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Open Source Software Up the Stack

Dennis Byron

Awaiting "G" Day: Release/Approval of GPL V3 Pending

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Some day soon the Free Software Foundation (FSF) should officially bless its GNU General Public License (GPL) Version 3 (GPL V3) or put out another draft for further comment. FSF associates are meeting this Saturday at MIT in Cambridge MA and that might mark some kind of official or unoffical release (if in the Boston area, you can join and attend if interested but I believe you have to let them know ahead of time via the fsf.org web site). GPL is one of the key documents in the open source software (OSS) movement because it is the means Linus Torvalds chose to license Linux while a student in Finland in the mid 1990s. To be clear the GPL was prepared by and is coprighted by FSF, not the Linux Foundation, but the FSF makes it available to anyone as long as FSF's copyright is respected (see this post for a discussion about the subtle difference between the FSF and the broader OSS movement).

A draft of the new proposed license is available at the GNU/FSF site along with comments that have been made since the July 2006 release of this draft. In addition to Linux, all of the GNU software--naturally--is licensed under the GPL as is a wide array of other OSS according to the FSF. On the other hand, other pieces of OSS are licensed via the Apache, Berkeley, and at least a half dozen other legal structures (see this site for many of the possibilities).

The GPL V3 review process worked like this: Committees A, B and C--made up of a who's who of OSS luminaries--reviewed approximately 1000 public comments last year and some committee of the whole arrangement (called Committee D) released public minutes during 2006. The current (second) draft of GPL Version 3 was released in July 2006. There does not seem to have been any meetings of the four committees in almost a year. FSF movers and shakers said they would make further changes to the license after (and because of the terms of) the Novell-Microsoft technology-sharing/cross-patent agreement, which was announced in November 2006. If that process is taking place, it does not appear to be "a public process" similar to the commentary/discussion process used in 2006.

Below I've summarized my opinion of the types of changes I see between the first and current second draft (I believe the first draft was fairly similar to the existing GPL Version 2, which was released in 1991):

-- The moral vs. legal dimensions of free software vs. OSS in general (and closed source software of course) has been taken up a notch although some of the more colorful section titles (such as "Liberty or Death for the Program") have been replaced with legalese. As mentioned elsewhere in my blogs and commentary, this has been a major trend in the FSF movement all during this decade (possibly at the expense of actually producing code).
-- The FSF has taken great care to "internationalize" the wording of GPL V3. That is, it is more generic to copyright and patent laws and conventions worldwide and not just in the United States. Deletion of the word "distribute" is the biggest victim of these changes.
-- In general, the GPL V3 license does not cover the output of the free software, which is where I once thought FSF was going with its DRM diversion
-- Sublicensing is not permitted under GPL V3
-- The changes to how systems libraries are handled may be the most significant; it looks like this version of the license is widening the circle of what is covered how when it comes to "free"
-- The Lesser GPL is basically replaced by a set of permissive exceptions to the new GPL. There are some implications if you are using software licensed in this manner. But in general most of these GPL V3 changes apply to anyone redistributing OSS so if you are litterally just using it, this is simply interesting (or not?). And, specific to integration software, the most popular OSS middleware is not licensed under either GPL license so just monitor the situation and don't worry about Novell and Microsoft vs. the world and all the other drama in the OSS culture.
-- Of course, most meaningful from a cultural point of view, the license has been extended to cover content

As has always been the case, two important FSF characteristics remain the same:
-- no warranty attaches
-- you are free to charge money for free software.
In general, many of these changes seem to me to make it less likely that the license will be used for popular pieces of OSS.

Dennis Byron’s blog on open source software: A longtime market research analyst follows what “the movement? means to business integration—in applications, infrastructure, as services, as architecture and as functionality.

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