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Top Linux programmers pan GPL 3

High-ranking kernel coders join Torvalds in opposing the new license draft; some say it could harm open source.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
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Stephen Shankland
4 min read
More than two dozen of the most prolific Linux kernel programmers dislike a proposed update to the General Public License, which governs many open-source projects.

Out of 29 kernel coders, 28 rated GPL version 3 as worse than the current GPL version 2, according to results of a survey released Friday. On a scale of -3 to 3, the highest mark was a neutral 0, and the average was -2, according to a posting on the Linux kernel mailing list by Linux programmer and SteelEye employee James Bottomley. The survey was set up by Linux leader Linus Torvalds, who has come out against the GPL update.

The Free Software Foundation is seeking to modernize the GPL with the proposed version 3, but it is running into some resistance over changes that deal with patents and digital rights management. Indeed, prominent opponents' resolve could effectively make the GPL 3 obsolete before it arrives, some say.

"I have to believe GPLv3 is all but dead as a general license at this point," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff.

Numerous open-source projects are under the purview of the GPL, including the MySQL database and the Samba file-server software, but the Linux kernel is arguably the most successful and influential. The Linux kernel project is the heart of the open-source operating system, which includes numerous other components.

The survey results indicate that the anti-GPL 3 opinions of Torvalds are not an exception among the Linux elite.

"I think a number of outsiders...believed that I personally was just the odd man out, because I've been so publicly not a huge fan of the GPLv3," Torvalds said in an online posting dated Friday.

In addition, 10 of the Linux programmers in the survey published a position paper on Friday, opposing the current draft of GPL 3. The paper, "The Dangers and Problems with GPLv3," predicts that the open-source realm could be "balkanized" because the new license version could force Linux sellers to split software projects into GPL 2 and GPL 3 versions.

"This balkanization...has the potential to inflict massive collateral damage upon our entire ecosystem and jeopardize the very utility and survival of open source," the paper said, predicting that Linux sellers would have to split software packages into different versions for each license. "Therefore, we implore the FSF to re-examine the consequences of its actions and to abandon the current GPLv3 process before it becomes too late."

Free Software Foundation attorney Eben Moglen didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.

Criticisms of the update
Torvalds said the survey polled about 30 of the most active programmers involved in the Linux kernel project. Torvalds said the poll was a project to ensure he really wasn't alone in his thoughts, he said in a posting.

"While I personally thought it was pretty clear that the GPLv2 was the better license for the kernel, I didn't want to just depend on my own personal opinion, but I wanted to feel that I had actually made my best to ask people," Torvalds said. "If the result had turned out very differently, I would probably have had to seriously rethink my stance on the license."

Torvalds has roundly criticized the GPL 3 draft, chiefly because he believes it inappropriately extends beyond the software realm. At issue is digital rights management, which provides mechanisms to control the use and sharing of software or media such as video. By dictating how hardware running GPL 3 software must handle DRM, the GPL 3 oversteps its bounds, Torvalds has argued.

In addition, Torvalds has criticized the "extremist policies" of the Free Software Foundation, calling instead for a pragmatic approach.

Among others that have voiced concerns about GPL 3 are Hewlett-Packard, which has objected to a patent provision, and the Open Source Development Labs, which wants information on how GPL 2 and GPL 3 software will coexist.

The Linux programmers' position paper criticizes the GPL 3 draft in several areas and concludes that it's best to stick with GPL 2 for the Linux kernel.

"As far as we are concerned (and insofar as we control subsystems of the kernel), we cannot foresee any drafts of GPLv3 coming out of the current drafting process that would prove acceptable to us as a license to move the current Linux kernel to," the paper's authors wrote.

Among the changes in the GPL 3 draft criticized by the paper are:

• DRM: "While we find the use of DRM by media companies in their attempts to reach into user-owned devices to control content deeply disturbing, our belief in the essential freedoms (in Linux programming) forbids us from ever accepting any license which contains end-use restrictions...The FSF's attempts at drafting and re-drafting these provisions have shown them to be a nasty minefield which keeps ensnaring innocent and beneficial uses of encryption and DRM technologies....Defining what constitutes DRM abuse is essentially political in nature and as such, while we may argue forcefully for our political opinions, we may not suborn or coerce others to go along with them."

• Patents: "As drafted, this currently looks like it would potentially jeopardize the entire patent portfolio of a company simply by the act of placing a GPLv3-licensed program on their Web site. Since the Linux software ecosystem relies on these type of contributions from companies who have lawyers who will take the broadest possible interpretation when assessing liability, we find this clause unacceptable because of the chilling effect it will have on the necessary corporate input to our innovation stream."

• Additional restrictions that programmers may add to the GPL's terms: "The additional restrictions section in the current draft makes GPLv3 a pick-and-choose soup of possible restrictions which is going to be a nightmare for our (Linux) distributions to sort out legally and get right. Thus, it represents a significant and unacceptable retrograde step over GPLv2 and its no-additional-restrictions clause."