Linux Hackers Skewer GPLv3

Linux creator Linus Torvalds’ objections to GPLv3, the Free Software Foundation’s draft of the next version of the popular GNU General Public License, have been reinforced by the rest of the open source operating system’s top developers. They share Torvalds’ concerns over digital rights management (DRM), patents, and other restrictions of GPLv3, according to a poll and position paper.

The GPL is a widely used free and open source software (FOSS) license. Its second version, GPLv2, currently covers the Linux kernel. Developers and maintainers who took part in the poll wholeheartedly agreed with the position earlier taken by Torvalds, who abstained.

In “The Dangers and Problems with GPLv3,” James E.J. Bottomley, Greg Kroah-Hartman, Dave Jones, Andrew Morton and others argue that GPLv2 has served Linux well and that provisions of GPLv3 would restrict use and development of free and open source software.

They maintain that tampering with GPLv2 could cause the balkanization of the FOSS community.

The FSF responded to the criticisms of its latest GPLv3 draft in a statement titled “GPLv3: Recent Misleading Information.” The organization stressed that it could not — and would not — force a switch or restrictions on software users.

Dangers and DRM

“I’m sorry the people have locked themselves into positions from which there appears to be no compromise,” open source licensing expert and Stanford Law School lecturer Larry Rosen told LinuxInsider about the debate. “I don’t think discussion ever harms, but I do think the split in the community, especially with DRM, is quite a bit harmful.”

The Linux coders acknowledge that DRM technology, used by media and distribution companies to control content, may sometimes inhibit fair use or compatibility, calling it “deeply disturbing.” However, they also argue that the FSF goes too far in trying to control other software that interacts with GPLv3-licensed software.

“We recognize that defining what constitutes ‘DRM abuse’ is essentially political in nature and as such, while we may argue forcefully for our political opinions, we may not suborn or coerce others to go along with them,” they wrote.

Other objections to GPLv3 point to a variety of provisions that amount to a “soup of possible restrictions, which is going to be a nightmare for our distributions to sort out legally and get right,” and patent provisions of GPLv3 that would have a “chilling effect” on company contributions to Linux and open source due to fear of losing patent assertion rights and value.

Draft Defended

The FSF stressed that — as with GPLv1 and GPLv2 — there would be no obligation for software users to adopt the new version, and that the Linux developers’ contention regarding restrictions was inaccurrate.

“Contrary to what some have said, the GPLv3 draft has no use restrictions, and the final version won’t either,” said the group, which is led by original GPL author and free software giant Richard Stallman.

Arguing that the patent provisions of GPLv3 are necessary in order to avoid the damage that patents could cause to FOSS, the FSF defended its position on DRM.

“GPLv3 will prohibit certain distribution practices which restrict users’ freedom to modify the code,” the FSF said. “We hope this policy will thwart the ways some companies wish to ‘use’ free software — namely, distributing it to you while controlling what you can do with it.”

Reaching Too Far

Rosen, author of Open Source Licensing and former general counsel to the Open Source Initiative (OSI), said the GPLv3 concerns him because it may not be fully compatible with GPLv2.

“The GPL already makes it difficult to combine software with different licenses,” he said. As proposed, GPLv3 could have compatibility problems with GPLv2, he suggested, warning that “we’re going to end up with software that doesn’t work well together.”

Rosen, who stressed he is an ardent supporter of updating and improving the GPL, explained the current GPLv3 approach actually “reaches out” beyond the software that would be licensed under GPLv3, and argued that the issue was introduced inappropriately.

“That DRM provision was introduced in such a way to make it difficult to back away,” he said, alluding to a difference of opinion with Stallman.

“The GPL is the only license that reaches some way, and in a confusing way, to other works and other licenses,” Rosen continued. “I think that’s something that ought to be fixed in the GPL.”

Solution Elusive

The recent poll and position papers from Linux developers put to rest the idea that Torvalds may have been alone in his opposition to the new GPL, Illuminata Senior Analyst Gordon Haff told LinuxInsider.

The two FOSS camps might be able to find common ground on the patent and restrictions issues, he noted, but the DRM matter is likely a deal breaker for Linux.

“It’s pretty clear at this point Linux is not going to be using it,” he said. “There’s so much heat at this point, it’s hard for me to see how Linux could end up using GPLv3.”

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