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Opinion: Travel Back in Time With GPLv3

By Jonathan Zuck
April 13, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - If you divided today’s software sector into a detailed Venn diagram, you would end up with a very complex pattern of overlapping shapes and colors. To my mind—and I think to that of most IT managers—these overlaps are welcome news. Where two or more technologies or camps intersect, it means that they are communicating, working together and interoperating. And it means that technology users have choice, that we can combine disparate solutions to meet performance, security and cost requirements.

This was not always the case. Three decades ago, the circles in a software-sector Venn diagram wouldn’t have overlapped at all; technology silos offered no interoperability. Your company’s IT department went with IBM or Digital or NCR, and any improvements were tied to the limitations of your chosen vendor.

Today, technology companies work together and achieve interoperability in a number of ways—through implementation of standards, cross-licensing agreements, technical collaborations and so on.

The combination of best practices emerging from proprietary and open-source software developers offers one of the most promising avenues toward innovation, improved systems management and greater cost control. The most visible example of just such a combination is the alliance between Novell and Microsoft. Novell has increased its value to customers because, as in our Venn diagram, the company now solidly intersects with Linux, OpenOffice, Windows, DB2, Active Directory, Oracle and so on. No other Linux distributor offers this set of benefits.

However, there is a movement afoot, led by the Free Software Foundation, that may prevent such collaborative efforts in the future. The FSF has just released the latest draft of the General Public License, Version 3 (GPLv3). The current GPL (v2) is the most widely used open-source software license. The Linux Kernel, MySQL and Samba file-server software are all licensed under the GPL.

The FSF claims a moral high ground—that it is providing freedom to software developers and users—but the organization is in fact placing very tight strictures on software licensed under GPLv3. These strictures are designed to limit collaboration between free and proprietary software developers and threaten to further fray the open-source community by limiting open-source opportunities for innovation and business development.

Strangely enough, I think that the FSF, notably its vocal, passionate and passionately inflexible founder, Richard Stallman, would agree that GPLv3 creates a new bright line between proprietary and free software. Stallman himself distinguishes open source from free software, and he has been highly critical of the commercialization of free software. But in the name of freedom, GPLv3 restricts how end users utilize software. For instance, changes to the GPL in v3 would mean that TiVo and other consumer electronics manufacturers would be prevented from interoperating with certain media players or file formats..

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