GPL Revision Guidelines Made Public

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) this week released a document specifying the process and guidelines for revising the GNU General Public License (GPL). The FSF will release the first discussion draft of the GNU General Public License (GPL) revision in January 2006.

The GNU GPL is the most widely used open-source license worldwide. Almost three quarters of all open-source software is distributed under the GPL, which was last revised 15 years ago.

Since that time, software development and the business of distributing software have changed dramatically. Gartner recently predicted that by 2010 more than 75 percent of IT organizations will have formal acquisition and management strategies dealingwith open-source software.

“The guiding principle for developing the GPL is to defend the freedom of all users,” said Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation. “As we address the issues raised by the community, we will do so in terms of the four basic freedoms software users are entitled to — to study, copy, modify and redistribute the software they use.”

Focusing on Global Requirements

Stallman said GPLv3 will be designed to protect those “four basic freedoms” under current technical and social conditions and will address new forms of use and current global requirements for commercial and non-commercial users.

After publishing the first discussion draft of the GPL in January, the FSF said it will begin a structured process of eliciting feedback from the community. The goal is to produce a final license that best defends freedom and serves community and business.

The process will include public discussion, identification of issues, considerations of those issues, and publication of responses. Publication of the second discussion draft is expected by summer 2006 and a last call, or final discussion draft, will be produced in the fall of 2006. The final GPLv3 license is expected no later than spring 2007.

“It is an exciting time in the history of software, particularly in the history of the Free Software movement,” said Eben Moglen, general counsel to the Free Software Foundation and founding director of the Software Freedom Law Center, which is providing logistical support and legal advice to the Free Software Foundation.

“Through this process, all voices will be heard. We will evaluate every opinion and will consider all arguments in light of the GPL’s goals. The process is accessible, transparent and public for all those who want to participate.”

Open Participation

Free software community projects, global 2000 companies and individual developers, as well as non-governmental organizations (NGOs), government agencies, small business and individual users will be invited to participate in the revising process of GPLv3.

“The General Public License is a groundbreaking legal document that has been the cornerstone of the free software movement and has created extraordinary amounts of change in the industry,” said Jim Harvey, a partner with Alston & Bird and the leader of its Open Source practice. “It is time, though, to analyze and address the legal and business issues that are raised by the use of free software across the globe and the valuable and critical business transactions that routinely transpire under the GPL.”

Tony Iams, senior analyst at Ideas International, told LinuxInsider that the positive aspect about the process is, like the open-source movement, there is an open process for revising the GPL.

“There’s going to be a lot of input from many different interested parties about exactly what the terms are,” Iams said. “But once it’s finalized there’s another step: actually getting developers to release their code under the new version. The Free Software Foundation has to try to build momentum in the development community for this new license.”

Addressing Concerns

Stephen M. Fronk, intellectual property attorney with San Francisco-based law firm Howard Rice Nemerovski Canady Falk & Rabkin, told LinuxInsider he thinks the biggest surprise that the FSF will experience in the process of generating version three of the GPL will be the high level of participation.

“That is the case because since 1991, the last time the Free Software Foundation updated the GPL, the adoption and use of FOSS has skyrocketed and many have a vested interest in shaping the dialogue on the new version,” he said.

Fronk does not expect the core precepts of the GPL to change whatsoever in version three. Nor does he expect that some of the ambiguities in the current version of the GPL that have worked to the advantage of the FOSS community will be clarified.

“I do expect, however, that version three will address the issue of software patents (which has long been a thorn in the side of the FOSS community), distribution of code, such as whether the obligations under the GPL that are triggered by distribution apply to the ASP business model, and the international scope of the GPL,” he said.

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