The GNU General Public License has always been a controversial document.
To some, it is at the core of what free software should be. To
others, it is a needlessly complex license (at best) or an intrusive and
unwelcome attempt to control how others use "free" software. Regardless of
how one feels about it, the GPL has, since version 2 was written,
become an important piece of regulation for the software industry. So it
is not surprising that the effort to create a new major release of the GPL
created some conflict. In fact, the surprising part might be just how
little conflict there was.
In early 2005, before the rewrite process really took off, Eben Moglen gave a talk which discussed what
was coming. There were, he said, four completely different sets of goals
which a new license had to meet:
- The GPL is a worldwide copyright license - a relatively rare thing
in an industry where licenses tend to be specifically written to a
particular country's laws.
- It is a code of industry conduct, describing how players in the free
software world can be expected to deal with each other. At this stage
in the development of the industry, a new code of conduct cannot be
imposed without extensive consultations with the affected companies.
- It is a political document, the constitution of the free software
- Finally, the GPL is very much the product of Richard Stallman's
thought. Mr. Moglen was clear from the outset that any revision of
the license would have to be acceptable to Richard Stallman.
That is a wide set of criteria to satisfy; this is not a challenge that
just anybody would want to take on.
Regardless of what one thinks of the final result, one cannot fault Eben
Moglen for not having thought hard about the process. Several committees
were formed to represent the interests of different constituencies.
Lawyers from all over the world were called together to work on language
with truly global applicability. Major industry players were brought
together on regular conference calls to discuss the progress of the
license. Several draft releases were made - each with supporting
documentation - and a mechanism by which anybody could make comments was
created. Meetings were held all over the planet.
The final result was
released on June 29. There are few who would call this result
perfect; Mr. Moglen says:
It is a little too long; it is a little too complex. It divides
cases where they might with some analytical clarity have been
merged, and it merges cases that might with some analytical clarity
have been divided. It isn't one man's work of art -- it's a
community's work of self-definition. And in that process, it
replicates an early version of a 21st century reality which is that
if in the 21st century what is produced is produced by communities,
not by individuals and not by factories, then under 21st century
conditions, what produces law is communities, not individuals and
not the factories we call legislatures.
The process would appear to have met all of the objectives set out for it.
The language of GPLv2 is very much oriented toward U.S. law; GPLv3 makes it
global. The free software industry, for the most part, has made a show of
welcoming the new license; this appears to be a code of conduct that it can
live with. The people who identify themselves strongly with the free
software movement seem to be quite happy with this license. And, one
expects, Richard Stallman is not overly displeased with what he got.
Others in the community have been very vocally unhappy with GPLv3. To
them, this license overreaches, trying to regulate how people use the
software instead of just how they distribute it. It has too many legal
kludges and special cases. It has, in the view of some people, failed to
live up to the Free Software Foundation's promise that revisions of the GPL
would be "similar in spirit" to GPLv2. Instead, they say, the FSF has
taken this rewrite as an opportunity to force its views on a world which
may not otherwise be ready to adopt those views.
The good news is that those people, and the projects they represent, need
not move to GPLv3. Version 2 of the license remains valid and usable;
despite its American-style language it appears to be enforceable over much
of the world. Nobody is trying to force any project to change to a license
it does not like.
Expect spirited discussions within some projects as they try to decide
whether to move to the new license or not. But the wider discussion is
done, and GPLv3 is a reality. It will take years to see what the effect of
this new license is. The patent licensing and anti-DRM clauses may well
cause some companies to reconsider the use of free software in their
products; in the worst case we could be seeing the beginning of the BSD
comeback. As worst cases go, that one can only be seen as relatively
This rewrite has probably gone as well as it could have, given the
parameters within which the FSF operates. Never before has the FSF sought
so much input - and actually acted on it. Whether one likes the end result
or not, it is appropriate to thank the FSF for putting in its best effort,
and especially to thank Eben Moglen for devoting so much of his life to
such a difficult project.
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