GPLv3 third draft: Linus likes it, ACT hates it

Initial reactions to the latest proposed draft of a popular license for free and open-source software (FOSS) have been wide-ranging, with the changes winning some kind words from the creator of Linux and a critical bashing from an industry association.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) released the penultimate draft of the GNU General Public License Version 3 (GPLv3) Wednesday, with a focus on addressing concerns raised by a patent cross-licensing agreement struck in November between Microsoft Corp. and Novell Inc., the distributor of SUSE Linux. Parts of the Linux operating system, including its kernel, are licensed under GPL Version 2.

The GPL gives users the right to freely study, copy, modify, reuse, share and redistribute software.

Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux, has been highly critical of the two previous drafts of the GPLv3, particularly in relation to its stance on digital rights management (DRM) technology, and has said he has no plans to adopt it for the Linux kernel.

Stressing that it's his initial take on the new draft, he wrote in an e-mail response to a request for comment Wednesday that the third draft is "a huge improvement on the previous ones." He's particularly impressed by the work the FSF has done on revising the language referring to patents.

"In fact, the new draft looks much better [with respect to] patents -- the old 7 (b) section allowing for patent retaliation clauses seems to have been excised entirely, and all the other (very fundamental) problems with 7 (b) in general have been removed," he wrote. Torvalds' issue with the earlier drafts of the 7 (b) section was that they encouraged license proliferation, effectively allowing different projects and individuals to add their own restrictions on top of GPLv3 and hence would lead to the creation of brand-new licenses.

In the new draft, "not only were the fundamental problems in 7 (b) basically removed entirely, some of the 'we control the hardware environment too' language has at least been narrowed down a lot," Torvalds wrote. "I still think that is totally mis-designed, but at least the damage is much narrower in scope now, so in that sense the last draft is a big improvement on the previous ones."

As for whether the particular issue around the deal between Novell and Microsoft really merits addressing in the GPLv3, he doesn't know and is still considering whether the new draft is an advance on the GPLv2 license, which appeared in 1991.

"Whether it's actually an improvement on the GPLv2 itself is still pretty open, but at least it doesn't feel like the disaster that the previous drafts were, and I'll happily give kudos for that to the FSF!" he wrote.

Simon Phipps, the chief open-source officer at Sun Microsystems Inc., saw some positives in his first look at the new draft, describing an explicit explanation about software as a service in the license as a "welcome enhancement."

Like Torvalds, he noted the substantial revisions in patents in Section 7. "In its previous form, this section provided a basis for various different licenses to be mixed, but the new version seems to provide less opportunity for that," Phipps wrote in his Webmink blog. "I wish we could work out mechanisms to allow the various FOSS communities to mix their work more easily."

Sun has recently become a major flag-waver for GPL after its surprise November decision to make its Java platform available under GPLv2 as well as its own Common Development and Distribution License. It's also been suggested that Sun may look to make its OpenSolaris operating system available under the GPL as well.

Phipps was still getting to grips with the implications of the language added to the draft in relation to the Microsoft/Novell deal. "I need to read it several times before coming to a conclusion," he wrote. Phipps also noted the change to the timeline for GPLv3. "I'd been expecting the final draft; this is now an extra interim draft, and we'll not see the final version until the summer," he wrote. "And there are several signs that we'll see more frequent updates to the license -- there are indications that the DRM stuff might be extended to different kinds of devices, for example," Phipps added.

"I'm happy that the GPLv3 process has completed its next milestone, and understand why the FSF has seen it necessary to proceed at a pace somewhat slower than originally intended," Kaj Arno, vice president, community, at open-source database vendor MySQL AB, wrote in an e-mail.

In December, Arno announced that MySQL had refined its GPL licensing plan for its MySQL 5.0 and MySQL 5.1 databases from "GPLv2 or later" to "GPLv2 only" to make the move to GPLv3 optional and not an obligation. "Until the new version of GPL is finalized, we won't be in a position to determine whether GPLv3 is an appropriate license for MySQL products," Arno added.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), a technology lobbying organization that has been highly critical of GPLv3, especially in relation to DRM in the past, was negative about the latest draft of the license.

"The newest draft of the GPLv3 is clearly designed to build unscalable walls between open-source and proprietary software," Morgan Reed, ACT's executive director, said in a statement.

He described the latest draft as resembling the U.S. tax code. "The new draft no longer just defines freedom; it is designed to punish companies and business models that Richard Stallman [FSF president and principal author of the GPL] just doesn't like," Reed added. "In fact, the new version is now so complex and legally squishy that it is essentially a full employment guarantee for intellectual property lawyers."

With still another draft to come of the GPLv3 and major changes occurring to the language of the license each time a new draft is issued, nothing is final.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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