Tech Industry

Overhaul of GPL set for public release

The Free Software Foundation will launch its first public draft of version 3 of the General Public License, beginning a likely long and vocal debate.

A major revamp of the General Public License is scheduled for public release next week, a move that's expected to kick off a long and vocal debate over the key foundation of open-source programming.

The will release and describe the first public draft of version 3 of the document on Jan. 16, at the First International Conference on GPLv3 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the organization said.

 Richard Stallman

FSF founder Richard Stallman released the current version 2 in 1991. Since then, it's been used to govern Linux, Samba, MySQL and thousands of other open-source projects. The new version is expected to address a host of technology issues that have arisen in the last 15 years, including patent issues and software running on a remote server.

The is a seminal work. It's not just a legal document, but also a manifesto of the free software movement and its offshoot, the open-source movement.

"It's tremendously important," said Tom Carey, an intellectual property attorney at Boston-based Bromberg & Sunstein. "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."


What's new:
The Free Software Foundation will release and describe the first public draft of v3 of the GPL, a legal document and manifesto of the free software and open-source movements.

Bottom line:
The new version is expected to address a host of technology issues that have arisen in the last 15 years, including patent issues and software running on a remote server.

More stories about the GPL and other licenses

At its foundation, the GPL requires several freedoms: A program's underlying source code may be seen, copied, modified and distributed.

However, if someone makes changes to a program and distributes those changes, the GPL requires that the modified source code be made available. That tenet is absent in other open-source licenses, such as the BSD-style varieties employed to cover Apache. The language in those other licenses makes it possible to convert an open-source project into a proprietary one.

Schedule of modifications
The FSF plans several milestones in the revision process after the release of the public draft. First will be a second discussion draft, due in June. The GPL version 3 could be released as early as September, but the schedule allows for a third discussion draft in October.

The group also hopes to complete GPL version 3 by Jan. 15, 2007, but is giving itself until March, 2007.

Among the issues likely to be addressed by the new GPL, Stallman said in an earlier interview, are the following:

• A provision to protect GPL software projects against "pirates armed with patents." For example, there might be penalties prohibiting use of GPL software if a company files a lawsuit alleging that GPL software infringes its patents.

• A mechanism to govern the use of GPL software on devices with digital rights management (DRM) restrictions that could curtail software freedoms.

• A mechanism to govern how GPL software is used on servers that provide services publicly available over the Internet. That is a gray area regarding whether GPL software is used internally within an organization or distributed externally; modifications to software GPL must be available only if the software is distributed.

For example, a GPL-governed program might be customized before it's used in a service such as one for creating online maps.

• Modifications to make the GPL more compatible with other free software or open-source software licenses.

Free software principles the top priority
When Stallman launched the free software movement in the 1980s, it was a philosophical and academic curiosity. But beginning in the 1990s, with the commercial rise of Linux and other GPL software, large computing interests such as IBM began getting involved.

While the FSF welcomes industry involvement, the organization will always be in the driver's seat.

"Changes to the GPL, for whatever reason they are undertaken, must not undermine the underlying movement for freer exchange of knowledge. To the extent that the movement has identified technological or legal measures likely to be harmful to freedom, such as "trusted computing" or a broadening of the scope of patent law, the GPL needs to address those issues from a perspective of political principle and the needs of the movement, not from primary regard for the industrial or commercial consequences," the FSF said in a .

The group also is working on revising the Lesser General Public License (LGPL), a variant that allows tighter links between open-source and proprietary software modules. LGPL drafts may be presented after the GPL revision process begins.

Changes to the variant license should be a priority, Carey said. "I'm less concerned about the GPL than I am about the LGPL. I've read it 10 times and I still don't know what it means, and I was a programmer as well as a lawyer," he said. "If I can't understand it, I'm not sure who can. It doesn't have the ease of use the GPL has."