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Stallman unbending on software patents

Debate over GPL version 3 begins as Free Software Foundation's founder says antipatent provisions are "not a placeholder."

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read
CAMBRIDGE, Mass.--Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation, debated proposed changes to the General Public License at a public forum but made it clear that provisions to protect users from patent litigations will remain intact.

Stallman is the author of the original GPL, a license used with countless free and open-source software packages including Linux. On Monday, the Free Software Foundation released a draft document of the GPL version 3, the first major revision in 15 years, written by Stallman and Eben Moglen, general counsel for the Free Software Foundation.

Richard Stallman

The forum, held Tuesday at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, represents one of the first steps of what is expected to be a yearlong debate over the updated GPL. The Free Software Foundation also published a rationale for the proposed changes.

GPL version 3 seeks to protect software users from patent litigation and prevent use of digital rights management technology with GPL software. It also includes a "patent retaliation" clause that prohibits an organization from using privately modified GPL software if it files a patent infringement lawsuit relating to that software.

Although Stallman solicited comments from forum attendees, he made clear that the GPL version 3 will not alter the license's basic stance on software patents. He said that even though Moglen had publicly solicited feedback on the issue, the GPL version 3 is explicitly meant to discourage litigation based on software patents.

"This is not a placeholder. This is the text we currently plan to go with unless we're surprised by seeing a better idea," Stallman said.

GPL version 3 adds an explicit grant of patent rights by anyone redistributing GPL-governed software. In the published rationale, the Free Software Foundation railed against the application of patent law in software, calling it "unwise and ill-considered."

"Software patents threaten every free software project, just as they threaten proprietary software and custom software. Any program can be destroyed or crippled by a software patent belonging to someone who has no other connection to the program," according to the document.

Stallman fielded several detailed legal questions from open-source contributors on several topics, including license compatibility, the patent retaliation clause, trademarks, and issues that arise when GPL software links to non-GPL software, such as mobile phone applications that run on Linux.

For example, Bruce Perens, an open-source consultant and advocate, voiced concern over exceptions that allow a software distributor to link to software components called system libraries. "I see this as giving someone carte blanche to include proprietary components" with GPL software, Perens said.

In response, Stallman said the new version of the GPL makes those exceptions more narrow.

Although many of the legal questions that arose at the forum were very detailed, Forrester Research analyst Michael Gould said that open-source software users, including corporations, would do well to participate in the comment period.

"Corporate legal counsels need to get involved in this process somehow," Goulde said. "The question is either you burn cycles on it today or burn a lot more cycles down the road."