Work on Next GPL Version Under Way

Some call the open source General Public License unconstitutional. Some call it revolutionary.

Love it or hate it, the GPL is the cornerstone of the Free Software Movement and the guiding license of Linux and Open Source software.

But after 14 years of use, its keepers say its time for a refresh. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is now officially set to revise version 2 of the license and has announced the “GPL Version 3 Development and Publicity Project.”

The process, which will ultimately yield version 3.0 of the GNU General Public License (GPL), is set to bring together a diverse and large group of users and organizations. The FSF promises it will “one of the largest participatory comments and adoption efforts ever undertaken.”

The GPL was first authored in 1989 and revised in June 1991. It is an Open Source Initiative (OSI) recognized license conforming to the dictates of the open source definition, however technically and legally speaking it is not an “open source” license. Rather the GPL is a Free Software license, “free as in freedom not price”. The Free Software Movement was started by Richard Stallman (who also authored the GPL) and predates the term open source by nearly a decade. (For more info on the GPL and FSF, see GPL and What You Need to Know.)

Helping to kickstart the GPL v.3 project is a 150,000 euro grant from a Dutch non-profit research foundation Stichting NLnet. The process is expected to receive legal counsel from Eben Moglen’s Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) which has benefited from a $4 million investment from the Open Source Development Labs (OSDL), employer of Linus Torvalds.

The Free Software Foundation will oversee the overall effort while co-ordinating with its European operation Free Software Foundation Europe.

“With the release of GPLv3, we aim to increase the international reach of the Free Software movement,” Peter Brown, Executive Director of the Free Software Foundation said in a statement. “To develop this new license, we will be contacting communities across the globe to ensure their participation in the update of one of the most important social documents of our time.”

The list of changes expected in the next version of the GPL include some form of patent language as well as corrections that fix certain existing loopholes.

For example, in an April, 2005, interview with Sleepycat Software CEO Mike Olson indicated that GPL version 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, which is a loophole GPL v.3 is expected to close.

Loopholes and patents aren’t the only challenges the GPL faces. SCO Group, a nemesis of Linux, has argued that the GPL itself is unconstitutional.

SCO CEO Darl McBride claimed that the Free Software Foundation (originators of the GNU GPL license) and others in the open source community “have set out to actively and intentionally undermine the U.S and European system of copyrights and patents.” The charge is one of the many questions that could be addressed as a part of the SCO Group’s ongoing $3 billion lawsuit against IBM, which challenges intellectual property in parts of Linux.

Though the GPL is one of the most widely used Free and Open Souce licenses and is the license under which Linux itself is distributed, it’s not the only open source license out there. License proliferation is actually a hot topic among many in the open source community who aregue that there are too many open source licenses.

One widely used license is the Apache 2.0 license for the Apache Web Server project, which is considered to be one of the most successful open source projects. According to Netcraft, Apache-based domains will cross the 50 million site mark next month.

But, at 86 million downloads and counting, Mozilla FireFox still ranks as the poster child for open source success. Mozilla Firefox (as are most Mozilla apps) is licensed under the Mozilla Public License.

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