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New GPL draft takes second crack at DRM

Second draft of General Public License 3 "clarifies" digital rights management provisions, a point of contention. Draft version 3 of GPL in full

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
The Free Software Foundation has revised provisions concerning the thorny area of digital rights management in a new draft of the General Public License released Thursday.

The approach in the second draft of GPL version 3 "only directly restricts DRM in the special case in which it is used to prevent people from sharing or modifying GPLv3-covered software," the foundation said in a statement. "GPLv3 does not prohibit the implementation of DRM features, but prevents them from being imposed on users in a way that they cannot remove."

Digital rights management, or DRM, puts controls on how computers can run software or show content such as movies. It's been a thorn in the side of foundation leader and original GPL author Richard Stallman, who has objected to TiVo's use of DRM to prohibit modified versions of Linux from running.

GPL version 3
at a glance
Click here for the full draft of the latest version of the GNU General Public License.

When it comes to DRM, the second draft makes clear that the idealistic principles of the foundation remain ascendant despite some pressure to take a more pragmatic or accommodating approach.

The foundation didn't bend on the overall thrust of the new DRM provision: Manufacturers of a device that incorporates GPL software may not use that software unless they extend the software's full freedoms to users.

"If you're keeping the right to modify and not conveying that right to modify, you're violating the license," said Eben Moglen, the foundation's top lawyer, in an interview. However, it's fine for a device manufacturer to nullify a warranty or withhold support if modified software is used, he added.

But the new draft license has been changed to clarify that DRM provisions apply only to the software itself, not to what it does or how it's used. The second draft makes clear "our goal is to protect our way of making software, not to ensure that movies or music or textual works are free of digital restrictions," Moglen said.

Not all are convinced that the GPL doesn't extend beyond a particular software project's domain, however.

"I'm not sure the changes in the DRM provisions address a lot of the criticisms of draft 1 about the FSF using this document to try to extend control to the systems the software is run on," said Edward Naughton, an intellectual property attorney with Holland & Knight. "Notwithstanding the comments that accompany the draft, the language still seems to reach to hardware platforms. That strikes me as a real reach."

The GPL, the legal foundation of much of the open-source and free software movements, is undergoing a years-long modernization process. The first GPL3 draft was released in January, and a final version is due by the end of March 2007.

The GPL covers thousands of open-source projects, the most notable being the Linux kernel at the heart of the open-source operating systems. Linux leader Linus Torvalds, however, has expressed reservations about provisions for DRM in the earlier draft.

The license also says if some form of digital key is required for software to be installed or to run--even if that key is in hardware--it must be included in the software as well so that users can run modified versions the software.

Source code that must be supplied with GPL software must include "any encryption or authorization keys necessary to install and/or execute modified versions from source code in the recommended or principal context of use," the second draft said. "The fact that a key...is present in hardware that limits its use does not alter the requirement to include it in the corresponding source."

In the license's preamble, the first draft's had this to say about what it called "digital restrictions management": "DRM is fundamentally incompatible with the purpose of the GPL, which is to protect users' freedom; therefore, the GPL ensures that the software it covers will neither be subject to, nor subject other works to, digital restrictions from which escape is forbidden."

The second draft has been rewritten as follows: "Some computers are designed to deny users access to install or run modified versions of the software inside them. This is fundamentally incompatible with the purpose of the GPL, which is to protect users' freedom. Therefore, the GPL ensures that the software it covers will not be restricted in this way."

The foundation also released its first draft of a revised Lesser GPL, which can be used to cover programs to which proprietary software may be directly linked.