Opinion: Travel Back in Time With GPLv3

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..

Linux and open-source software have made headway with governments around the world, but GPLv3 could undermine required operations of government IT systems. In particular, governments have strong security and privacy requirements, and software helping to meet these requirements may well run counter to provisions in GPLv3.

Stallman has also criticized open-source efforts to address intellectual property concerns. For instance, he and the FSF refused to participate in the Linux Foundation/Open Source Development Lab’s project to promote the use of open-source software as prior art with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, arguing that the effort could backfire and "be worse than nothing." GPLv3 also specifically prevents the creation of patent cooperation agreements like the one between Microsoft and Novell.

Linux founder Linus Torvalds has himself sharply and publicly criticized GPLv3 as "only good for the extremist policies of the FSF." And while he has said that the most recent draft is "better," he still has no public plans to adopt it. A pragmatist and realist, Torvalds wants to share code widely and draw on the input of corporate developers to make Linux more powerful. The question now becomes who will adopt GPLv3, and how will the migration of some open-source software projects to GPLv3 impact users of open-source software stacks and mixed-source environments.

Under GPLv3, our Venn diagram of the software industry would have fewer intersections and more empty space, representing a solid disconnection between software camps. Some open-source software would overlap with proprietary software, but GPLv3-licensed software would occupy its own space, neither contributing to nor drawing from the rest of the software sector. Stallman says he wants software to be freely shared, improved and redistributed, but GPLv3 effectively erects a wall that isolates technologies and limits the range of open-source business models. Such a legal barrier can sytmie innovation and prevent technologies and developers from working together for the benefit of shared customers.

Jonathan Zuck is president of the Association for Competitive Technology.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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