July 28, 2006

Eben Moglen explains highlights of GPL3 second draft

"We are on track to complete the process on schedule." With these words, Eben Moglen expressed his satisfaction with today's release of the second draft of the GNU Public License version 3 (GPL3). The release represents an effort to incorporate comments on the first draft made by thousands of people over the last six months via email, mail forums, and world-wide meetings, as well as the discussion of the four sub-committees involved in the writing of the draft.

As supervisor of the process on behalf of the Free Software Foundation (FSF)and the Software Freedom Law Center, Moglen explains, "The primary goal in this draft is be responsive to the large volume of high-quality participation we've been having. As you can see from the markup version that we released this morning, we've had to make a lot of changes." Speaking to Newsforge shortly after the draft was released, Moglen stepped us through the highlights of the new draft. They include language simplifications that make the GPL easier to use and lead to greater internationalization, clarification of issues about potentially restrictive technologies and peer to peer downloads, and a radical simplification of the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL). Although some issues remain, he believes that this draft is the first clear indication of what the final version of GPL3 will look like.

The draft represents the latest stage in the process to update the GPL, the most popular free software license, for the first time in 15 years. After months of planning, the revision process began in January 2006 with a draft produced without any public discussion. Since then, the first draft has been subject to endless scrutiny. A third draft is scheduled for November, with the final version expected in January 2007, or March 15, 2007 at the very latest.

The complete text of the second draft is available from the GPL3 site. The site also includes a detailed explanation of the revision process, and an audio file of Moglen explaining the changes.


Simplification and internationalization

Changes for clarity were already obvious in the first draft, with its addition of definitions at the start of the license and the rearrangement of the sections in the current version of the GPL. These changes have continued in the second draft, with more definitions at the start, and deletions and insertions throughout that make the license easier to understand for those without legal training.

The changes are especially noticeable in section 7, which describes additional permissions and restrictions that distributors may apply. Speaking on behalf of the revision team, Moglen describes the changes as "a complete rewrite that is a result of our recognition that the draft we put forward was hard for people to understand and would be hard to use."

Another reason for clarifying the language in the second draft was to make GPL3 easier to use under different copyright jurisdictions. "The goal is to allow people to ask lawyers about local copyright problems and to get answers that are immediately useful to them, even where the copyright lawyer consulted is not herself or himself experienced in the GPL," according to Moglen.

To this end, the second draft contains several modifications, such as replacing "distributing" with "conveying" and "derivative work" with "modification." Although seemingly trivial, such changes represent an "attempt to use a neutral word not found in other people's copyright statutes" and to eliminate terms that, in other jurisdictions "either didn't mean anything or didn't mean what American law makes it mean."

Moglen expects additional changes in language in upcoming revisions. At least one sub-committee is already focusing on such matters. "Our intention is to do everything we can to make the internationalization of this license stronger," Moglen says. "The only thing that we take more seriously is the protection of the freedom of users."


Answering unforeseen objections

In the first draft of GPL3, by far the most controversial change was section 3, which came out strongly against Digital Rights Management (DRM) technologies. Although the FSF takes a strong position against DRM, as evident by its Defective By Design campaign, the wording of the first draft was vague enough that it could be read as disallowing email encryption or the restriction of permissions to install software on a networked computer. Most famously, Linus Torvalds pointed out that the language would disallow digitally signed kernels and modules.

As a result of this input, section 3 has now been extensively rewritten. The guiding principle in the second draft is whether a technology or its application takes away a user's right to run and modify the code. "Our goal," says Moglen, "is to make as clear as possible that the technology is not in itself a problem -- user disablement in the context of this technology is a problem."

Another unforeseen circumstance in the first draft was peer to peer downloads. Moglen explains that in such downloads, "the party receiving the software may also be engaged in receiving it, simply because that's the way the communication protocol works, but he's not actually the person we would regard as a distributor of code. He doesn't have the source, and can't give it. That was a problem suggested by a commentator, and, as soon as it was presented, we realized we needed to do something about it." As a result, section 6e now specifically allows peer to peer conveying of software so long as users know where the source and binary code is located, and inform fellow P2P users of its location.


Rethinking the LGPL

After section 7 was rewritten to specify permissions and requirements for distributing programs under the GPL, the drafters of GPL3 realized that the same section could clarify the relation between the GPL and the LGPL, which is often used to dual-license software under both free and proprietary licenses. Instead of maintaining the LGPL as a separate license, it could be reduced to an additional exception in section 7 and a few other minor changes. This realization has produced the first draft of version 3 of the LGPL, which Moglen describes as "an additional permission which can be dropped on top of GPLed work."

This is solely a simplification," Moglen emphasizes. "It does not change the nature of the LGPL. Instead of having two primary copyleft licenses in the world, we now have one, the GPL, and an additional permission, the LGPL. We hope that [the situation] doesn't become difficult for people who will think of it as causing more change than it actually does. We need to be sure that people understand that they have a theoretical simplification, but no practical changes in the behavior of the license."


The next stages in the process

In general, Moglen is pleased with the second draft. "We have pretty much reached the end of the changes that the Free Software Foundation thinks are necessary in the license," he says. "We think that this is a license we could live with." However, Moglen expects further modifications in the coming months based on additional discussion.

Moglen anticipates debate on the changes to the language about DRM and the simplification of the LGPL. However, he expects the largest number of modifications to the provisions in section 11 about patents. He describes the language in section 11 as "the current state of an evolving conversation [with] the parties who have substantial patent portfolios and substantial concern with patent administration." This conversation, he stresses, is "not a bilateral conversation between patent holders and the Free Software Foundation," but an attempt to reach "an industry consensus" that will involve all stakeholders. "I hope that the provisions we have published will stimulate movement towards completion of that conversation. When we have a patent policy that protects freedom and which patent holders can live with, we will have done the job we need to do."

Most of all, Moglen concludes, "I don't want anyone to think that the time for participation was in the first round and it is now over. We have other international meetings yet to hold. We have lots and lots of consultation in the discussion committees and other public settings, and we have no doubt that we will receive other highly meaningful and relevant commentary before this is over. Our goal is to have the largest shared process for the evaluation and protection of freedom that we can possibly have."


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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