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The Controversy Over GPL 3

The next version of the open source license is dividing the community, and it isn't even out yet

GPLv2 has proved so viable and effective that it covers an estimated 72% of the 143,562 projects under development on the open source hosting site SourceForge. It governs three of the most successful open source applications to find their way into data centers: the Linux operating system, the MySQL database, and the Windows-Linux file sharing system known as Samba.

Other licenses govern open source software differently. For example, the license that covers the Apache Web server, from the Apache Software Foundation, doesn't include the "giveback" provision of GPLv2. Ditto for the Eclipse Foundation's license, which covers projects adding to the Eclipse development environment. Mozilla has its own license, which allows proprietary code to be combined with the open source.

Some developers have migrated their products to take advantage of the GPL's wide acceptance. The Alfresco content management system moved from the Mozilla public license to GPLv2 in February. Matt Asay, Alfresco's VP of business development, says he doesn't agree with some of Stallman's extreme views, "but on balance, the good of what the GPL has done outweighs the political treatise that it can read like."

Stallman is working on GPLv3 with Eben Moglen, a Columbia law professor and chairman of the Software Freedom Law Center (who also declined to be interviewed for this story, at Stallman's direction). They exhibited the first draft in January, 2006, and they ran into objections almost right away.

The first big objection had to do with their proposed prohibition against the use of digital rights management technology in connection with GPLv3 licensed code. DRM technology blocks end users from reproducing copyrighted content. It's a hot-button issue: Besides Stallman and Moglen, others in the computer industry have come out strongly against it, including Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who recently published an essay on Apple's Web site advocating an end to the use of all DRM technology, including his company's own.

  Controversial Aspects Of GPLv3
DIGITAL RIGHTS MANAGEMENT GPLv3 seeks to bar users from incorporating restrictive technology in GPL-based applications
PROTECTION AGAINST PATENTS GPLv3 seeks to prevent patent lawsuits against users of GPL code, as well as prevent indemnification agreements for a select group of GPL users, as with the Microsoft-Novell deal
WEB SERVICES GPLv3 seeks to expand the giveback provision and may require Web service providers to share the code on which their network services are built
NEW DEFINITIONS To better address international copyright law, GPLv3 seeks to change the words it uses for copy (propagate) and distribute (convey)
Still, application developers who use GPL software objected to being put in a position where they can't include technology that might be demanded by the marketplace or by hardware distributors. A prohibition against DRM technology, while perhaps well intentioned, limits what adopters can do with the code. "I'm against, 'you can't do XYZ with the code,'" says Torvalds. GPLv2 is better because it's simpler, less restrictive. "I absolutely love the GPLv2 because it embodies that 'develop in the open' model," he says.

Another aspect of GPLv3 that makes business users uneasy is the writers' ambition to eliminate all threats from software patents. GPLv3 had been through two drafts when news of the Microsoft-Novell deal broke late last year. In an address shortly afterward to the 5th International GPLv3 Conference in Tokyo, Stallman called the deal "cunning" because the two vendors had found a way to skirt GPLv2's provision against patent litigation. "We're going to make sure that when GPL version 3 really comes out, it will block such deals," Stallman told the conference.

GPLv2 forbids any software distributor from continuing to use the GPL license if the distributor threatens a patent action against a user of GPL code. Microsoft got around that protection by guaranteeing that the customers of Novell's SUSE Linux--and only those customers--would be free from any Microsoft charges of patent infringement. There's an implied threat against non-SUSE users, but Novell still gets to distribute its version of Linux under the GPL because it's not the party threatening patent litigation.

The prospect that GPLv3 will try to block all future patent threats through a series of prohibitions on company behavior has some commercial GPL supporters as worried about that provision as the threat of a Microsoft lawsuit against Linux vendors and users. There's no way for a software license "to anticipate all future circumventions," says Alfresco's Asay. "Trying to do so produces all sorts of unintended consequences." Business users of GPLv3-based software could conceivably find their hands tied if they sought to use their own patent portfolios under any circumstances, he says.

One of the most controversial aspects of GPLv3, having to do with the famous giveback provision, has already been tempered. Internet powerhouses like Google and Yahoo are big users of GPL code, such as Linux, MySQL, and Samba, which they have modified considerably for their benefit. The giveback provision in GPLv2 doesn't require them to share those changes with the open source community because they don't distribute products based on that code. They do, however, distribute services, such as the ability to search the Web.

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