RealTime IT News

Insider Hints at GPL Changes

Version 3.0 of the General Public License (GPL) may be years away, but one insider says proposed changes to it could impact companies like Amazon, Yahoo and Google.

Sleepycat Software CEO Mike Olson told internetnews.com that the Free Software Foundation (FSF) is looking at adding provisions to the GNU GPL to address a loophole. The current version of the GPL, which was last updated in 1991, fails to trigger the open source license if a company alters the code, but does not distribute its software through a CD or floppy disk.

The problem is moot for such open source applications as Linux, KDE , OpenOffice, Samba , Perl and X-Chat, all of which can be distributed using conventional means. But the rule does not apply to companies that distribute software as a service, such as Google and eBay, or even dual-license companies like Sleepycat.

"My concern is that we run into a tragedy of the commons," Olson said. "There is this notion of quid pro quo, but if the vendor doesn't ship his software, he doesn't need to show his source code. That means a bunch of innovation is being taken out. This is an important problem for us working on the new GPL to get right."

Olson should know. He is one of a select few looking to review the current GPL and recommend updates for the public review process, which he says should happen before the end of the year. The process is being handled by the FSF, well-known open source legal counsel Eben Moglen, GPL license author Richard Stallman and other select members of the open source community.

Other changes being talked about for version 3.0 include addressing intellectual property licensing and patent issues, trusted computing, and the differences in copyright law between English-speaking countries and the rest of Western Europe.

Moglen, who is also heading up the Software Freedom Law Center, declined to comment on any work being done on the GPL until a formal release is available.

"When we are ready to comment on the content of GPL v3.0, we will release a first discussion draft, with our explanations of the choices we have made as a starting point for public discussion," Moglen wrote.

But Sleepycat's Olson says the change may not be a full replacement of the current triggers, but an addition to the current GPL.

In a hypothetical situation, Olson said, a company that needs to scale up its high-performance Web-based application could look at the GPL and make changes to improve performance but only show the source code that it changed under the new provision.

"Vendors will be willing to do that because the key to their business is not the infrastructure it runs on but the service on top of the infrastructure," Olson said.

The other inherent benefit is that the company submitting the code may not need to forward the entire port every time there is an upgrade.

"If you look at the market, Yahoo, eBay, IBM, Amazon, Google have all sunk millions into the GPL infrastructure," Olson said. "Not only are we changing the rules, we are changing them retroactively. With the new way, it lets the customer pay with either their source code or with their wallet."

Olson said the biggest call for action at this point should be making sure there is inclusion in the conversation by all sides.

Finally, he said, assuming GPL 3.0 looks like it does now, it would make sense for his company to abandon it s approved Sleepycat License. And that is something the Open Source Initiative might like to hear.