March 27, 2007

FSF changes GPLv3 endgame

Author: Bruce Byfield

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is changing the final process of writing the third version of the GNU General Public License (GPLv3). Peter Brown, executive director of the FSF, says that the reasons for the change are the extensive revisions in the next draft and the need "to get the community back involved in the process" as it reaches a climax. The revisions deal with issues raised by the recent Novell-Microsoft deal, and by the community about language in the license about patents and digital rights management (DRM).

GPLv3 has already undergone two drafts -- one in January 2006 and a second in July. The original plan was to have a third draft in November, with the license being released some time between January and March of this year.

Now, according to Brown, the third draft of GPLv3 will be released on Wednesday, March 28. For the 60 days following the release of the third draft, the FSF plans a community review of the text to produce the final "last call" draft. The last call draft will then be opened up for comments for 30 days before GPLv3 is officially released.

"To announce a license now that has seen significant changes as a last call draft is not appropriate," Brown says. "It has undergone a major revision, and, because of that, we need to throw the license back into another period of review."

Reasons for the revision

The major reason for the most recent revisions is the agreement between Microsoft and Novell in November 2006. In both the media and the free software community, the agreement has been seen as a potential violation of the GPL, both because Microsoft would be paying a royalty to redistribute Novell's SUSE Linux Enterprise, and because the agreement includes patent protection for only Novell customers in the event that Microsoft's intellectual property were discovered in GNU/Linux. Although the FSF judged the agreement technically legal under the current version of the GPL, it wished "to develop mechanisms in GPLv3 that would deter agreements of this sort and provide strong defenses against their accompanying dangers," Brown says.

Initially, Brown said that the FSF did not want to "shoot the hostage" and develop language that might be seen as deliberately hostile to Novell, or that might prevent Novell from distributing GNU/Linux, as reports in the media suggested. If the GPLv3 draft "affects anyone, it's going to affect Microsoft," Brown insisted.

However, as the issue delayed the original release of the draft at the start of March, the FSF clearly lost patience with Novell. Now, it no longer sees Novell as a bystander. "By discriminating between users, the patent deal between Microsoft and Novell has undermined the very purpose of the GNU GPL," Brett Smith, the FSF's compliance engineer, says. "We are troubled by Novell's apparent eagerness to stand by an agreement that compromises our community. We are considering additional measures for GPLv3 to address that behavior."

The other reason for revisions is to achieve as broad a consensus as possible about controversial aspects of earlier drafts, in particular anti-DRM and patent language. Linux kernel developers, including Linus Torvalds, have opposed the anti-DRM language in earlier drafts, while language about patents remains a major concern for the representatives of commercial companies on the GPLv3 committees. "We want to see as much support for the license as possible," Brown says.

However, Brown says that the FSF places firm limits on how far it will move on such provisions. The effort to seek consensus "is not about giving up the right thing in order to reach an agreement," he says. He suggests that those who oppose the anti-DRM language are interested only in "freedom for developers," while the FSF's goal is "freedom for everybody."

"We do nothing new in GPLv3," Brown says. "It's just an update. People claim that we are reaching beyond software. But if you ask anyone who's actually read GPLv2, they know that the purpose of free software is to give people freedom. Those who suggest that taking away freedom is part of GPLv2 have just missed the point."

A period of advocacy

Since the GPL revision started more than a year ago, the FSF has been largely silent about reactions to the draft or the process. When Linus Torvalds criticized the second draft, for example, the only response was an open invitation on Eben Moglen's blog to participate in the revision.

According to Brown, such silence was deliberate. "When you have an open process," Brown says, "it's very important that you allow users to comment without expecting to receive a response. We wanted to do a good job of allowing people to say what they felt needed to be said, so we didn't debate."

However, once the third draft is released, Brown says the FSF plans to move "into a period of advocacy. We need to start talking much more clearly about our intentions and responding to them when people ask questions."

To help get its message out, the FSF plans a FAQ to deal with the most common questions. In addition, Brown says, "We're going to have our compliance engineer, Brett Smith, staffing an open phone line, so if you have any questions about the license you'll be able to get answers immediately.

"It should be quite an intense period. And hopefully we can get people involved in it again now that there's a definite end point."

Looking back and forward

Brown admits that the discussion so far about the license revision has revealed and possibly deepened the divisions between the free software and open source communities. But "there's nothing we can do about that," he says philosophically. "It's just the way things are."

Brown also describes the last year as "a hard slog. Corporations have been very actively involved in this process, and you have a lot of lawyers out there who are very keen to have their views taken into account. It's been a tiring process for those most involved in it."

Still, Brown feels that the process has been worthwhile because of "the massive awareness that it's generated for the license and the massive awareness of the work of the FSF." Alluding to the FSF's preference for the term "GNU/Linux" and pointing at the rise of GNU/Solaris, he suggests that perhaps "now people realize that, when they say 'Linux,' that they misrepresent the truth of the situation."

For Brown, judging the success of the process is something that will take years to evaluate. "This license is meant to be around for many years, so we don't expect everyone to switch immediately," he says. "We expect that, over time, people will see that there are many benefits for them. But we won't know until years after."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and IT Manager's Journal.


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