One almost has to pity the crowd of mainstream technical journalists who
clearly follow the linux-kernel mailing list with the hope of obtaining a
good Linus Torvalds quote to write an article around. Working through 300
incomprehensible messages every day is a serious chore - trust your editor
on this. But those reporters found their prize last week, when Linus let it be known
that he was not
much interested in adopting version 3 of the GPL for the kernel. A
quick search on Google News turns up dozens of resulting articles, mostly
with headlines like "No GPLv3 for Linux." That may well be how things turn
out, but there's a few things which should be taken into account when
making predictions about the future of Linux.
One of those is that there will be no GPLv3 at all for another year. What is
being circulated is a draft, and, if the Free Software Foundation is
responsive to comments at all, there are likely to be changes. There is
little point in debating the adoption of a license which does not exist,
which is why most kernel developers have stayed out of the current
discussion. While a certain ZDNet columnist engaged in a humorous
exercise in wishful thinking:
More infighting among the Linux stalwarts and the formation of
polarized factions will turn the Linux community into open source
software version of the Mideast - lots of talk, posturing, and
The simple fact is that most developers are taking a quiet "wait and see"
approach for now. And, now or later, there seems to be little appetite for
a big licensing fight.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Linus can change his mind, even after
seemingly painting himself into a corner with an absolute statement. One
of your editor's favorite Linus pronouncements was issued almost exactly
seven years ago. In response to a query on how to set up an i386 box with
4GB of memory, Linus stated:
Oh, the answer is very simple: it's not going to happen.
You need more that 32 bits of address space to handle that kind of
memory. This is not something I'm going to discuss further... This
is not negotiable.
Less than one year later, Ingo Molnar's high memory
patch was merged for 2.3.23. The lesson is clear: even when Linus says
"never," the right argument can change his mind. And, in fact, Linus has
left the door open to just that
Quite frankly, _if_ we ever change to GPLv3, it's going to be because
somebody convinces me and other copyright holders to add the "or
any later license" to all files, just because v3 really is so much
better. It doesn't seem likely, but hey, if somebody shows that the
GPLv2 is unconstitutional (hah!), maybe something like that happens.
So I'm not _entirely_ dismissing an upgrade, but quite frankly, to
upgrade would be a huge issue. Not just I, but others that have
worked on Linux over the last five to ten years would have to agree
The door may not be open very far, but neither is it barred shut.
Then, there's the fact that, as Linus points out, it is not just his
decision. Much code in the kernel is explicitly licensed with the FSF's
recommended "or any later version" language; that code will be
distributable (separately from the kernel) under the GPLv3 in any case.
Relicensing the GPLv2-only code, however, would require the assent of every
developer who holds copyrights on that code. Given that copyrights in the
kernel are widely distributed and tracked by nobody, obtaining that
permission would be a significant challenge.
Or would it? Linus added the explicit GPLv2 language for the
2.4.0-test8 release. Another significant kernel contributor (Alan Cox)
is unconvinced that this language will get
in the way:
It isn't clear that this will be a problem. Very few people
specifically put their code v2 only, and Linus edit of the top
copying file was not done with permission of other copyright
holders anyway so really only affects his code if it is valid at
If this view prevails, the number of copyright holders who would have to
agree to a relicensing would be much reduced, and the problem might just
The relicensing discussion is premature now, and it can be expected to fade
away. But it will certainly come
back. The anti-DRM provisions found in GPLv3 resonate strongly with many
developers, and, to many of those, said provisions only clarify a
requirement which, they believe, is already present in GPLv2. To these
developers, locking Linux into a DRM-equipped machine takes away the
freedom that the GPL promised in the first place and is an abuse of the
software they have contributed to the world. The opportunity to end that
abuse with a license change will be appealing; expect to see developers
pushing for that change after the license becomes official.
Linus, however, has made it clear
in the past that locking down systems with signed kernels is just fine
with him. He reiterated that point
I believe that hardware that limits what their users can do will
die just because being user-unfriendly is not a way to do
successful business. Yes, I'm a damned blue-eyed optimist, but I'd
rather be blue-eyed than consider all uses of security technology
to necessarily always be bad.
So blue-eyed Linus is unlikely to agree to a license change on the basis of the
anti-DRM provisions. But it is possible that other factors could
eventually bring about a change of heart (and license). For example, many
of the changes in GPLv3 are motivated by the requirements of legal systems
in various parts of the world; if GPLv2 turns out to be hard (or
impossible) to enforce somewhere, a shift to GPLv3 could become more
appealing. Such a change,
however, cannot occur before the license moves out of the comment period and
is adopted officially by the FSF. Until then, any predictions on whether
the kernel will ever shift to the GPLv3 should be taken with a grain of salt.
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