In July 2012, Richard Fontana started the GPL.next project to
experiment with modifications to version 3 of the GNU General Public License (GPLv3). The name was quickly changed
to the more neutral "copyleft-next" and the license has evolved into a
"radically different text" compared to the GPLv3 since project inception.
Fontana gave a talk in the FOSDEM legal devroom on February 3 that
presented the current status of the project and his reasons for exploring
new ideas about copyleft licensing.
Fontana explained that he initially described the project as a fork of the
GPLv3 but admitted that it "sounded more negative than I intended". He
actually co-authored the GPLv3, LGPLv3, and AGPLv3 licenses together with
Stallman and Eben Moglen during his time at the Software Freedom Law
Center. Fontana, who is now Red Hat's open-source licensing counsel,
stressed that copyleft-next is his personal project and not related to his
work for SFLC, FSF, or Red Hat, although "these experiences had a personal
The complexity of the GPLv3
Allison Randal's 2007 essay "GPLv3,
Clarity and Simplicity" is a powerful critique of the GPLv3 and was
deeply influential on his thinking, Fontana said. The essay argued that everyone
"should be enabled to comprehend the terms of the license".
Based on the (then) near-finished draft of the GPLv3, Randal observed that
it's unlikely that clarity and simplicity had been a priority during the
Fontana feels that the complexity of the GPL had a side effect of creating
an "atmosphere of unnecessary inscrutability and hyper-legalism"
surrounding the GPL. Additionally, he perceives that legal
interpretation of the license is lacking. Richard Stallman has withdrawn
license interpretation and Brett Smith, for a long time FSF's "greatest
legal authority" according to Fontana, left his position as FSF's License
Compliance Engineer in May 2012. He wonders whether the complexity of
the GPL, together with FSF's withdrawal from an active interpretive role,
has contributed to a shift to non-copyleft licenses. He also believes that
developer preference for licensing minimalism is rising.
Another reason for the creation of copyleft-next is Fontana's desire to
experiment with new ideas and forms of licensing. He pointed out that every
license (proprietary or free) is imperfect and could benefit from
improvements. He feels strongly that license reform should not be
monopolized. Due to concerns about license proliferation, the OSI has
discouraged the creation of new licenses, effectively creating a monopoly
for the stewards of existing OSI-approved licenses. Fontana downplayed
concerns of license proliferation, partly because GPL-compatible licenses
should also be compatible with copyleft-next and because copyleft-next
offers one-way compatibility with the GPL. Finally, he views copyleft-next
as a "gradual, painless successor to GPLv2/GPLv3".
Fontana also expressed his disappointment in the way open source licenses
have historically been developed. While the drafting process for GPLv3 was
very advanced and transparent compared to other efforts, it seems
insufficiently transparent to him by present-day standards. He
pointed to the Project Harmony contributor
agreements as another example of a
non-transparent process since it employed the Chatham House Rule
during parts of the drafting process.
Unsurprisingly, copyleft-next's development process is very different and
follows the "contemporary methodology of community projects". The license
is hosted on Gitorious,
and there is a public mailing list
and IRC channel—a bug tracker will be added in the near future.
Fontana acts as the sabd(nnfl)—the self-appointed benevolent
dictator (not necessarily for life).
The project has participation guidelines (informally known as the Harvey
Birdman Rule, after a US cartoon
series featuring lawyers). The norms reflect Fontana's intention to
involve developers and other community members in the development process.
They encourage transparency in license drafting and aim to
"prevent the undue influence of interest groups far removed from
individual software developers" (in other words, lawyers).
The guidelines disallow closed mailing lists as well
as substantive private
conversations about the development of the project. The latter can
be remedied by posting a summary to the public mailing list. Fontana is
true to his word and posted summaries
of discussions he had at FOSDEM.
Finally, the Harvey Birdman Rule forbids contributions in the form of
word-processing documents and dictates that mailing list replies using
top-posting shall be ignored.
The copyleft-next license
The copyleft-next license is a strong copyleft license. The word "strong"
refers to the scope of the license. The Mozilla Public License (MPL), for
example, is a weak copyleft license in this sense since its copyleft only
applies to individual files. While modifications to a file are covered by
MPL's copyleft provisions, code under the MPL may be distributed as part of
a larger proprietary piece of software. The GPL and copyleft-next, on the
other hand, have a much broader scope and make it difficult to make
proprietary enhancements of free software.
Copyleft-next was initially developed by taking the GPLv3 text and removing
parts from it. For each provision, Fontana asked whether the incremental
complexity associated with the provision is necessary and worthwhile. For
many provisions, he concluded they weren't—this includes provisions
in the GPLv3 that no other open source license has needed, obscure clauses,
and text that should be moved to a FAQ. The GPL has a lot of historical
baggage, and Fontana believes that the reduction in complexity of copyleft-next
has led to a license that developers and lawyers alike can read and
understand. Those readers interested in verifying this claim can find the
current draft on Gitorious.
In order to show the drastic reduction in complexity, Fontana compared the
word and line counts of several popular open source licenses. The word
counts were as follows:
|Apache License 2.0
For comparison, the MIT license consists of 162 words and the BSD 3-clause
license has 212 words.
Copyleft-next has a number of interesting features. It offers outbound
compatibility with the GPLv2 (or higher) and AGPLv3 (or higher), meaning
covered by copyleft-next can be distributed under these licenses. This
allows for experimentation in copyleft-next, Fontana explained.
The license also simplifies compliance: when the source code is not
shipped with a physical product, distributors do not have to give
a written offer to supply the source code on CD or a similar medium.
They can simply point to a URL where the source code can be found for
Like the GPLv3, copyleft-next allows
license violations to be remedied within a certain time period (although
compared to GPLv3 the provision has been simplified). In contrast to
GPLv3, the current draft of copyleft-next doesn't contain an
The copyleft-next license also takes a stance against certain practices
detested by many community members. The license includes a
proprietary-relicensing "poison pill": if the copyright holders offer
proprietary relicensing, the copyleft requirements evaporate—the
project effectively becomes a permissively licensed one, meaning that no
single entity has a monopoly on offering proprietary versions. This
provision was inspired by the Qt/KDE
treaty, which says that the KDE Free Qt Foundation can release Qt under
a BSD-style license if Qt is no longer offered under the LGPL 2.1.
Furthermore, copyleft-next has an anti-badgeware provision: it explicitly
excludes logos from the requirement to preserve author attributions.
While copyleft-next started as an exercise to simplify the GPLv3, it has
incorporated ideas and concepts from other licenses in the meantime. For
example, several provisions, such as the one explicitly excluding trademark
grants, were inspired by or directly borrowed from MPL 2.0.
Fontana made the first release of copyleft-next, 0.1.0, just before FOSDEM
and released version 0.1.1 in the interim. He mentioned during the talk
that he is thinking of
creating an Affero flavor of copyleft-next as well. He would like to see more
participation from community members. The mailing list provides a good way
to get started and the commit logs explain the rationale of changes in
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