Which way, open-sourcers?

Software advocate says the latest draft of the GPL license is driving a wedge between the open-source and free-software communities.

3 min read

(The GPL 3) no longer works in the "fairness" sense. It's purely a firebrand, and only good for the extremist policies of the FSF. It's no longer a nice balance that a lot of people can accept, and that a lot of companies can stand behind once you explain it to them.
--Linus Torvalds, Linux founder

I told you so.

Earlier this year, I wrote that the General Public License version 3 (GPL 3) would bring the open-source and free-software communities to a critical juncture. While some scoffed, the decision of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to discount the concerns of commercial open-sourcers with the latest draft of GPL 3 threatens to split the community and slow the growth of free/libre/open-source software (FLOSS).

The most compelling software story in the past decade is the rise of FLOSS. Software like Linux, Apache and OpenOffice have injected competition into a largely proprietary industry and spurred development of next-generation software. This success largely hid the divisions between the free and open-source communities, but GPL 3 was written to expose them.

As the community begins choosing sides, will Stallman and the FSF be made irrelevant?

Richard Stallman and the FSF have quietly and sometimes publicly fumed that their software, their philosophy and their names have been subsumed by the broader open-source community. The philosophy of the free-software community is to evangelize a social ideology around the Four Freedoms; the goal of Linus Torvalds, IBM, Red Hat and the open-source community is to build great software and profitable businesses around the open-source licensing model.

Unfortunately for the open-source community, Stallman ultimately controls the future of the GPL, and the commercial success of those companies is not his primary concern. Torvalds' comment cited above certainly reflects the growing tension between the communities, but let's look at what is really changing in this new version.

The most debated new provision--the anti-Digital Rights Management provision--also is the most popular among the Free Software community. While many in the FLOSS community cheer the goal of sticking it to the content industry, this provision is far more expansive and will effectively prevent the use of GPL software in many industries, especially in embedded devices.

With TiVo in mind, the provision includes language that prevents hardware companies from controlling the final implementation of their devices. If you have a cell phone running Linux, for example, it requires that the user of that phone must be able to modify and run all the code on that specific phone. While this sounds like a good thing, the regulators that approve new designs for use in each country would be extremely wary of devices that can be modified at will.

In addition, GPL 3-based software will be completely off the table for medical devices. Government safety and efficacy testing is rigorous and very specific. A device must be tested in the exact configuration it will operate in, and regulators won't take, "Well, we hope it will be this one" as an answer. More importantly, the lawyers would have a field day with "open" devices.

Perhaps most ignored, however, is the effect this policy would have on software where privacy protection is important. For example, the government document creation and management market is a key target for the open-source community. Yet the definition of DRM in the new license would cover key-based access control for tools that create documents as well as music and movies.

Think of it this way: If you can create a GPL DVD player that can play any GPL-created DVD, you can create a document reader that would read any document. And as we've all seen from recent privacy scares, access control, another word for rights management, is a critical part of protecting our privacy.

At this point, there is little if any chance substantive changes will be made to GPL 3 before it is published and the schisms widen. GPL 3 will mark the end of the FLOSS community and the start of separate and distinct free-software and open-source communities. The only question now is what the post-GPL 3 world will look like.

As the community begins choosing sides, will Stallman and the FSF be made irrelevant? Will GPL 3 and its goal of ethical purity fall to the wayside as the open-source community rejects it?