPL. In a posting to the legal mailing list for the Debian Linux distribution, OpenOffice.org volunteer Daniel Carrera pointed out that as Linux is currently only distributed under GPL 2, it could face problems when GPL version 3 is released.

"My understanding is that Linux is distributed under the GPLv2 exclusively," Carrera said in the posting. "Given the vast number of Linux contributors, this means that Linux won't be able to migrate to the GPLv3 when it comes out, correct?"

Debian maintainer Matthew Palmer agreed that this was the case and said he was worried that when GPL 3 comes out, some free-software projects could split into separate branches. "I fear a lot of unpleasant forking action when the GPLv3 comes out," Palmer said.

Palmer said some developers may decide to license their projects only under versions 2 or 3 of the GPL, while others may choose to license under multiple versions of the license. This could result in "license-incompatible forks," according to Palmer.

But Eben Moglen, general counsel of the Free Software Foundation, said Thursday that there shouldn't be a problem in persuading Linux developers to migrate to GPL 3, as the license will be developed with their input.

"I don't think it will be a difficulty," Moglen said. "When the FSF finishes its work to produce the first discussion draft of GPL 3, there will be an extended comment period, which will be a chance for everybody to have their say. We will take as long in listening as people need to take."

GPL 3 is likely to include changes that take into account international copyright law and patent threats, according to Moglen.

It is not surprising that the next version of the GPL has attracted a lot of interest as it is the basis for a "multibillion-dollar industry," according to Moglen. "In a market that size, there are a lot of participants and a lot of people with interests," Moglen said.

Moglen was unable to say when GPL 3 would be released, though he suggested that it would be available in the next year or two. He is confident that when GPL 3 is released, people will be pleased with the outcome.

"When it's all over, people will say about the GPL 3, 'It's better, it's not that different--what's all the fuss about?'" Moglen said. "People have to trust that we know what we're doing." This echoes his previous statements, in which he said the process was "going to be a screaming match some days, but it is going to be a noble effort when it's over."

He said today's free-software industry owed a debt of gratitude to version 2 of the GPL. "A very large field came into existence as a function of the correctness of Richard Stallman's ideas," Moglen said.

Ingrid Marson of ZDNet UK reported from London.