Welcome to GPLv3
By webmink on Jun 29, 2007
Living as I do in the UK, the gadget news that has the US media all spun-up today is of no interest to me. But a slightly lower-profile story - the release of the GNU General Public License version 3 by the FSF - is a satisfying end to a long journey. When we embarked on the review of Eben and Richard's new license a year and a half ago, I can admit to being a little sceptical. I assumed what we were about to see was a plebiscite, with the appearance of review but little real change. I'm delighted that's not what happened. Instead, we saw a wide, diverse and representative group drawn together to great effect.
The actual process has been substantial, inclusive and largely public. It involved an initial conference with presentations and discussions, followed by the formation of a number of "discussion committees" which gathered representatives from all interest groups that were willing to participate (sadly not all were).
Committee B was where we corporate types met, and my colleagues David Marr and Damien Eastwood expended a tremendous amount of effort along with the large assembly of other company representatives discussing the license with Eben Moglen and the FSF. Both Damien and David have remarked in public and private that Eben and Richard Fontana have been consistent in their effort to remain available for discussion and dialogue, even (and especially) when difficult legal issues confronted Committee B.
That's not to say it's ended up framed the way everyone would want. The new license intentionally uses language aimed more at legal professionals, so some community members will find it difficult. And despite the brave words you'll hear from some of the corporate participants today the truth is that GPLv3 will cause plenty of soul-searching. I suggest measuring support by the lines of code licensed under GPLv3 rather than by the kind words spoken...
But the results of this open process are impressive. From an initial document that seemed pretty doctrinaire and exhibited clear problems for many of the businesses whose investment in staff and communities contribute so much to Free software, we have ended up in a much better place. The document is as balanced as a GPL revision can be, especially with the rough edges of the provisions affecting DRM smoothed out. It's especially pleasing to see the agreement between the FSF and the Apache Software Foundation.
The late work attempting to snuff out the sort of shady practice seen between some vendors was an unfortunate disruption, and I'm still waiting to see what the very, very last revisions to the language relating to software patents look like - I understand the text has seen revisions right up to the last minute. In the last draft there was scope for friendly-fire casualties caused by the traps set around software patent licensing; I hope that's been cured.
Sun and GPLv3
So the question I'm expecting to be faced with repeatedly over the next few weeks is, "will Sun use the GPLv3?" I think it's likely we will use it, yes, but I'm not clear yet for which code and when. We'll be carefully analysing the balance of benefits and risks in the released version of the GPLv3 and I'm not expecting to be in a position to bring a recommendation to our executive team for several weeks. I'm keen for us to take a leading position, though, even if some are sceptical of our motives.
Sun is in a position of stewardship of a large number of copyrights for Free software, and it would be a mistake for us to assume that just because on paper we own the copyrights that therefore we are free to do whatever we want. We're not. In communities where Sun is the steward (like OpenJDK and OpenSolaris), contributors are asked to share their rights with the community via Sun in part so that license changes like this are possible. While Sun holds those aggregated rights on trust, it would be a mistake to assume Sun can just change the license without any form of community discussion.
As a consequence, the licence choices for those communities will not be changing yet. If it happens, you can expect to see discussion in the affected community first. Is this a vote against GPLv3? No. It's a mark of respect for the trust placed in Sun by those communities.
I regard the GPLv3 as a great achievement by the FSF in particular and by the greater open source community of Free software communities. The discussions were long, professional and detailed. The process was inclusive and respectful while retaining the ability to be driven forward through clear leadership. The result is a strong and market-changing document.
My hearty congratulations to Richard Stallman, Eben Moglen and all of the many, many participants in the process - thank-you for including us. The unity displayed is an example that I hope will be embraced, repeated and improved upon to yield an even more vibrant community of open source communities working on Free software with mutual understanding, respect and unity of purpose.