Sides clash over proposed GNU GPL revisions

The release of the first public draft of version three of the GNU General Public License Monday sparked opposing views from experts here over the fundamentals of software licensing.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF), which promotes the development and use of free software, released the long-awaited discussion draft of the GPLv3 during the First International Conference on GPLv3 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Founded in 1985 by Richard Stallman, the FSF released the last version of the license in 1991. The GPL has since been used to govern thousands of open source projects such as Linux, Samba and MySQL. The license needed to be revised in light of technological issues that have arisen over the last 15 years such as patent issues and software running on a remote server.

In terms of patent issues, the GPLv3 draft, the first of two or, possibly, three discussion drafts, states that “any patent must be licensed for everyone’s free use or not licensed at all.” The release of the full version could be as early as September or as late as March 2007, according to the FSF Web site.

Ottawa-based consultant Russell McOrmond said software patents are fundamentally incompatible with software innovation.

“Anything that discourages or somehow innoculates us from software patents is a good thing,” said McOrmond, who runs a consulting business called Flora Community Consulting, which offers solutions that are based on free software.

The draft also deals with the issue of the governance of the use of GPL software on devices with digital rights management (DRM) restrictions. It states, “the GPL ensures that the software it covers will neither be subject to, nor subject other works to digital restrictions from which escape is forbidden.”

McOrmond, however, said, for example, if the software on his computer is GPL-based but the software on another person’s computer is otherwise, that’s their own business.

“The GPL suggested if the service you’re linking to using Web services is GPL, then your software should also be GPL,” said McOrmond.

The term “free software,” however, is not to be confused with “open source” software. In an interview with ITBusiness.ca last month, Eben Moglen, chair of the Software Freedom Law Center, Columbia Law School professor and general counsel to the FSF, said free software is an issue of politically and socially protecting users’ rights rather than limiting them.

“GPL requires that if you want to modify free software for your own use or even to use in enabling commercial interactions with your customers and not release those modifications you’re perfectly free to do that,” said Moglen. “If you share versions of your program in executable form with people or if you distribute the modified code, then you have to give people the opportunity to do the same thing you had the opportunity to do.”

Words like these have industry experts like Marcus Bornfreund describing the GPL as a manifesto of sorts for the free software movement rather than merely a software license.

“It’s more of a social contract than a copyright license,” said Bornfreund, executive director of Creative Commons Canada. “Being a social contract there’s an ideology and a community that is attached to that.”

Likewise, Warren Shiau, a software analyst with The Strategic Counsel, said the FSF is similar to a political party in its nature compared to a licensing body.

“It’s very tied into the grassroots aspect,” said Shiau. “When they go through all their legal adjustments to achieve an ideal of open, free community use.”

Bornfreund, also an adjunct professor at the University of Ottawa Faculty of Law, is responsible for the Canadian translation of the Creative Commons license. There are four flavours of the Creative Commons license. These include attribution, non-commercial, no derivative works and share alike. Creative Commons was initially created by Internet legal guru Lawrence Lessig in 2001 as an alternative to copyright in the U.S. FSF’s Stallman denounced Creative Commons a couple of years ago, withdrawing his organization’s support for it.

Instead of uniting the software community under one license, Bornfreund said the GPL has fragmented it by disregarding stakeholder communities who hold alternative viewpoints on the free software movement.

“Freedom is such a loaded word any discussion of freedom quickly dissolves into a semantic argument rather than a meaningful discussion,” he said.

Users of the GPL like McOrmond, however, said one of the things that’s made the GPL so strong, is its pure copyright permission.

“It doesn’t get into complicated messy contract law that may not be enforceable in other countries,” said McOrmond. “If I don’t agree to the conditions, then I can’t copy it.”

The second draft of version three is scheduled for release this summer.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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