Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you know that the Free Software Foundation finally ratified and released the new version of the GPL at the end of June. This marks the newest chapter in the history of one of open source (and free) software’s oldest and most venerated licenses.
Want to read every word of the long and complicated terms and conditions? Have at it. Prefer a brief explanation of its basic talking points? Then you’re at the right article. We happen to know a guy who knows a lot about this stuff–his name is Luis Villa, and he’s hacked on a few Linux projects in his day. Like Evolution PIM, the GNOME 2.0 release (in collaboration with Sun), and the Novell and Ximian desktop projects. And now he’s going to law school. The perfect cross-section for license-explaining.
So why are we here?
On June 29th, after 16 years, the Free Software Foundation issued version three of the GNU General Public License, the sequel to what is arguably the most important copyright license ever. Quite literally everyone who makes software – open, proprietary, or web – needs to understand the v3 and figure out how it impacts them as a potential contributor, consumer, cooperator or competitor.
Can you summarize this Q&A in a haiku?
new license coming creates new uncertainty must attempt to grok
(I really, really wanted to use “Snuffleupagus” in that, but sadly that doesn’t leave many syllables for imagery.)
Why are we doing all this again? Isn’t GPL v2 reasonably good?
The license was written in 1991, and the computer industry has changed a lot since then. DRM has changed how users interact with their computers, software patents have become a much bigger problem, and the free software community has grown into a multi-billion dollar industry. So an update was probably not a bad idea.
Given the success of v2, has the license really changed that much?
The core goals, methods, and structures of v2 were successful and have been carried over with very few changes. If you use GPL code and do not redistribute it, you still get to do whatever you want with it. If you modify and redistribute GPL code, or build new applications on top of GPL-licensed libraries, you still have to release modifications and derivatives as GPL-licensed source. And you can can still build proprietary code on top of the new LGPL.
What has changed in the license, then?
The biggest changes:
- internationalization: the new license moves away from language which comes from US copyright law in favor of language which does not exist in any system of copyright law. This should make the license more politically palatable and legally enforceable outside the US.
- increased complexity: This tries to be a more lawyer-friendly document, at the expense of clarity for hackers and executives. That may slow adoption.
- patents: Contributors to a program now grant a patent license to future users; merely distributing without copyrightable contribution does not. This should help create more certainty about the patents owned by major contributors- the folks like Sun, Novell, etc. – but it doesn’t help against those who don’t contribute code, like Microsoft and patent trolls. So the impact is positive but limited.
- patents, the complicated part: the license attempts to prevent future blanket indemnifications like the Microsoft-Novell deal, and to induce Microsoft to grant us patent licenses, but the language is complex and probably has some loopholes. Because of the complexity and limitations of the language, probably only the worst abuses of the old language are prevented. Not bad, but not the end of Microsoft’s FUD by any stretch.
- user control: the new license tries to make it clear that users have the right to control their hardware and software. First, it forbids a legal claim that the code is part of a Digital Rights Management system (though it does not prevent an attempt to construct such a system, as long as the code itself can still be modified.) Second, it requires that distributors provide installation instructions so that consumers can modify and reinstall the GPL’d software on the devices that they own.
What has changed for users?
Most users won’t see any change from the shift from v2 to v3- they’ll be able to keep trucking, since users have all the same rights they used to have, plus a few new ones. There are new requirements for contributors and distributors, but they should be threatening only to the small minority of companies who want to benefit from the GPL while competing on a basis other than quality and service.
Something more to tell us?