As you approached MIT room 10-250 on Monday, January 16th, you could see
the rise in prominence of the GNU General Public License simply by the presence of the "suits".
Oh, some had certainly "dressed down" with the black T-shirt/turtleneck and
jacket motif instead of a tie, but they were very clearly of the corporate world
and a quick glance at name tags proved that: Intel, IBM, HP, Novell were
all there of course, but also companies such as Hasbro and many
To be sure, the free and open source community was well
represented: Bruce Perens, Andrew Tridgell, Chris DiBona, Seth Schoen, and many
other free/open source stalwarts. But you would expect them to be here,
while the corporate presence was definitely a sign of the times. Indeed,
as I sat waiting for the presentation to start, two corporate folks were
walking up the stairs behind me and one said to the other "Oh, yeah, we are
all here to watch the ground shake."
The ground may not have shaken immediately, but the session began around
10am with Richard Stallman welcoming the crowd of 200+ attendees and
providing a broad introduction to the GPLv3. He spoke on the overall goal
of increasing the compatibility of the GPL with other appropriate licenses
(such as the MIT X11 and BSD licenses) and then discussed the threats of
digital restrictions management (DRM) and how it can never be compatible with the
goals of free software. At the end, he introduced Eben Moglen, who
proceeded to take the crowd through about an hour-and-a-half of
line-by-line analysis of this first draft of GPLv3.
In all my years working with free and open source software, I'd actually
never heard Eben Moglen speak and it turned out to be quite an enjoyable
time. With occasional wit and humor, he guided us through the new clauses
and the rationale behind the changes. As
others have already provided
some analysis and the FSF's GPLv3 rationale document gives
their view on the changes, I'll not repeat much of that. His main thrust,
though, was that the changes were about the increased compatibility of
which RMS spoke, as well as clarifying a number of areas in which GLPv2 was
unclear or vague. There was also a good amount of effort put into trying
to make the GPL more "global" in the sense that it would better comply with
copyright laws of more countries. One example is the new use of the term
"propagate" in Section 0 as "distribute" turned out to have some formal
connotations in some countries.
Moglen spent a good bit of time on the minimal "patent retaliation" clause
now found in Section 2 and the reasons (explained in the rationale
document) why the FSF did not go further. There was also an involved
discussion of the ability to add additional permissions and requirements
and how those flow on to recipients during the propagation/distribution
process. Predictably, he spent a significant amount of time on Section 7,
"License Compatibility", discussing what the different clauses mean with
regard to the other free and open source licenses.
One of the discussions I found most interesting concerned the changes to section
8 ("Termination") specifically around the "60 day" clause. GPLv2 provided
for the "automatic termination" of the license if you violated it and the
license also essentially required someone in violation to contact
all copyright holders to obtain forgiveness for having violated the
license. As the FSF was very often the one acting to aggregate the claims
and help entities come into compliance, they did see the pain this
when the process of contacting all copyright holders became long and
protracted. In their view, this new arrangement provides a
stronger incentive for entities in violation to come into compliance
quickly as it gives them some assurance that if they do comply, they will not
have the threat of GPL-infringement lawsuits looming over them once the
first 60 days have gone by.
Another interesting addition was section 18 that speaks of the program not
being tested for use in "safety critical systems". He said that at the
time the GPL was first being applied, no one was thinking that free software
might be used to run nuclear power plants or other systems that might have
critical implications if there was a failure. This phrase was added to
explicitly state that programs were not tested for these environments.
However, he also said that he fully expects some companies to offer
warranties (for a fee) to provide coverage for using such programs in those
Throughout the talk he threw in entertaining quips such as "Most of us
would see the copyright law of 1897 as being better than that of 2004",
"Protecting freedom is hard work!" and "That's our legal theory and
we're sticking to it." He also received a
great deal of laughter when he relayed that the warranty sections (now 16
and 17) were not changed at all - except that he moved them from being
all in uppercase. He said that he had yet to find a lawyer who could
explain why they were all putting warranty provisions in all caps and that
it seemed to be something people were just doing because everyone else was.
So he decided for the sake of readability to make the change.
Moglen concluded his presentation with a moving comment on the "spirit"
of the license and the overall need to preserve "the spirit of tinkering,
of hacking, of making an unexpected invention out of the materials lying
around". He spoke of this revision process as trying to keep the GPL safe,
make it bigger and add more people to the discussion - and with that he
invited people to become part of the process. He turned the floor back to
RMS who said a very few final words and then opened it up for questions.
Predictably, the questions came quite quickly and were mostly about...
patents. Two clauses received the most questions. The first was the "patent
retaliation" clause in Section 2 and the second was the part of Section 11
which says that, if you distribute a work "knowingly relying on a patent
license, you must act to shield downstream users against the possible patent
infringement claims from which your license protects you." The response on this
latter part from Eben Moglen was that they are not looking to require
companies to search all their patents to ensure they are not infringing
before distributing work, but more to prevent people from distributing work
that they know requires a patent license which they may already have, but which the
people who receive their work will not. He went on to say that this clause
really only applies to a very small number of people and companies and that
he looked forward to working with them to make sure this clause works well.
Beyond the patent questions, there were questions about the 60-day notice,
the DRM provision and some general questions about the process of moving
from GPLv2 to GPLv3. Overall it was a very useful, interesting and
intense morning session.
My one critique of the FSF conference would be what happened next. As we
broke for lunch, a subset of the participants (including many of the
corporate folks and high-profile members of the free/open source community)
apparently went off to separate "discussion groups" to which they were
specifically invited. That left the rest of us (myself included) returning
from lunch around 1:30pm to face a "Q&A session" with FSF Executive Director
Peter Brown, FSF web/wiki coordinator John Sullivan and a young FSF
staffer/volunteer who did not identify himself. After a brief statement
around the process that would be starting how to comment online, the floor
was opened for questions... many of which could simply not be answered.
I don't really fault the three of them. They tried as best
they could to answer some of the questions, but they were definitely out of
their element. The questioners wanted to ask specific points about the
license and clearly needed RMS and Eben Moglen to be there. After a bit,
Peter Brown tried to direct the questions away from the license draft and toward the
process, asking for other questions to be held until Eben Moglen
could return around 3 or 3:30pm. The frustration was visible in a number
of the folks there.
I do understand that the FSF was trying to make use of the fact that it had
all of these various folks in one physical location and certainly a room of
200 people is not a great way to get a large quantity of feedback. Small
groups work far better for that type of thing. I also know that numerous
media personnel were there and that RMS and Eben Moglen needed to spend some
time with those folks. Still, given that the published agenda said that the
afternoon session was for "Q&A" with no mention that RMS and Moglen would
not be there, it was a bit frustrating to learn that it was not the type of
Q&A that most attendees wanted.
Having said all that, there were some very good questions raised during this
afternoon session. Patents were raised again several times, but a question
was also asked about the definition of "Complete Corresponding Source
Code" in Section 1 where it includes "any encryption or authorization codes
necessary to install and/or execute the source code". The specific concern
was about whether code could be encrypted with GnuPG for sending, but I
failed to understand the issue as to my mind you would be encrypting it
with the recipient's key, so they would already have it.
Far more of a concern for a few questioners, though, was the requirement in
Section 6b that you will make available your source code on a "durable
physical medium customarily used for software interchange." The concern was
that solo developers might have to get into the business of stamping out
CDs to distribute source code. It was pointed out by someone there that,
per Section 6d, one easier way to comply was simply to offer a
download. Still the concern persisted. Interestingly, Eben Moglen stated
in his earlier presentation that this phrasing had been inserted primarily
so that an entity could not "give you the source code" by giving you a
printout, which he indicated was a possible way to comply in GPLv2. Now,
you must be able to receive the source code in a fashion where you can use
All in all, and even with my critique, it was well worth spending the day
at MIT and I certainly think the FSF is to be commended for starting this
revision process in such an open manner. While I was unable to attend the
second day of the conference, I am sure that it was quite involved, as
this is, for all of us, only the start of a conversation that will
last most of a year. The GPL is incredibly important in this day and age and
all of us should definitely monitor this first revision in 15 years, and
get involved as much as we are able.
The suits will be there - will you?
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