November 2, 2000

Sneak preview of GPL v. 3: More business friendly

Author: JT Smith

By Eric Ries
Special to NewsForge

There's a widespread belief in certain circles that Richard M. Stallman is a communist.
Supposedly, that stems from the view that the founder of the Free Software movement doesn't believe in making money off of
software products. However, as with most things, RMS has a theory about that:
"Some people are caught up in seeing everything in terms of how it can affect the
possibility of getting rich. If anyone objects to any aspect of their plans for doing this, they
ignore the details of that person's views, and see only, 'He doesn't want me to get rich.' "

Those people who buy into the rhetoric about RMS and the Free Software movement may
be surprised to learn that his latest effort to revise the GNU General Public License stems
from his concerns about making the GPL more business friendly.

Business can be compatible

Almost two years ago, Stallman met with lawyers from "various interested companies"
about how to encourage commercial use of the GPL and GPL-based software. Stallman
believes that this is compatible with Free Software principles. "The first priority of the GPL
is to protect the users' freedom, but all else being equal, I would rather make it easier for
business to use."

Since then, Stallman has been working on improvements to the GPL, currently in its second version. His work can be loosely categorized into two parts: The first to correct problems with the existing wording of the license, and the second to add features that make the license more attractive to programmers seeking to enter the Free Software fold.

Some of these changes are relatively minor. For instance, GPL2 currently requires that
anyone shipping binaries without the source code attached must make the code available
by mail order. This is a holdover from the days when downloads were expensive, and this
clause will probably be modified to allow Internet-only distribution methods.

Closing the ASP loophole

A more major change would be a requirement to release modified source code for anyone
who sets up a Web site providing access to a modified version of a program covered by
the GPL. Currently it is all too easy to circumvent the GPL by means of the so-called "ASP
loophole."

ASPs (application service providers) charge users to access programs
online, eliminating the need to install and run software on local PCs. Because the GPL is only able to cover cases of distribution of a
derived work, individuals who use GPL-based programs in this context are not bound by
any of its terms. Further, although the old versions of the GPL specifically covered cases of
"linking" one program to another, the process of linking two programs was quite different
than it is today. To quote Bruce Perens, a founder
of the Open Source Initiative: "The GPL[2] concept of 'linking' has aged -- these
days, there's dynamic linking, CORBA, and people 'daemonize' GPL code just so that they
can avoid applying the GPL to their own work." Because the background daemon programs usually communicate with other programs passively, they avoid the GPL2 requirements on linking.

Although this loophole makes it possible for unscrupulous
businesses to exploit GPL-covered code without abiding by the spirit of the
GPL, it would be wrong to think of closing this loophole as an anti-business initiative,
Stallman says. In fact, the existing ASP loophole can actually make it more difficult for many companies to release their code under the GPL.

Take the example of a company whose main business is to provide a Web-based service.
Its source code (which these days is usually written in some kind of scripting language) is
never intended to be distributed in a binary form. Thus, if the company were to release their
software under the GPL, as it currently stands, a competing company would be able to
quickly and easily create a modified version of the first company's work, set it up on a
public Web server, and start profiting without having to release changes. Thus, the original
authoring company is discouraged from making its software free (as in speech), because it
would put it at a competitive disadvantage.

Fortunately, copyright law already makes allowances for public "performance" of
copyrighted works, and it is possible that this or some other legal concept may help close the ASP loophole. Because this protection may not be appropriate for all
programs, Stallman is considering making the requirement optional, at the discretion of the
original developer. Thus, using our original example again, this hypothetical Web-based
company need not fear that a competitor could exploit its work without contributing back in
a mutually beneficial way.

These are only a few examples of the types of changes you can expect from GPL3.
Stallman is taking his time.

"Right now I have a long list of areas that may need clarification," he says. "I won't even
have a first draft any time soon. When I have one, I will start asking for comments on it, first
from selected groups such as GNU developers and businesses, and then from the public. I
am not going to rush this at any stage."

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