Torvalds Talks About GPLv3

The creator of Linux explains why he won't embrace the next version of the open source license

Charles Babcock, Editor at Large, Cloud

March 16, 2007

3 Min Read

That Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux operating system, prefers the current version of the General Public License, GPLv2, over the version in development, GPLv3, is no secret. But in a lengthy E-mail response to questions from InformationWeek, he offers a full explanation of what he thinks is superior about GPLv2.

Linus TorvaldsTorvalds says he regrets that the authors of GPLv3 have decided to take aim at political opponents. He has little patience for statements about the "evil and immoral" nature of proprietary code or the "TiVo-ization" of Linux (a reference to set-top box producer TiVo producing a device that runs only one version of Linux), both statements made by Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and one of the authors of GPLv3. "Me, I just don't care about proprietary software. It's not evil. ... It just doesn't matter," Torvalds says. If the authors of GPLv3 try to impart bans on digital rights management and prohibit other perceived evils, they will clutter up the simplicity of GPLv2 and end up telling people what they can or cannot do with GPL software. "The real basic issue is that I think the FSF simply doesn't have goals that I can personally sign up to," he adds.

On the other hand, Torvalds sees the wisdom in the FSF's GPLv2 license, which has been in effect for the past 16 years and governs at least half of the code produced as open source. GPL developers aren't obligated to move their code off GPLv2 to GPLv3 if they don't want to, Torvalds says, noting that some people have assumed he will move the Linux kernel to GPLv3 when it comes out. Consequently, the license commitment for the Linux kernel will be to GPLv2 only, and not "GPLv2 or any later version," the language under which Linux is currently licensed. "I simply don't want to be at the mercy of somebody else when it comes to something as important as the license. ... It's just stupid to do anything else," Torvalds says.

He says the earlier version of the GPL grants users the full right to use the software with two or three straightforward conditions that apply equally to everyone. Torvalds endorses the giveback provision that some open source licenses, such as the Apache or Eclipse licenses, avoid. Those who use only GPL code and don't participate in its continued improvement are less likely to engage developers and get their specific needs answered in using the code.

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"That's a kind of beauty to me," he says. "People are encouraged to chip in and help, not because of some political agenda or because they try to be 'good people,' but simply because it helps themselves more than not chipping in. We can all be selfish and do the things that make sense for ourselves. It really boils down to a very simple equation: 'I will get more effort out of other people working on it, too, than I have to give back.'"

There may have been political views behind the original GPL, but version 2 lets people of different political views work together. "But the FSF seems to want to change the model," Torvalds says. The drafts of GPLv3 have been about what you can and can't do with that code. "That's not a direction I want to follow in," he says.

Return to main story, The Controversy Over GPL 3

Photo courtesy of Joe Zeff

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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