November 30, 2005

GPLv3 guidelines released

Author: Tina Gasperson

The Free Software Foundationreleased its guidelines and process specifications this morning for the revision process that will produce version 3 of the GNU General Public License (GPL). The guidelines are designed to include as many people as possible in the revision process, says FSF executive director Peter Brown, but the foundation's specific ideas for changes to the license are not being released to the public just yet.

Brown wants the free software community, as well as business users of GPLed software, to know that every concern and issue will be addressed in the coming weeks. "We have to recognize that the FSF holds the copyright on only a small fraction of GPL software," Brown says. "Its an interesting problem for us. This whole process is about talking to all those software developers, users, corporations, who have invested themselves into free software. That's why [it] has to be transparent."

Jim Gatto, intellectual property and patent attorney for the Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman law firm, says version 3 of the GPL has been a long time coming. "A number of people have raised different concerns about the GPL," Gatto says.

He says the biggest sticking point is the issue of linking. "It raises a lot of questions about using GPL code in closed-source programs." Another point of concern is what Gatto calls the "proliferation of open source licenses."

"If you want to use two different pieces of open source code covered by two different licenses, in some cases it's impossible to do so because the license provisions conflict," says Gatto. To solve this, Gatto says he thinks the GPL 3 will have a proviso allowing GPL software to mix with true open source code without restriction.

A third item Gatto hopes the new version will address is patents. "It's somewhat confusing," he says. "There are some restrictions that could be clarified in order to minimize the potential problems but retain the spirit."

To facilitate the comment and revision process, the FSF plans to invite key developers and business users to head committees centered around issues related to the revisions. According to Brown, "they will look at every single comment and we'll develop issues based on those comments."

The committees are expected to generate proposals that will land in the lap of Richard Stallman, the author of the original GPL license terms and the father of free software ideology. "Richard is fully involved," says Brown, "and he is sitting as the final arbiter on all these issues." But the key aspect of the committee process, Brown says, is to "spread the load."

The committee head positions are by invitation only, but those heads are then free to populate their committees with whomever they choose. Brown says the FSF has already made a list of its first choices for committee heads and will announce those selections in the coming weeks.

The FSF's move toward compatibility with other software licenses shouldn't be perceived as a dilution of the foundation's ideology, Brown says. "This is an opportunity for the community to re-establish the principles of free software. The license will in no way weaken - our promise has always been that the terms [of the GPL] will not fundamentally change. We're going to get as much input as we can and make the best license we can."

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