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1/18/2006
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Open-Source License Debate Kicks Off

With the draft of version 3 of the General Public License comes many questions. Among them, one vendor says, is whether end users using a Web-based application have the right to share and modify software licensed under GPL.

The discussion of how to maintain free distribution of software under the most widely used license for doing so is underway.

The Free Software Foundation released a draft of the third version of the General Public License, also called GPLv3 Monday. The GPL accompanies GNU software and other freely distributed and modified software. It has been 15 years since the license was first modified.

Black Duck Software, a company with software for evaluating licensing and copyrights within their code base, is supporting the latest effort. The company's President and CEO and Dough Levin said the Free Software Foundation is committed to making the process far more inclusive than was the case with GPL 2.0.

"There's much to discuss and we anticipate significant debate," he said.

The Free Software Foundation, however, is pleased with the last version, saying it has "succeeded beyond our expectations. It has nurtured a spirit of cooperation and trust that has enabled a worldwide community of users/developers to release an extraordinary range of free software. The underlying principle of respect for users' rights to cooperate has spread beyond the field of software, to inspire many other creative and scientific endeavors." It aims to include all interested parties during the revision.

Among the issues being explored is whether end users, like those using a web-based GPL application, have the right to share and modify software licensed under GPL, according to Black Duck Executive Vice President and General Counsel Karen Copenhaver.

"This could be one of the great debates during this process," she said.

Digital Rights Management – or "Digital Restrictions Management," as the Free Software Foundation puts it – will be another hot topic as big businesses, individual developers, and others comment on the draft proposal. The draft attempts to address several aspects of the issue, including legal, cultural, computing, business and societal considerations.

"Some countries have adopted laws prohibiting software that enables users to escape from Digital Restrictions Management," the draft reads. "DRM is fundamentally incompatible with the purpose of the GPL, which is to protect users' freedom; therefore, the GPL ensures that the software it covers will neither be subject to, nor subject other works to, digital restrictions from which escape is forbidden."

Black Duck Software is predicting extensive discussion of intellectual property licenses and patent issues due to differences in copyright law in various countries. The company is also predicting increased management of compliance "because of a rigorous distinction being drawn between source and object code, as well as the need to document exceptions to GPL 3.0, which the license permits."

Under the terms and conditions of the draft, the Free Software Foundation states that the "source code" for a work means the preferred form of the work for making modifications to it. "Object code" means any non-source version of a work."

The Free Software Foundation claims the changes are being driven by a changing environment, which includes new restrictions and the worldwide expansion of the free software community.

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