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GPL3 first public draft due early 2006

Release should lead to debate of near-religious fervor over future of license that governs much free and open-source software.

SAN FRANCISCO--The first draft of the next version of the General Public License should be released for public comments in early 2006, according to a key player in the effort to modernize the foundation of the free and open-source programming movements.

That will begin a public debate that should end with GPL version 3 in early 2007, said Eben Moglen, the Columbia law school professor who represents license overseer the Free Software Foundation. Moglen spoke in an interview at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo here.

"I think GPL 3 is a process which begins with discussions of a first tentative draft in the first weeks of 2006," Moglen said. "I hope it will end with a license that maybe not everybody likes but that everybody is prepared to accept about a year later."

If the discussion proceeds as Moglen envisions, it will not just produce a new version of the GPL, it will help bring some cohesion to a group with vastly different backgrounds across the world.

"The community is going to discover just how big and varied it is," Moglen said. "When all over, we will have a better license and a stronger community."

It might not always be so collegial, however. The politics and philosophy of open-source and free-software issues often are debated with near-religious fervor.

Moglen expects widespread discussion. Extrapolating from the size of groups that discuss the Linux kernel, the Debian version of Linux and other projects, Moglen expects 150,000 individuals and 8,000 organizations will chime in.

The current GPL, version 2, was released in 1991, and the Free Software Foundation that governs it has begun the process of adjusting it for recent developments in the software realm.

Among the changes, according to GPL author and FSF president Richard Stallman, will be a better handling of software patents; clarifications with how GPL software may be used in some networked environments and on tightly controlled hardware; and lower barriers that today prevent the mixing of software covered by the GPL and other licenses.

The GPL permits anyone to freely see, modify, change and distribute software it governs. It's the most widely used license to govern open-source software projects.

It began as an academic and philosophical curiosity that underlay Stallman's effort to create a clone of Unix--Gnu's Not Unix (GNU)--that wasn't encumbered by actual Unix's proprietary constraints. Since then, in particular with the commercialization of Linux and other open-source projects, the GPL has become central to the computing infrastructure of countless businesses.

But nobody should expect a major overhaul, Moglen said.

"When it's all over, people are going to say, 'All that talking for just that much change?' They'll discover they all wanted radical changes, but everybody had different radical changes in mind," Moglen said.

The way Moglen will work will be conservative. "The first and most important principle in dealing with the GPL always has been the Hippocratic oath. We will do no harm. If we think (some change) may have any unintended consequences, we will not recommend making it," Moglen said.