GPL v3: Was It Worth the Effort?

The third version of the GNU General Public License version 3 (GPLv3), released last summer, is on the slow road to acceptance. The new licensing conditions usher in numerous changes in how open source software developers regulate what users of their freely distributed programming code are legally able and unable to do.

The latest license option was published by the Free Software Foundation June 28 after months of input from the open source community. It succeeds, but does not replace, the licensing conditions established in GPL version 2, issued in 1991. Software developers have the option of releasing new open source programs under GPL version 2 or version 3.

A survey conducted by Evans Data shows that open source developers are not adopting the third version of the GNU General Public License as quickly as some may have hoped. Those who remain reluctant to incorporate GPL v3 cited reasons ranging from questions of its enforceability in court to disagreements with some of its new components.

Considering that the first lawsuit aimed at enforcing the GPL (version 2) is just making its way through the courts, some open source developers are questioning whether the software world is ready for the upgraded license.

“GPL v3 is designed to make it more difficult for some companies to use it. It is a step towards dividing support for open source within the software community, forcing several groups into opposing camps,” Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst for the Enderle Group, told LinuxInsider.

Transition Time

About 70 to 75 percent of open source projects are covered by version 2 of GNU GPL. Very few software developers have released current projects under version 3. The spread is about 702 to 94, a small percentage, according to Doug Levin, CEO & president of Black Duck Software.

“Software developers don’t wake up one day and decide to change licenses (on new releases). They are more concerned with releasing newer and better features or working on new projects,” Levin told LinuxInsider.

People must keep in mind that software development is a long process. Acceptance and use of the governing license is just one part of that process, he explained.

Cautious Delay

The Free Software Foundation clearly took its time in preparing for the release of the new licensing conditions. It provided for a long response time with comments on the three drafts of what was finally issued as version 3, noted Attorney James Gatto of the international law firm of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman.

That delay in releasing version 3 is carrying over to more delays in acceptance by the software community. Both versions 2 and 3 and available for software developers to use, he said.

“Some software companies are proponents of version 3 but will wait before adopting it,” Gatto told LinuxInsider. He serves as the national section leader for Intellectual Property and is coleader of the firm’s open source team. His practice focuses on all aspects of intellectual property including patent, trademark, copyright, trade secret, open source and Internet law.

The software community should not be critical of Free Software Foundation for taking a long time to get the terms of the new licensing spelled out adequately, noted Levin.

“The introduction and drafting were done in a very open process. There was lots of feedback. It was extremely democratic,” Levin said.

Licensing Conflicts

The new open source license version has many new changes that are very Net positive, according to both Levin and Gatto. How quickly they are put into play will depend to a large part on market forces, however.

“There are patent provisions in the new license that took into account the intellectual property environment. I don’t think there will be full acceptance right away,” said Levin.

The digital rights management (DRM) provisions pose a big objection, agreed Gatto. Some parts of version 3 conflict with what is considered legal in version 2. Some companies won’t use version 3 because of this change, he said.

Another potential stumbling block to speedy acceptance of GPL v3 is the much more extreme provisions for the patenting process. That alone is deterring some larger companies from adopting it, Gatto said.

Better Legal Path

From an enforcement viewpoint, the new GPL version should be more user friendly, thus making it easier to avoid lawsuits, according to Gatto.

For example, software developers have to make embedded code available to the open source community. Developers cannot disable some parts of the code if doing so renders the software to a non-working condition, he explained.

“Version 3 limits the number of potential breaches, so violators can cure those problems easily,” Gatto said. “Overall there is not much change in the enforceability under version 3. It puts open source software licensing on more solid legal footing.”

Redmond Factor

In finalizing GPL v3, the Free Software Foundation clearly took aim at recent partnerships between proprietary and open source firms. That will have an impact on propritary software firms such as Microsoft that venture into open source partnerships, Gatto noted in referring to a prior agreement between Microsoft and Novell’s Linux distribution.

Version 3 will close the door to similar arrangements in the future, Gatto said.

“GPL version 3 is designed to make it more difficult for some companies to use it,” agreed Enderle on the Microsoft issue.

Future Fuzzy

Adoption of GPL v3 is taking on more of a religious fervor within the open source community. The intent was to have version 3 replace version 2 of the GNU license, but it is not going that way, Enderle explained.

“Many believe that code blending on new projects will force the eventual takeover of licensing terms by version 3,” he said.

Instead, GPLv3 runs the risk of lowering the economic benefits of using the open source license, he said.

“It is not well liked and doesn’t focus on the customer,” he concluded.

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