January 25, 2006

Debian scrutinizes GPL3

Author: Bruce Byfield

At last week's launch of the first draft for the revised GNU General Public Licence (GPL3), the Debian project was out in force. Besides Branden Robinson, the Debian Project Leader, Debian members at the meeting included Don Armstrong, Benjamin Mako Hill, Bruce Perens, and several Debian members from the Boston area. In the aftermath of the meeting, a consensus is still emerging, but Debian members seem to regard GPL3 generally favorably, although some have concerns about exact wording and the implications of some parts of the draft.

This emerging consensus is largely centered on whether the draft is compatible with the Debian Free Software Guidelines (DFSG), the definition used to determine what packages the distribution ships. Debian's concerns seem likely to play a major role in future revisions of GPL3 -- and may have already played a role in the first draft.

Initially, Branden Robinson says, he was worried about GPL3. "The amount of secrecy around the initial draft process had me very nervous," he says. In addition, after the Debian consensus rejected the GNU Free Documentation Licence, he was concerned that GPL3 might become equally contentious in Debian.

"I'm glad to say that my fears are assuaged," Robinson says. "I was impressed with both the large and small changes. In a nutshell, I like it."

In particular, Robinson notes that many of the changes in GPL3 are clarifications of ambiguities raised in discussions on the debian-legal mailing list. "Whether Debian was the first to note any of them, I'm not sure," Robinson says, "but this first draft reassures me that the Free Software Foundation has been listening and paying attention to the community."

Robinson singles out the expanded language in Clause 7 of GPL 3 about licence compatibility. This change, he suggests, provides clear guidelines for determining which licences can be combined with the GPL. For the first time, he says, "The three-clause BSD license will be clearly GPL-compatible under literal readings of the GPL's term, and not just the Free Software Foundation's interpretation."

Potential incompatibilities

Despite this generally favorable response, Robinson and other Debian members see the need for further revisions to make GPL3 fully compatible with the DFSF. On the debian-legal mailing list, Nathanael Nerode in several posts has suggested extensive revisions to the language of GPL3. Other concerns expressed on debian-legal include the implications for software freedom of placing geographical restrictions on the distribution of a piece of software, and whether the licence is so flexible that it could be used in ways that would be considered non-free under the DFSG -- a possibility that would considerably complicate the already onerous task of assembling a new Debian release. Similarly, both Robinson and others express concerns about whether the restrictions that section 7 may place on derived use violates section 3 of the DFSG, which states that licenses must grant derived works the right "to be distributed under the same terms as the license of the original software."

Perhaps the largest concerns focus on the newly added language on digital rights management in section 3. While most users might welcome, as Robinson does, the idea of the restriction on spyware and other works that "illegally invade users' privacy," a number of users worry about how it might be misapplied. Robinson himself is concerned about the precedent of expanding the licence to cover concerns that are beyond the immediate areas of copyright. He expresses doubts about about whether the section would pass what he calls the "Dissident Test" -- that is, whether the language could make GPL3 a weapon to be used against people holding unpopular or illegal views.

Others Debian members, including Bas Zoetekouw and Josh Triplett, object to the section from an extreme civil libertarian position. Zoetekouw points out that GPL3's language in section 3 conflicts with section 6 of the Debian Free Software Guideline, which states that, "The license must not restrict anyone from making use of the program in a specific field of endeavor." "If we allow terrorists to use our code, and allow it to be used in biological weapons research, clearly also black hat hackers must be allowed to use it to produce spyware." Triplett agrees, and points out that the FSF itself has argued against such clauses in the past, saying, "If we were ever going to make an exception to our principles of free software, here would be the place to do it. But it would be a mistake to do so: it would weaken our general stand, and would achieve nothing." However tempting, such restrictions seem a direct contradiction of Debian's philosophical core.

Debian's influence on GPL3

None of these comments, including Robinson's, are Debian's official view of the revised GPL. That must wait for the release of the final draft.

All the same, the opinions they express are of interest to more than the immediate Debian community. As one of the largest collections of free software and the parent of many community and commercial distributions, Debian's view of the revised GPL will have a large influence on its acceptance.

Moreover, so far, the consultation on GPL3 has been limited mostly to community leaders. While a broader range of opinions will be solicited before the final draft, currently the Debian project is one of the first to debate the draft publicly, both on debian-legal and on the wiki that Robinson set up so that users could express their concerns before the launch meeting. In other words, input on GPL3 from Debian is likely to be more democratically derived than most.

Just as importantly, in recent years, Debian has come to be the major definer of software freedom outside the Free Software Foundation. As Robinson observes, "Debian does not genuflect to the Free Software Foundation or read its licenses uncritically." As a result, the writers of new licenses have taken to asking both Debian and the FSF for feedback on their work. The feeling seems to be that if both Debian and the FSF approve a license, its free status is unquestionable.

If nothing else, Debian discussion of GPL3 can be seen as a kind of communal devil's advocacy. Already, it seems to be playing this role unofficially for the FSF. Since Debian's rejection of the GNU Free Documentation Licence, the FSF has been meeting with Debian in an attempt to resolve the issues raised. While the results of these meetings are not publicized, they are probably the main reason why the FDL is scheduled to be revised after the GPL. It is also possible that some of the language in GPL3, such as the provisions for collections in section 5c, is already influenced by these discussions.

Few of those participating in Debian's discussions of GPL3 are legally trained. However, many have several years of studying licences and applying them to the packages they maintained. In the coming year, the discussions they generate may be one of the most thorough and expert scrutinies that GPL3 has to face.

Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.

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