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Free Software Foundation Begins Overhaul of GPL

Posted by iTech - 2005-12-03

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) plans to revise the license that regulates the use of open-source software. A draft version of the GNU General Public License will be released in January.
Based in Boston, Massachusetts, the FSF originally released the first version of the GNU General Public License in 1991.

"This license was originally intended for free software that was developed by the FSF," said Peter Brown, the FSF's executive director. "But the I.T. industry has changed enormously since then. Now there are over 50,000 different software developers that use the GPL as a way of getting their software out to users."

According to the FSF, the GNU GPL is the most widely used free software license worldwide, with almost three quarters of all free software programs distributed under it.


"By free software, we mean that users are free to use, modify, or redistribute the software," Brown said. "The term we prefer is 'free as in freedom.'"

Use of software released under the GPL allows distributors to charge for distributing the software -- for example, for the cost of putting it on a CD-ROM -- but they cannot make a charge for actual usage.

Brown pointed out that, from the FSF's perspective, the term "open source" and "free software" are synonymous.

"Open source was invented as a term to help CEOs feel more comfortable with the concept of free software," he said.

"Only a small percentage of the people working in I.T. are actually engaged in producing proprietary software that has copyright attached to it," Brown explained. "If you use the Web, you are connecting up to software that uses GNU. If you do a Google search, then you are using search software that is based on GNU."

Discussion Process

A draft of the new license, which will be called GPLv3, will be released at the International Public Conference for GPLv3 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on January 16 and 17, 2006.

After the draft of the new license has been published, the FSF will invite feedback from software developers and users. The organization hopes to publish a final discussion document by the fall of 2006.

"The final GPLv3 license is expected no later than spring 2007," the FSF said in a statement.

"We want to make the new license as transparent as possible," Brown said.

Corporate Users

"The GNU GPL license is the most widely used vehicle for acquiring open-source software," said Forrester Research vice president Julie Giera. "Forrester's latest research indicates more than 60 percent of companies have installed, or plan to install, at least some open-source software by the end of this year."

Giera went on to say that it is high time for the license to get an update, given the changes in technology and how companies are using open source. "I think that the process the FSF has outlined is a good one," she said. "The FSF appears to be trying to be as inclusive as possible, taking input from all sectors of the I.T. community."

She pointed out that the FSF is engaging in a difficult balancing act with the revision, trying to find ways to minimize the burdens and risks that I.T. managers face using open-source code while at the same time keeping the "spirit" of open-source software alive.

"Open source has rapidly been commercialized in the past few years, with I.T. vendors scrambling to find more ways to exploit open source for their own financial gain," she said. "It will be a tricky challenge to serve all the constituencies out there with a vested interest in open source."

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