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New GPL takes shots at patents, DRM

Software license calls for distributors to "shield" users from patent claims

By Robert McMillan
January 16, 2006 12:00 PM ET

IDG News Service - The Free Software Foundation (FSF) on Monday released a draft version of its new GNU General Public License (GPL) Version 3 software license designed to address two increasingly important issues in the software industry: software patents and digital rights management (DRM).

This document is the first major revision to the popular software license in 15 years and, if adopted, will change the terms under which a variety of open-source software, including Linux, Samba and MySQL, is used. It was released Monday at the First International Conference for GPLv3, a two-day conference being held at MIT.

The draft includes a provision requiring some software distributors to "shield" software users against some patent infringement claims, and it also prevents GPL-licensed software from being used in DRM copy-protection software, called "digital restrictions management" software by the FSF.

"We are trying to do what we can, in a limited way, to use the freedoms that our license gives us to actively work against the spread of DRM restrictions," said Eben Moglen, an FSF board member and one of the authors of the draft.

The DRM restrictions send a message to device manufacturers that would like to use GPL-licensed software in their products, he said. "Don't try to say, 'We can make U.S.$50 music players because the software comes to us cheaply,' and then handcuff the music and the users."

The provision will also discourage the use of GPL software in the creation of programs like Sony BMG Music Entertainment's XCP (Extended Copy Protection) digital rights management application, said Karen Copenhaver, general counsel with intellectual property management vendor Black Duck Software Inc. Security problems with that program eventually led to the recall of millions of Sony music CDs.

The patent provision calls on software distributors who "distribute a covered work knowingly relying on a patent license" to "shield downstream users against [certain] possible patent infringement claims," according to the draft.

This provision is likely to kick off a lot of discussion, especially from large companies with patent portfolios, who may wonder exactly what they must do in order to "shield downstream users," Copenhaver said.

"This puts a real burden on them," she said. "The word shield is pretty strong."

Moglen said that the language in this section will probably change by the time the final version of GPLv3 is released. "We think it's a serious problem; we don't have a solution to recommend," he said of the patent problem. "We regard today's draft as simply serving notice that this is a problem that can no longer be ignored."

The draft also includes new language designed

Reprinted with permission from Story copyright 2014 International Data Group. All rights reserved.
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