GPLv3 Emerges After Long Debate, Opposition Muted

One of the early adopters of GPL 3 will be the Samba Server project, which supplies file translation code between Linux and Windows.

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

June 29, 2007

4 Min Read

Richard Stallman's Free Software Foundation launched GPL Version 3 on Friday from its Boston headquarters, with an eye toward restricting patent actions against free software. GPL 3's impact will only slowly be felt as it is adopted as the license of choice on various open source projects. But its adoption is practically assured as developers close ranks in the face of Microsoft charges that Linux and other open source code projects violate 235 of its patents.

The GPL 2 and its predecessors have been the license of choice on the majority of open source code projects. The GPL revolutionized the way software is written and distributed. Instead of setting fees and license limitations, the GPL granted developers a broad writ to use code freely and modify it, but it required those modifications to be given back to the developer community.

One of the early adopters of GPL 3 will be the Samba Server project, which supplies file translation code between Linux and Windows. Jeremy Allison, leader of the project, said Version 3 "a necessary update to deal with the new threats to free software that have emerged since version 2 of the GPL."

Allison left Novell in protest and moved to a job at Google shortly after the Microsoft-Novell deal was announced last November. That agreement supplied protection to Novell SuSE Linux customers but Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer in follow up statements said no such protections were offered to other Linux users.

In an e-mail exchange with InformationWeek, he said the Samba team "will be discussing a move to GPLv3 now that the license is available" but he couldn't predict how soon it will be adopted. Allison said the provisions of GPLv3 "will provide greater protection for the freedoms of individual contributors. In the long term, it will provide greater incentive for them to contribute code."

The GPLv3 bans digital rights management in GPL licensed code as well as requiring a particular version of GPL code on a hardware device, such as a TiVo set-top box. Stallman refers to such a requirement as "the tivoization" of software. He believes the device user should be able to modify the software on the device, if he chooses.

In addition, GPLv3 "forecloses any kind of deal like [the Microsoft/Novell agreement] going forward," said Andrew Updegrove, specialist in software licensing and partner in the Boston law firm of Gesmer Updegrove in an interview.

Stallman, the originator of the free Gnu software tools and the free software movement, views the GPL license as the front line of defense against those who want to restrict users' rights to software. Stallman and Eben Moglen of the Software Freedom Law Center wrote GPLv3, and revised it four times over 18 months as comments flowed in on its restrictive provisions.

Rod Spring, lead developers of the Spring Framework for Java developers, said Spring will remain under the Apache Software License.

"I am concerned at the more ideological parts of the GPL3, including the restrictions that may impact digital rights management. However, it's good to see that this appears to be have been softened in recent drafts."

He welcomed the effort to make code licensed under GPLv3 and Apache more compatible when the licenses are used together. "I expect that GPL 3.0 will gain widespread adoption, but I think it will take years," he wrote in an e-mail message.

In the past, Linus Torvalds, lead developer of the Linux kernel and owner of the Linux trademark, has expressed reservations about the GPLv3. But the previous pronounced opposition of other Linux kernel developers appeared to soften palpably at the May 16 Linux Foundation Collaboration Summit, held on Google's Mountain View campus.

"What has emerged is much better than what the Free Software Foundation offered a year ago," said kernel developer Ted T'so at the Linux Foundation Summit June 13. He expressed a concern that issuing Linux under GPLv3 would mean six months of additional work for the kernel developers. But he added, "They did listen, they did change some of the features."

"The Free Software Foundation listened to people outside its normal support base. The GPL 3 is better than the GPL 2," said Mark Radcliffe, an intellectual property attorney with DLA Piper's Silicon Valley office, during the Linux Foundation Summit.

GPL 3 "clarifies language that was unclear in GPLv2 and addresses many issues that did not exist when GPLv2 was written more than 15 years ago," noted Sun Microsystems Simon Phipps, chief open source officer. Sun offers Java Standard Edition under the GPLv2 license.

About the Author(s)

Charles Babcock

Editor at Large, Cloud

Charles Babcock is an editor-at-large for InformationWeek and author of Management Strategies for the Cloud Revolution, a McGraw-Hill book. He is the former editor-in-chief of Digital News, former software editor of Computerworld and former technology editor of Interactive Week. He is a graduate of Syracuse University where he obtained a bachelor's degree in journalism. He joined the publication in 2003.

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