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Work Set to Begin on GPL 3

An updated version to the venerable GNU General Public License (GPL) , which hasn't seen a refresh in 15 years, is a little closer to reality.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) released a process definition document this week, outlining the course they will take to shepherd work on GPL v3.

The FSF and SFLC intend to publish the first discussion draft of the new license at the International Public Conference (IPC) Jan. 16 to 17, 2006, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

GPL v2 was released in 1991, two years after the release of the first version of the license created by Richard Stallman, FSF founder, to protect his GNU operating system project from turning into a proprietary project.

While he didn't invent the word, Stallman popularized the notion of "copyleft," which ensures the original software as well as derivatives are free and can be freely modified. The GNU GPL is the specific implementation, according to the GNU Project's Web site, of copyleft.

GPL's adoption has skyrocketed over the intervening years to become the most popular free software license. The process document released today notes software development technologies have changed dramatically in that time and GPL provisions would benefit from a modification to fit today's circumstances.

Peter Brown, FSF executive director, said the idea of opening up discussion on a revised license makes sense in today's environment.

"Rather than just throw the new version over the wall we have to respect the fact that the GNU operating system which we copyright-hold now only represents a small part," he said. "Beyond revising the GPL we have to open up the process to the whole community and that's, in one way, what makes the project so unique -- the fact that it's going to be such a large community effort to get this license improved."

Participation in the license update is open to everyone from big-name companies and government agencies to free software projects and individual developers, officials said. Committees representing each constituency will be announced and set up during the MIT conference.

An online comment site has also been established. The FSF and SFLC plan to hold meetings throughout the world to gather more international input.

Depending on the work accomplished after the first draft, the FSF and SFLC will designate either the second or third discussion drafts as a "last call" draft, which will signal a final public comment period lasting at least 45 days but ending no later than Jan. 15, 2007.

The final version of GPL v3 is expected sometime between the January 2007 deadline and March 2007.

"The guiding principle for developing the GPL is to defend the freedom of all users," Stallman said in a statement. "As we address the issues raised by the community, we will do so in terms of the four basic freedoms software users are entitled to -- to study, copy, modify and redistribute the software they use."

Building on those principles, the FSF and SFLC have four principles that will drive the GPL v3 process: creating a more global license, protecting the existing freedoms in GPL v2, watching out for the unintended consequences to any changes and consulting the community throughout the process.

One of the main goals for the updated license is the creation of a more internationalized license, one that can cross borders without running afoul of local copyright laws.

GPL v2, the process document states, performed the task of globalization relatively well but was constructed with attention to the details of U.S. law.

"To the extent possible, without any fundamental changes, version 3 of the GPL should reduce the difficulties of internationalization," the document states. "Version 3 should more fully approximate the otherwise unsought ideal of the global copyright license."

Another goal officials hope to achieve is to get the GPL to play nice and be compatible with other free software licenses approved by the Open Source Initiative. The document acknowledges that while the GPL is the most popular free software license, a significant amount of free software is licensed under terms not compatible with GPL v2.

That doesn't necessarily extend into compatibility with proprietary systems. The role of the GPL, Brown said, is to create a world of free software so people aren't locked into proprietary software. It is not to encourage proprietary software.

Brown did say the draft license would address such items as applications in a Web service environment, an increasingly popular platform among enterprises, but that people will have to wait for the draft release at MIT to find out.

The process document also noted the FSF may present drafts of the Library -- or Lesser -- GPL (LGPL), a derivative of the GPL that allows the licensed application to link with non-GPL'd programs. Any LGPL revisions would go through the public process.