September 5, 2006

Report on the Fourth International GPLv3 Conference

Author: Mayank Sharma

Last month the Free Software Foundation (FSF) held its Fourth International Conference on GPLv3 at the Indian Institute of Management in Bangalore. Around 150 participants from all over India and abroad, including Japan, France, and Germany, attended. Since this was the first conference after the second draft of GPLv3, which saw several extensive revisions, both Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen painstakingly explained the new draft, and took many questions from attendees.

Dr. Nagarjuna G., chairman of FSF India, introduced Stallman, the founder of the FSF and the GNU Project. Stallman spent around 20 minutes educating the audience about the four freedoms and how the GNU GPL exists to provide and protect those freedoms. He then spent the next hour explaining the rationale behind the changes in GPLv3. A majority of this portion of his talk was updated to accommodate explanations of the changes introduced in the second draft, released less than a month before this conference. Stallman seemed pleased to introduce the audience to the two words that debut in this new draft -- propagate and convey. He then discussed the changes surrounding patents. Stallman pointed out that while in the US it is clear that a person who gives permission to others to use and distribute a program cannot sue them for patent infringement, it isn't so clear in other countries, so the FSF is now rephrasing the patent license clause as an explicit promise not to sue, which makes it more legally clear.

Stallman also shared his reasons for introducing a patent retaliation clause in the GPL, for the situation where someone makes changes to a piece of code that's used privately and never released, then sues another person who decides to make those changes on his own. The person filing for this kind of patent infringement loses the right to modify the program. This, Stallman argues, will make the application useless for a business, since it can't then be maintained.

Stallman then talked about Tivoization and stressed how freedom should be for everyone. Moving on to sharing the efforts of making GPLv3 compatible with other licenses, he mentioned the work done under section 7 of the draft to formalize what it means to add additional permissions and requirements to the license. Lastly, he mentioned how GPLv3 allows violators to make corrections and not have their rights terminated immediately.

During the talk Stallman asked the audience to comment on how source code should be distributed on demand. He said putting everything on a network server for download would probably be cheaper than mailing code on a disk, but might not be feasible for poor countries that lack access to broadband. Not only were there no discussions regarding this or even the GPLv3, but totally uninformed people from the audience kept asking questions and arguing with Stallman about issues such as making money from software, lack of free fonts, incompatibility with proprietary software, and open source vs. free software. Several questioners had never seen a draft of the GPLv3 and were unaware of basic things that the FSF had answered or made clear, such as the issue of discontinued warranty on hardware running modified software. Stallman tried his best to answer the queries, with Software Freedom Law Center Chairman Eben Moglen offering comments every now and then.

Post lunch, Moglen took the stage and commented on how Stallman had covered everything that he was to go over in his "Wording of the Changes" talk. Sharing a lawyer's perspective, Moglen said making a global copyright license is a serious challenge. He said when they started work on GPLv3, their intention was not to write a better US license but a more trans-nationalized one.

He went on to explain how the license caters to commercial users, though it is foremost a license for people who want to write free software. He also gave reasons for making GPLv3 a stronger copyleft license to avoid proliferation, which he mentioned was especially problematic for commercial users, due to various administrative costs.

Moving on to the value-add of section 7, he explained how it makes GPL more flexible, but he said that in the past nine months of the drafting process he didn't know how to bring the community to consensus on this.

Talking of patent retaliation, Moglen confirmed that GPLv3 will be congruent with all licenses that use it for defensive purposes. He also pointed out that if people had agreed with Stallman's stand on patents 15 years ago, we wouldn't be facing this situation, and suggested printing "Stallman was Right" buttons. He mentioned how several industry major players are flexing their muscles against the second draft, due to GPLv3's stance on patents, but he hoped to facilitate industry consensus on the issue.

While talking about anti-DRM provisions of the license, Moglen shared how manufacturers are using technology that he helped free for them, by destroying US encryption laws, to restrict the rights of other users. He assured the audience that the FSF is clear that technological evasion of the license is as unacceptable as legal evasion.

Like Stallman, Moglen too was interrupted by several unrelated questions during his talk. When he was through, he had to face more off-topic questions, such as steps to stop piracy and availability of DRM devices in India.

Day two

The second day of the conference kicked off with a presentation on "Nullifying Digital Restrictions Management," which began with a short animated movie on trusted computing. Stallman, of course, refers to trusted computing as treacherous computing. He explained why remote attestation is absurd, and shared that GPLv3 takes steps to prevent this by making it mandatory to share keys. Tired of talking, and a little amused to find himself all alone on what was titled a panel, he decided to brave questions instead, the standard of which wasn't any better than the previous day's.

Next on the list of speakers was Niibe Yutaka, chairman of the Free Software Initiative of Japan (FSIJ), and member of Committee A of the GPLv3 drafting process, who presented his little gadget, a GPL LED Display, which scrolls the GPLv3 license and runs on about 300 lines of verilog code. After sharing technical details of the device, Yutaka discussed a little about the Free Software adoption in Japan. He mentioned that the government, through its Ministry of Economy, Trade, and Industry, supports open source software. He also shared his reasons for the lack of Japanese people active in the GPLv3 drafting process; there's the obvious language barrier but many also misunderstand GPLv3 as being read-only.

He was followed by Masayuki Hatta, Debian Hacker and member of Committee D of GPLv3 drafting process, who has translated the draft into Japanese. He shared several issues that the Japanese industry has with the GPLv3. Foremost on the list are the license's anti-DRM and patent retaliation clauses. As per Hatta, since copyright protection laws in some countries are weak, GPLv3 would also face issues with the Japanese import/export laws. And of course several Japanese manufacturers are already committed to DRM.

This day of the conference also included two panels, on education and business, that feature in almost all FLOSS conferences in India but had little to do with the GPLv3. The panelists on "Free Software in Business" shared ways of making money through Free Software but lacked representation from industry majors. Similarly, the panel on "Free Software in Education" had faculty members sharing Free Software roll-out stories from their institutions. This panel saw active audience participation as they discussed ways for presenting Free Software to students as well as policy-makers.

For a free conference, the facilities were excellent. The organizers captured audio and video only on the first day. The only thing lacking was good and meaningful audience participation.

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