Latest GPL Draft Is a Step in the Right Direction

After a few months’ delay–during which the Free Software Foundation mulled over how to make the world safe for GNU-manity in the face of Microsoft and Novell’s patent, collaboration and baby-seal-clubbing accord–there’s a new draft of the GNU General Public License out for comment.
For now, the most promising thing to report about the draft is that the leader of GPL 2’s most prominent project doesn’t hate it.
While that sounds like pretty faint praise, the fact that Linus Torvalds–the guy who founded and who still heads the Linux kernel project–is greeting the new draft with at least guarded openness is a big step in the right direction for the GPL update effort. After all, no matter how much work goes into the update process, GPL 3’s value ultimately must be judged by the size and quality of the free software commons that the license helps delineate.
From the start of the process, however, the danger has been that the FSF might reach too far and produce a GPL so focused on ensuring software freedom for everybody that next to nobody would choose it for his or her work. For example, GPL 3 was to take on the so-called SAAS (software as a service) loophole, in which someone could create and distribute under the GPL an Internet application, which some other party could then modify and serve to the public over the Web without having to release the changes to the code.
The previous GPL 3 draft offered optional provisions that would define serving an application over the Web for distribution and would require those serving the code to release their changes. In a nod toward clarity in the license, however, the FSF has split those licensing options into a separate license, the Affero GPL, with which GPL 3 will be compatible. The result is a leaner, clearer GPL 3 that fits with the expectations of the current GPL crowd while holding out a new licensing option for those who choose it.
Less clarifying is the FSF’s revised approach to combating “Tivo-ization,” in which a party distributes software (in the case of Tivo, Linux) to users in a device or appliance, duly offers his or her modified code for download, but prevents users from running modified code on their device or appliance. In the previous GPL 3 draft, the FSF called for vendors to cough up encryption keys to free these appliances, and this was one thing that rubbed Torvalds and others the wrong way. The current draft takes a different and perhaps more palatable-sounding tack, but tracing through its conditions and provisos leads me to doubt it will stand up to greater scrutiny.
With only one discussion draft left before the license is set to go gold, I’m concerned that the FSF may be spending too much time puzzling over what I’m tempted to call unasked questions of software freedom and whether these exercises in what constitutes such freedom might be obscuring the bigger picture.
The latest discussion draft could potentially expose those developing and using the license to legal risk, an ACT lawyer says. Click here to read more.
For instance, Sun Microsystems has spoken of potentially licensing its OpenSolaris project under GPL 3. Such a move presents a great opportunity to expand the pool of GPL-licensed code and the reach of free software, provided that the FSF can coax the Linux kernel project to move to GPL 3 as well. With both platforms available under the same license, there’d be all sorts of new code-mingling opportunities that aren’t now possible under those projects’ incompatible CDDL (Common Development and Distribution License) and GPL 2 licenses.
If the FSF were to achieve nothing more with GPL 3 than the internationalization, clarification and software-patent-proofing tweaks required to bring the 16-year-old GPL 2 into sync with today’s software landscape and attract new participants to the community, the license would represent a considerable leap forward for free software.