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GPL 3: Pre-Release Buzz Centers on Patents, License Compatibility

Posted by iTech - 2006-01-15

The first public draft of GNU General Public License 3.0 will be released at an event at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., on Monday, and open-source software advocates are hoping that effective provisions for software patents as well as GPL compatibility with other licenses will be prominent in the draft.
There is much optimism among those in the free and open-source community that GPL 3.0, the next version of the license that governs much software, including the Linux kernel, will provide a stable licensing environment for the foreseeable future.

It will mark the official beginning of a year of public comment and debate on the content, terms and wording of the license that will govern much open-source software for some time to come.

Simon Phipps, the open-source officer at Sun Microsystems Inc., told eWEEK that Sun would most like to see in GPL 3.0 provide a more up-to-date treatment of software patents and to make the inclusion of code under other free and open source software easier.

Mark Webbink, the deputy general counsel and secretary at Red Hat, said the Linux distributor would like to see a greater clarity of the terms concerning software patents in GPL 3.0.

The company had received the most feedback from its customers concerning software patents, Webbink said. "That being said, GPL2 has proven to be an immensely durable document," he said.

Greg Jones, the associate general counsel for Novell, was looking for the same.

"By adopting an open process to address matters such as patent license grants and compatibility with other licenses, the Free Software Foundation is poised to produce an updated GPL that will further advance free software," he said.

This is the first time in 15 years that the GPL has been updated to reflect the current IT environment, and the leading players in the industry are all eagerly looking forward to seeing the first draft.

GPL 3.0's authors, Richard Stallman, the license's original author, and Eben Moglen, the general counsel for the Free Software Foundation, have kept the draft under tight warps. Both of them will address attendees at the GPL event.

Manny Vellon, the vice president of product development at Centeris Corp., whose Centeris Likewise product allows users to manage Linux servers in their Windows networks, said it was waiting for the release lease of the draft license document to read the details and see how this might affect them.

"We do some work on Samba, which is licensed under the GPL. As consumers of open-source software, the thing we most closely watch is how the use of the software, and the license that governs it, impacts what we do and what we are forced to do," he said.

It also looked for any kind of viral nature to the license that "will force us to license our stuff that way too. A read flag for any commercial interest trying to build around open software is if there is a lot of focus on what you can and cannot do," he said.

While one of the concerns that has been expressed about the process is that some of the larger vendors and Linux distributors, such as IBM, HP, Red Hat and Novell, might try and advance their own agenda at the expense of the best interests of the community, it appears that will not be the case.

Red Hat's Webbink told eWEEK that "it is our understanding that commercial parties have largely been assigned to a single discussion group to assure that their position does not dominate those of other interests," adding that "of course, even among the commercial parties, there are varying degrees of support for the GPL."

Sun's Phipps expressed the firm's broad support for the planned discussion and feedback process, saying it would also be participating in just one of the discussion committees.

"We, at Sun, would like to help in whatever way we can with the evolution of the GPL," Phipps said.

But Christine Martino, the recently appointed vice president for open source and Linux at Hewlett-Packard Co., said the company was not going into the process with a long list of demands.

"We are big GPL fans, and we are not going into the GPL 3.0 process wanting a whole bunch of changes. We don't have a long laundry list or an agenda for change. But, what we do have an agenda for, is a very open, fair process that successfully unites the community," she said.

HP has long been a strong proponent of the GPL, she added, noting that it is also the "only major vendor that hasn't felt the need to have our own license."

Martino was referring, among others, to Sun's CDDL (Common Development and Distribution License); the IBM Public License and the former Intel Open Source License.

"So I think it would be a bad thing if, at the end of the day when this is done, people go, 'Well, I don't like what happened with version 3, so I'm going to use version 2.' The key to preventing that is having the process be really open and find ways to have everyone feel heard," Martino said. She said she wants "GPL 3.0 have the same lasting power that the current version has."

While limiting the unhappiness and potential fallout from the process would be a "big task," Martino said, if the process and the outcome are perceived as one that benefits free and open-source software broadly, there's less chance that community members would want to do something that negatively affects that, she said.

"I would hope that the combination of Richard [Stallman] and Eben [Moglen], with his broad business view of what this means for everyone, would be the right combination to lead that effort. If anyone can do it, I think it's them," she said.

But Red Hat's Webbink was less concerned about some people staying with GPL 2.0 when the process is finished.

Some organizations "may choose to stay with GPL 2," he said, and that "should not be viewed as surprising, distressing or inconsistent with the basic premise of open source."

This would also be one of the largest collaborative and consultative processes ever undertaken.

"For that very reason, it is hard to imagine that every participant will get satisfactory resolution on every issue. The question will be whether the document, taken as a whole, advances the ball," he said.

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