Enterprise Unix Roundup: Bracing for a GPL Refresh

By Michael Hall (Send Email)
Posted Dec 2, 2004

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The FSF is readying the GPL for a 21st century makeover. Looking to retrieve data you think is gone forever? Foremost, an open source forensic tool for Linux, should be first on your list.

We can remember the first time we stumbled across the GNU General Public License (GPL), almost 14 years ago. A friendly support person who was trying to help us work our way through the vagaries of an Ultrix machine had just told us to ditch vi in favor of Emacs. Somehow, in the process of trying to turn on word wrap, we stumbled across the copy of the GPL that Emacs carries around inside.

History tells us that must have been sometime just as the GPL, which forms the foundation under which the Linux kernel and a goodly collection of other free software, was revised and released as the GNU General Public License 2.0.

What we remember most is being struck by the language of the license, not to mention the fact that we didn't understand it very well at the time. Software, after all, was something we perceived as a shrink-wrap thing, a game bought off the shelves of Sears or perhaps a professional word processor packaged in a hefty binder with a dozen floppies. You could get software for "free," but it was usually called "shareware," and you were technically supposed to pay for it. Or it was called "freeware," and it was something more akin to an affliction than a gift.

It took us a few years to absorb just what the GPL meant, and a few more years to appreciate the ways in which it managed to use U.S. copyright law (which has always focused on the "usefulness" of intellectual property) to create a space in which a more traditionally European focus on the creator's moral rights could operate.

The GPL might have remained a curiosity had Linux not elevated it to the attention of the general public in the mid- and late-'90s. But in the ferment of the early Linux revolution, it became a centerpiece of discussion. Some of the Linux world's most heated feuds were inspired by the GPL's relatively simple tenets and their ramifications. Despite widespread speculation from its worst detractors that it wouldn't survive a court challenge, the GPL has remained the license under which the Linux kernel, and many of the tools that make the Linux kernel worth using, has been released. Companies that seek to use GPLed code without obeying the GPL's restrictions have been brought into compliance with little more than a nudge from the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

In some ways, the GPL has grown beyond being a simple set of terms under which software is released. It also signifies sincerity: Though many free and open source software developers might view the GPL with some unease, most of them respond to the release of code under the GPL as a sign that the person releasing the code is sincere in his or her efforts to participate in the free software community. Sun's skittishness about which license Solaris 10 will be released under, for example, is viewed by many as a sort of shifty bet-hedging that will allow Sun to fly under the colors of open source without really giving code, the way using the GPL would indicate.

As enduring as the GPL has been, however, the FSF believes it's time to reconsider the license and bring it into the 21st century. Though few details are available, FSF counsel Eben Moglen says the next revision of the license, GPL 3, will address growing concerns within the free software community over software patents and confront the differences in copyright law between English-speaking countries and Western Europe, which has its own set of traditions (including the aforementioned emphasis on the moral rights of the creator, as opposed to the overwhelming emphasis on commerce in the U.S.).

According to various reports, Moglen says the revision process will be taken public soon enough. Another change since the GPL's last revision: When Moglen talks about the license's "stakeholders," the term encompasses a much larger community. Companies such as IBM, which are lauded for their support of Linux while using software patents both as part of their revenue model and as a tool to control the development of potential competitors, are now part of that stakeholding community.

It will be interesting to see how all those stakeholders relate to each other, too: While IBM and its ilk pledge they'll never use their patent portfolios "against Linux," none other than Linux project leader Linus Torvalds has lent his name to the anti-software-patent movement in a statement directed to the European Union Competitiveness Council. While Torvalds is usually candid enough in interviews, it's a little more rare to see him signing formal statements as well as an indicator of how seriously the free software community is beginning to apply itself to the software patent issue.

Like Rip Van Winkle, the GPL has awoken to a radically different, more contested, and wider world.

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