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1/16/2006
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New Open-Source License Draft Less Controversial Than Feared For Business

The Free Software Foundation's much-anticipated General Public License version 3 extends license compatibility to other open-source licenses, prevents businesses from imposing unfair patent restrictions on open-source software, and tightens some other loopholes. In general, though, observers say it's more pro-business than some had feared.

The first draft of the General Public License 3 is less controversial and more pro-business than expected, observers say.

Unveiled at a conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology on Monday, the Free Software Foundation's much anticipated GPL3 extends license compatibility to other open source licenses, prevents commercial firms from imposing unfair patent restrictions on open source software and contains provisions to remove loopholes that could enable commercial vendors to hijack the GPL for its own purposes.

Yet the GPL 3 falls far short of the draconian treatise some had feared, observers said.

As proposed, the document will not force Google or eBay to distribute source code along with binary source code, as rumored, or undermine commercial vendors with large patent portfolios such as Linux-proponent IBM, observers said.

"It will be less controversial than some thought. It's measured,' said Ciaran O'Riordan, the Brussels representative of the Free Software Foundation Europe. "The new patent protection and DRM clause is quite reasonable."

Slated to be finished sometime in 2007, version 3 will be the first significant revision of the general public license in 14 years. GPL 2, which debuted in 1991, governs open source software development and is used by leading projects such as Linux, Samba, and MySQL.

The GPL 3's terms announced on Monday are part of the first draft and are subject to change. Nevertheless, Richard Stallman, founder and president of the Free Software Foundation, said the intent is to ensure users and developers with continued rights to use, copy, modify and share open source code, while also not imposing "harsh" restrictions that interrupt commercial use.

The GPL 3 is designed to protect the privacy and rights of open source users and developers. GPL 3, for instance, characterizes the Digital Copyright Millenium Act and similar European statute as "digital restriction movements" and defines digital rights management (DRM) software as an example of a "malicious feature" that should not be supported in GPL.

GPL3 also includes a narrow kind of patent "retaliation" that would prohibit a situation in which a company modifies a version of GPL-covered program, gets a patent and then threatens to take legal action anyone else that makes such a modified version.

Version 3 states that any company attempting such control would lose its right to make any further modifications under the GPL and thus its commercial viability.

Yet Stallman identified license compatibility as the GPL 3's most significant provision, which preserves the rights for developers to commingle GPL-based open source code with other open source licenses.

"The biggest change we've made is in license compatibility, partly removing an obstacle that has prevented combining code of various free software licenses," Stallman said. "We've put in provisions to exchange the range of compatible licenses and possible to copy code or link in combined larger program. This we think will help our community."

Still, GPL 3 is very "reasoned" and will encourage future commercial development, said the legal counsel of a Boston area firm that makes its money identifying legal risks and giving companies advise on using and distributing open source software.

"It's a victory for commercial and a positive indication of GPL's commercial support," said Karen Copenhaver, executive vice president and general counsel at Black Duck Software, Waltham, Mass, who viewed the explicit approval of license compatibility as the most significant new provision for corporations. "It's pro-innovation."

One open source developer gave it a high five. "After careful thought and consideration [of a paper describing] GPL3, we applaud and embrace GPL3," said Ed Pimentel, CEO of AgileCo, Alpharetta, Ga.

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