Selling a new license to the kernel developers was always going to be an
uphill battle. They are a large and strong-minded crowd, occasionally
suspicious of the Free Software Foundation and its attitude toward Linux,
and happy with the licensing that they have now. Given the immense
practical difficulties involved in changing licenses, there would have to
be a strong incentive to get the developers to even try.
The odds of a license change fell even further earlier this year, when
Linus Torvalds made his opposition to the anti-DRM provisions of the GPLv3
draft known. For some time, it appeared that Linus was alone in that
position, however; few other developers had made public statements on the
license. Even Linus wondered about it:
The reason the poll and the whitepaper got started was that I've
obviously not been all that happy with the GPLv3, and while I was
pretty sure I was not alone in that opinion, I also realize that
_everybody_ thinks that they are right, and that they are supported
by all other right-thinking people. That's just how people work. We
all think we're better than average.
So while I personally thought it was pretty clear that the GPLv2
was the better license for the kernel, I didn't want to just depend
on my own personal opinion, but I wanted to feel that I had
actually made my best to ask people.
So he put together a quick discussion list involving the top 30 or so
kernel developers (see the message quoted above for the the exact selection
criteria) and held an informal poll. The results were as clear as it
gets: none of the developers polled was positive about the license, and
most were strongly negative. Among this crowd of most active kernel
developers, nobody is prepared to say that moving to GPLv3 would be a good
thing for the kernel project to do.
A subset of these developers put their names onto a separate position statement.
Some of the positions taken in that statement are quite strong (see
Russell's take), to the point that not all were willing
to support it. It also appears that, while the anti-DRM provisions are
almost unanimously opposed, a number of developers are sympathetic to the
patent-related terms in GPLv3.
The anti-DRM clauses are, indeed, at the heart of the problem. The GPLv3 draft
requires that, if somebody ships you a device which runs GPLv3-licensed
code, they must also provide you with everything required to rebuild and
reinstall that code - including encryption keys if the hardware requires
them. Those who support this language see it as a fundamental guarantee of the
freedom that comes with free software - the freedom to replace that
software if need be. In particular, these people want to be able to
replace software which implements unpleasant DRM schemes or other
In the discussions that have followed, it is hard to find kernel developers
who support locking up content and abridging fair-use rights with DRM
schemes - though some do see situations where locking down a system's
software makes sense. But they see the language in the GPLv3 draft as
restricting the possible uses of their software, and they don't like it.
The cure seems worse than the disease.
The core question behind this whole debate, perhaps, is this: what,
exactly, do we want to accomplish with our licenses? Just as there is
disagreement over what kinds of problems can be solved by passing laws,
there is no consensus on which problems can be addressed with license
terms. One can argue that oppressive DRM is a societal or legal problem,
and that it should be addressed at those levels through a reaffirmation of
what fair-use rights should really be rather than by adopting a license which
tries to keep specific software from being used to implement DRM. A
license can be a hefty hammer, but not every problem is a nail.
Regardless of the reasoning, the fact is that the GPLv3 draft is currently
in a difficult spot. There appears to be no way it will be adopted for the kernel in
its current form; there has also been quite a bit of speculation that a
number of other important projects will either resist the new license or,
possibly, fork into GPLv2 and GPLv3 versions. GPL-licensed libraries are
of particular concern. The prospect of having to carry around two
versions of the C library - one for each version of the GPL - is not
particularly appealing. This is the scenario that some of the kernel
developers warn about in their position statement; anybody who dismisses it
should have a good reason for believing that it will not come about.
There are a lot of good things in the GPLv3 draft. The updating of the
language for worldwide applicability is something we will almost certainly
want, sooner or later. The software patent provisions have the potential
to deter patent attacks against free software users - an important
protection in the absence of a real fix for the patent problem. The "this
code is not a technical protection measure" clause may offer similar
protection from some attacks based on DMCA-like laws. All of this, and
more, is worth having - but only if the new license can find acceptance
from those who have so wholeheartedly adopted GPLv2. The Free Software
Foundation is going to have to make a difficult decision over the next few
months: it can keep the controversial terms and risk the consequences, or
increase the chances of a successful GPLv3 by dropping terms that, in its
opinion, are of fundamental importance.
[Other things to see: the FSF's
response to the position statement and Linus Torvalds's Ode to GPLv2. There is also the announcement of the first
discussion draft of the GNU Free Documentation License, version 2,
which almost appears to have gotten lost in the noise.]
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