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Torvalds critical of new GPL draft

Linux leader maintains his objections to provisions against digital rights managment.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
3 min read
The second draft of a revised General Public License has been released, but Linus Torvalds--founder and leader of the best-known software project governed by the GPL--remains unconvinced of its merits.

Torvalds' concern is with the clause in the GPL 3 second draft regarding digital rights management (DRM) technology, which puts controls on how computers can run software or supply content such as movies or music.

Whereas the GPL version 2 was a basic "quid pro quo" arrangement that required anyone modifying source code to make the changes public, the draft of GPL 3 extends much further, Torvalds argued. GPL is a widely used license that governs the use of open-source software.

GPL 3 "basically says, 'We don't want access just to your software modifications. We want access to your hardware, too,'" Torvalds said. "I don't think it's my place as a software developer to judge how hardware works around it."

But the Free Software Foundation argues that it's modernizing the license, not changing its spirit. It's seeking to prevent hardware makers from using DRM as a technological end-run around the license's legal requirements for programmer freedoms. "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 earlier interview.

Torvalds sees it differently.

"Say I'm a hardware manufacturer. I decide I love some particular piece of open-source software, but when I sell my hardware, I want to make sure it runs only one particular version of that software, because that's what I've validated. So I make my hardware check the cryptographic signature of the binary before I run it," Torvalds said. "The GPLv3 doesn't seem to allow that, and in fact, most of the GPLv3 changes seem to be explicitly designed exactly to not allow the above kind of use, which I don't think it has any business doing."

TiVo, which uses Linux in its personal video recorders but requires a signed version and prohibits modifications, is an example of a company affected by the DRM provision.

Linux, however, is not likely to be affected by the changes in GPL 3. Torvalds explicitly chose to license the operating system kernel under version 2--not version 2 or later as the Free Software Foundation suggests. "In a very real sense, the Linux kernel is perhaps the least relevant of all the projects that use the GPL when it comes to the new version," Torvalds said.

But as the highly visible leader of a major open-source project, Torvalds' opinion is not insignificant.

And he didn't have flattering things to say about the foundation's process for revising the license.

"The FSF doesn't even seem interested in any feedback," Torvalds said. "They set up several 'committees' to get comments from various industry players, and everything I've heard about the process is that they then ignored them all and did what they wanted anyway."

The foundation wasn't immediately available for comment.

One major company still isn't satisfied. Hewlett-Packard, which sells Linux servers and is involved in the GPL 3 revision process, wants changes to how GPL 3 treats patents.

"HP had hoped that the second draft would clarify the patent provision...to ease concern that mere distribution of a single copy of GPL-licensed software might have significant adverse intellectual property impact on a company," said Christine Martino, vice president of HP's Open Source and Linux Organization, in a statement. "Unfortunately, the concern lingers in draft 2."

Martino said the DRM section is better, however. "Although our analysis of the implications is not yet complete, HP is pleased to see that much of the confusion about the DRM aspects should be eliminated by the clarifications in draft 2."