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Coming Soon to a Kernel Near You: GPL 3

Posted by iMark - 2005-10-31

The Free Software Foundation is just weeks away from announcing the roadmap and process that will govern the release of the first draft of the rewritten GNU General Public License. 
Eben Moglen, the general counsel for the FSF and who is authoring the first rewrite of the license in some 15 years with its creator Richard Stallman, told eWEEK in an exclusive interview ahead of the OSBC East conference in Newton, Mass., next week that it would also be releasing within the next month a process document that tells people exactly what the rules are going to be for the discussion and comment submission process around GPL version 3.

Moglen, along with Diane Peters, the general counsel for the Open Source Development Labs and Mike Milinkovich, the executive director of the Eclipse Foundation, will be talking at OSBC East in a session titled "GPL 3.0: Directions, Implications, Casualties."

A number of people will also have been invited to help with the process around GPL 3, Moglen said, adding that the criteria behind that first round of invitations would also be detailed.

"We would like to put all that information out publicly at one time, and we expect this will take place sometime in November," he said.

The first draft of GPL version 3 is expected early next year, and while Moglen said the date, place and time of its release would be made public next month, "I want people to absorb the rules we are going to use before we start talking about the substance.

"I want everyone to have seen that the process is open, transparent and fair and have gotten used to the rules that are available and how to play them, and then we will put the document down on the table and start talking," he said.

Some users agree that the community needs to be as involved in the process as possible.

Con Zymaris, the CEO of Cybersource Pty. Ltd., a Linux and open-source solutions company in Melbourne, Australia, told eWEEK that when the FSF produced version 2 of the license, its perceived importance was relatively minor due to the minimal spread of free software and the lack of the key operating system upon which the free software world could be underpinned.

"But the GPL is now without doubt the single most important legal instrument in not only the software space but beyond. It has precipitated a sea-change in the understanding and philosophy of intellectual property. It is because of this great importance that the next version of the license has to be seen to be the best possible implementation of the wishes and needs of the free software community," he said.

"It can't impose painful measures and it can't deviate from the spirit of the previous license, or it risks a reduced uptake. Developers will still be able to resort to version 2 of the GPL if they aren't satisfied with version 3," Zymaris said.

Moglen said that a firm end date for the process around GPL 3 will also be announced, and that will be about a year out from the announcement.

The plan was also to "hit the ground running," and there would be an opening international conference, followed by regular public meetings around the world in a way that users could understand and access, he said.

GPL 3 aims to address a range of issues facing open-source developers and vendors, including intellectual property licensing and patent concerns, the question of how to deal with software used over a network, and trusted computing.

Diane Peters, the general counsel for the Open Source Development Labs of Beaverton, Ore., told eWEEK that, from OSDL's perspective, there were two different aspects to the revisions. The first related to substantive changes in rights and obligations that will be modified.

"As we all know, the growth and success of open source from a technological and business-model perspective has grown at a race and pace that could not have been anticipated when GPL 2.0 was first adopted," she said in another exclusive interview with eWEEK ahead of OSBC East.

"I anticipate those areas as being the ones in which many of the changes will be focused and debate will ensue; issues such as Web services, trusted computing, source code distribution requirements, and patent termination provisions," Peters said.

The other aspect, which was equally important, was clarifying the language defining rights and obligations that were not changing substantively, so as to eliminate ambiguities that resulted in uncertainty for businesses and developers.

"The challenge will be balancing the need for clarification with the FSF's stated objective of preserving the license as the literary work of Richard Stallman," she said.

Asked what role Stallman would play in the process, Moglen said all of his strengths and skills would be fully on view throughout the process, "but he is also a man who wants to get things put before him in a clear, well presented and concentrated way so that he can rule on issues in a fashion that will put the best of what he has to offer the movement in its best light," he said.

While there would be some eight people working full-time on the process around GPL 3, there would also be some 60 other people chairing committees and playing major public roles in the discussions, "but they will be outsiders with interests and stakes and concerns. I also expect there will be many thousands of people who want to be heard and they are all important to the process," he said.

Companies and other parties who wanted to help hold international meetings would be allowed to do so as hosts, and some resources would be raised as travel money for those members of the community who needed to participate but could not afford their own travel would have the opportunity to do so, Moglen said.

"But this is not going to be a sponsored process. We cannot allow that, so the Software Freedom Law Center, acting for the FSF and FSF itself will staff and provide the necessary logistics for this process," he said.

Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, has told eWEEK that while the GPL is not perfect, and one of his issues has been how verbose it is, "nothing is ever perfect. So while I may have some niggling concerns with the GPL, they are in the details, and, in the end, I actually think that the GPL simply is the best license for the kernel."

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