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Open-Source Advocates Ask for Patience in GPL 3 Debate

Posted by iTech - 2006-02-15

Open-source code advocates are calling for cooler heads to prevail in the often-heated debate about many of the revised terms in the first discussion draft of the GNU General Public License Version 3 that was released in early January.
While there are many opinions and questions about how the draft should be revised, there is one issue on which many in the free and open-source community agree: It is just too early in the process for people to take a definitive position on whether they can accepts its provisions.

Given that the discussion process around the provisions, terms and very wording of the proposed new license is expected to last for much of this year, making definitive statements about future actions based on the current draft license is just premature, industry players say.

"This is a development process, not a finished product. By the nature of the free and open-source software community, there are a variety of opinions, and the process is designed to allow a maximum of comment and consideration before a final result is reached," Mark Webbink, the deputy general counsel at Linux vendor Red Hat Inc., told eWEEK.

Simon Phipps, the open-source officer at Sun Microsystems, agrees that it is just too early in the discussion process to reject the current draft provisions outright.

While Dan Kusnetzky, the executive vice president of marketing for Open-Xchange of Tarrytown, N.Y., says most companies aren't even thinking about whether they will re-licensing of code or products under the new license.

Some organizations that use open source-licenses other than the GPL for the software that falls under their auspices, such as the Eclipse Foundation, are not contemplating a move to GPL 3, but are rather hoping for better compatibility between their licenses and the next version of the GPL.

The foundation went through the pain of one licensing move already, when it switched in 2004 from the Common Public License to the EPL (Eclipse Public License) for open-source software published under its auspices.

"For Eclipse, the real hope that we have for this process is for version three of the LGPL [Lesser General Public License]. If that license can be made compatible with the EPL to the point where LGPL code could be used within Eclipse projects, the status quo is dramatically improved in our view.

"Unfortunately, only time will tell if this will come to pass, as the revision process for the LGPL has not even started yet," Mike Milinkovich, the foundation's executive director, told eWEEK.

It was also important to realize that when the Free Software Foundation referred to "compatibility," they meant that GPL 3 code could consume EPL code, "not the other way around. So it's a one-way street," he said.

While the new terms in GPL 3 for dealing with patents went a long way to making the licenses compatible, an area that the FSF itself had identified as an issue between the current GPL and the EPL, the foundation was still doing its own compatibility evaluation, he said.

"We owe it to our own community to be completely satisfied that we agree with the FSF's position. Early results indicate that there are still some areas that need to be worked on," Milinkovich said.

With regard to Open-Xchange, Kusnetzky said it was built on top of a range of open-source software, which used different licenses, from Apache to MySQL.

"It is hard to take a view at this early stage of how we will be affected by version three of the license or whether we will move to it," he said.

But, the calls for restraint and patience with the process aside, there has already been a heated and controversial early response from the community to the draft license.

Linux luminary Linus Torvalds, the Linux kernel project leader, announced within weeks of the release of the draft document that he was unlikely to re-license the Linux kernel.

But he has since softened his tone, saying that he has not yet ruled out using GPL 3 for the kernel.

In an interview with eWEEK sister site Linux-Watch, Torvalds said that while it was "quite possible" that the GPL 3 could be used, he added that "on the other hand, there's a purely practical problem with any change of license when you have tens of major copyright holders and hundreds of people who have written some part and thousands who have submitted one-liners and small fixes."

He also acknowledged that there are benefits to putting the kernel under the GPL 3, such as the uniformity of licensing.

It's also not the new Digital Restrictions Management section that he objects to, but rather a new part that "seems to disallow digitally signed binaries (or rather: you can sign the binaries any way you want, but you have to make your private keys available)."

If this section is removed, then Torvalds says the kernel might yet be moved to the new GPL, even though, practically speaking, it may be difficult to bring Linux under GPL 3 due to the sheer number of copyright owners.

That the discussion process around GPL 3 is already controversial is not unexpected: After all, even Eben Moglen, one of its authors, predicted as much in an interview with eWEEK last August.

Moglen, who is the general counsel for the Free Software Foundation and co-author of the draft license along with Richard Stallman, the founder of the FSF, said then that he was very aware of the enormous challenges of the license rewriting task and the huge potential it had for disruption, in-fighting and controversy.

Even at that time he acknowledged that while it would be "an enormously disruptive experience, it will also be an enormously creative experience where they realize they are linked together, that they can't pull this apart and that it is too big to fail."

But it is unlikely that Moglen anticipated how disruptive the experience might be, right from the outset, particularly around the Digital Rights Management included in the draft license.

Torvalds, in a recent online post, said that he thinks "a lot of people may find that the [GPL 3] 'anti-DRM' measures aren't all that wonderful after all. Digital signatures and cryptography aren't just 'bad DRM.' They very much are 'good security' too."

Torvalds is not the only one to raise concerns about those provisions.

Other companies in the community had also expressed unhappiness with regard to the DRM provisions, Moglen told eWEEK, but this was not unexpected as the new license would not satisfy everyone, he said.

But some, like Open-Xchange's Kusnetzky, feel that while the current version of the license had been extremely long-lasting and was in use around the globe, "some things needed to be more explicitly stated because of the legal frameworks that currently exist in some countries.

My understanding is that the FSF is trying to make the GPL a more workable document that extends the idea of freedom of choice," he said.

The Eclipse Foundation's Milinkovich agreed, saying that the GPL was definitely due for a refresh, and "we feel that the current effort is justified. Both the good news and the bad news about having a community-based approach is that many different people will be involved. That means that the process may take longer, and we're sure there will be moments of emotion. But it's justified," he said.

There is also agreement that the current DRM provisions need to be improved. Kusnetzky says those provisions need to more clearly worded, and said that he has already spoken to Moglen about this and expressed his desire to have them become even clearer.

"I have also asked my colleagues to look at this and come up with alternative wording that is more specific and makes the intent quite clear," he said, adding that the DRM provisions would benefit companies like Open-Xchange as they would give users greater control over what went through their systems and how that content was used, even if they did not own it.

It also strengthens the protections for developers and manufacturers, especially when content is transferred illegally using their systems or products.

Open-Xchange sees this as a positive approach to making sure that those people who misuse or abuse protected content are held liable for that, while the developers and manufacturers are not, Kusnetsky said.

Christine Martino, the vice president for Hewlett-Packard's open-source and Linux organization, said the company had always appreciated that the FSF was concerned about DRM generally and about its implications for the ability to modify software that was so central to the FSF's goals.

"The bottom line is that this is a difficult issue for which there is no simple answer for the FSF. We expect to see quite a bit of feedback on this as people work through understanding of many possible scenarios that involve interaction of free software with DRM. At the moment, it is too early to know what specific feedback HP might offer," she said.

Sun's Phipps agrees that the DRM issue is far from resolved and that there will be a lot more discussion around it going forward.

"Clearly that DRM provision needs fixing, and it can be fixed. There are lots of comments already about it; both discussion committees A and B are looking at it and there will be changes," he said.

Some in the community question Sun's early support for the draft license, given that it created the CDDL (Common Development and Distribution License) for its Solaris operating system after rejecting the current GPL 2.0 as too restrictive for its purposes.

Phipps also said that Sun, contrary to the way some people liked to paint the company, was not opposed to open-source licensing or the GPL.

With regard to recent comments on Sun president Jonathan Schwartz's blog about possibly dual-licensing its Solaris operating system, "all he is saying is that we are rational people who make rational decisions, and if it turns out that GPL 3 offers a licensing advantage that works, then we will consider it, but making a decision in this regard is not something we could even think of doing at this stage. The best I can say is that it looks promising at this point," he said.

Asked about Sun's decision not to license Solaris under GPL 2, but rather to create the new CDDL license, Phipps said it would not have been able to create the OpenSolaris community when it did if it had licensed the code under GPL 2.

This is because there was a lot of code that was essential to the operation of Solaris that Sun did not own the rights to and therefore could not release under the GPL.

"The GPL does not allow you to have a mix of licenses. We would have had to cut out essential elements of Solaris to do so. The things that make it possible to consider GPL 3 is its consideration of compatibility and of compatible licensing. That is what we are closely watching to decide whether we are able to do it or not.

That is why it's much to early to make a decision, Phipps said.

"What we are doing is genuinely engaging and participating and contributing to the process and want to see it succeed," he said.

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