[Fsfe-ie] Irish Times on GPLv3
teresahackett at eircom.net
teresahackett at eircom.net
Sat Jan 21 23:04:02 CET 2006
Free software movement faces down big business
Wired on Friday: It's not often that the editing of a piece of legal
boilerplate 3,000 words long requires a grand unveiling at a two-day
conference, heated discussion across the globe and a solemn declaration
that nothing will be done with it for over a year.
But then, the general public licence (GPL) version 3 is not just any bit
of legalese. It's the long-awaited sequel to one of the key documents in
the world of open-source or free software - an ingenious bit of legalese
akido that turned traditional copyright on its head.
Every Linux-driven webserver you've ever visited (and, if you wander the
web at all, it will be quite a few) has a copy of it buried somewhere on
its drives. Much of the free software that drives the internet is
distributed according to its rules - and more importantly, every piece
of software derived from that original software.
Rewriting it, as one law professor has said, is like hacking the very
constitution of the free software movement.
What the GPL does, and has done for over 16 years, is provide an odd
bargain on some software products.
If whoever owns the copyright to a piece of software decides to place it
under the GPL, the usual restrictions of copyright vanish and the GPL
lets anyone copy the work as much as they like.
But there's a catch: if you make any modifications, you have to make the
changed work as free to distribute as the original, and you have to
agree to distribute a version of the software in a form that makes it
easy to modify, and hopefully improves it - the "source code" of the
It's as though a group of bakers decided to offer, with every one of
their cakes, the recipe to make it, together with the requirement that
anyone who made a cake with their recipe should pass on the secret to
the person they sold their cakes to.
If that sounds like a political or ethical act rather than a legal one,
you'd be right. The GPL's author, Richard Stallman, created the licence
to combat the decline in knowledge-sharing among programmers. It was a
moral crusade for him.
However, over time, others argued, the evidence appeared to show that
free software, aside from its morality, had quality advantages too.
Like the free exchange of ideas in academia, or peer review in science,
the co-operation created by licences like the GPL appeared to make for
an industrial-quality and widely support code.
And, by enforcing sharing, the GPL also carved itself a neatly
altruistic niche in the cut-throat commercial world. No commercial
company could hijack the code for its own use without simultaneously
revealing its additions to its competitors.
Despite a fair degree of mutters criticism by lawyers about its vague
drafting, the GPL has survived longer than most licences - and has never
been successfully challenged in court. But the threats to Stallman's
moral-free software movement have grown, and the qualms of those who now
build sizable businesses supporting and improving open-source have never
And so, after much discussion, Stallman's lawyer, Eben Moglen, this
month unveiled version 3 of the licence, the first update since 1991.
Amazingly, in the powder-keg flammable world of lawyers, political
hotheads and armchair critics - which make up much of the new world of
open-source - they seem to have got away with it.
That's not to say that the changes aren't major. If the new GPL is
adopted by individuals and companies, they'll be taking on two extra
parts of the free software crusade.
First, the new licence makes it clear that the open-source software is
not to be used in digital rights management (DRM) systems, like that
used by Sony BMG and Coldplay's publishers to copy protect their CDs.
DRM is ethically at the opposite end of the spectrum to Stallman and the
free-software movement, preventing the users of software from changing,
improving or even re-distributing it.
More dangerously, DRM could be used to bypass the GPL's free
distribution requirements, so DRM and the GPL now part company.
The other additions are not quite so strongly stated. Many have
complained that the old GPL was inflexible, and ironically could not
itself be altered without making it incompatible with differing
versions. That has been fixed, by those explicitly using the licence to
alter it in clearly defined ways.
How those new variants propagate will be an interesting story in itself.
Moglen and Stallman now let software authors be a bit more demanding in
how they say future distributors of their software make the original
Google, for instance, does not offer copies of the free software it uses
because the original GPL only required that from companies distributing
programs, not using them.
Adopters of the new GPL can stipulate that a link be provided to
download the software used by a website.
And even stronger language is permitted to fight what the free software
advocates see as their most dastardly enemy - software patents. No
software is truly free if users can be sued by strangers for the
violated patents it might contain. The new GPL lets users have some
protection by stipulating that suing types can't use the software
themselves. And others can add clauses to strengthen that retaliation by
ganging up the threat with other software makers.
The GPL was always a bargain between ethics and pragmatism. Now that the
pragmatists include multibillion dollar companies like IBM and Novell,
it'll be interesting to see if Moglen and Stallman's additional scruples
make the grade.
They may well do. The free software movement's founders may speak
softly, but they carry a big stick.
And it's a stick that IBM and Novell have learnt packs quite a punch.
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