Engaging Positively On GPL v3

Stallman at the European Parliament

If you've not been reading the comments under my daily links, you will have missed out on some excellent stuff relating to the new GNU General Public Licence proposals, GPL v3. Just to catch up on the story so far, Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen are in the middle of a proposed major revision of the GPL. To see where things have reached, visit the FSF GPL v3 web site - there's an awesome AJAX-powered review version of the license there, for example. That review version allows readers to add comments, and quickly scrolling through will show you where the main areas of controversy are found (they show up as "hot spots). They include accusations of political motives (duh), language that deals with DRM, language to defuse software patents and language to affect those who deploy modified code without distributing it. If you have the patience to wait for the Draft 1 comment page to load, you'll see these have been the controversial topics all along.

Various media pundits worked out a while back that there was likely to be a problem with the Linux kernel and GPL v3. It was inevitable, both because Linus Torvalds had expressed pragmatic contentment with GPL v2 long ago (and had ensured all the file headers for the kernel were licensed under that version alone and not the FSF-recommend "or any later version") and because the copyrights to the various components of the kernel belong only to their individual authors and are not aggregated anywhere, thus making a license change an arduous administrative task. Contacting all the contributors to allow a relatively uncontroversial license change took the Mozilla Foundation ages, so the task for the Linux kernel will be sisyphean should it ever happen. That latter fact means the kernel authors have little to lose by being negative about v3. And negative they have been. They just published an agreed position statement on GPL v3 which, despite an emphasis throughout on all the issues I know independently that their employers worry about, they assert was made independently of their various employment. That brings us up to date.

Speckled Wood, Fresh Nettles

I linked to that statement a few days back and got a reply from Luis Villa, of GNOME fame, as well as from Dalibor Topic. Luis has written two exceptionally good articles. The posting to read first, What the kernel guys got wrong, looks at the statement itself and finds most of the statements in it wanting. Read the comments too. The other post, What the kernel guys are and aren’t (and really should be) saying about GPL v3 digs under the surface and exposes the social dynamics of the complaints. Very insightful analysis, no less than I would expect from Luis who is a very sharp cookie indeed.

I've been following the GPL v3 process since it started, and despite a certain amount of initial scepticism I'm pretty impressed. Eben Moglen in particular has shown himself to be a statesman and a scholar and the GPL v3 review process is no hollow plebiscite. The FSF team has engaged, listened and responded to all the comments they have received, and the draft 2 text shows great improvement over the draft 1 text, especially concerning the stance on DRM.

I have a growing confidence that what will appear from the process after another 3 drafts could well form the basis of a unification of the Free and Open Source software communities. The compatibility mechanism created by section 7 is brilliant, and what was initially cold-war-era posturing on patents and DRM is evolving well into balanced approaches to handling both issues. There's certainly more progress needed - the patent language is still too imbalanced against large portfolio holders, for example. But the track record to date shows that the goal is reachable if everyone engages positively.

Which of course raises the question: if I can see that, if others like Luis, Dalibor and Mark can see it, why can't the kernel developers see it?

Update: One more post on the subject from Luis, What FSF Got Wrong, has an extremely interesting comment from an OSDL employee that says "The kernel developers did not directly particpate in the GPLv3 review process because it was clear from the beginning that any direct comments would not cause change." Nice excuse.

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