Enterprise Unix Roundup: Ring Side Seats to History

By Amy Newman (Send Email)
Posted Jan 12, 2006

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Think Linux, and it's hard to forget the license under which the kernel is contained: the GNU GPL. A new version is on the way, and now is the time to watch history be made. To stay open, consider Open-Xchange OpenExchange in place of Exchange.

Amy Newman
Brian Proffitt

When you think of Linux, it's hard not to give some mental energy to the license under which the kernel is contained: the GNU General Public License (GPL). We think it could safely be said that no other computer license gets more coverage, more analysis, and more fan-based support than the GPL.

A very small part of this is the fact that most of the other computer licenses out there are simply legal variations of the "share this and die" theme made so popular by Microsoft and its ilk. And, c'mon, how exciting is that? We'd give the back of cereal boxes more reading points than the average end user license agreement.

Conversely, the GPL's main impetus seems to fall along the lines of "share this or die." In other words, the GPL says it is our fundamental right to be able to share knowledge, even in the form of coded software. Information wants to be free, and the GPL is a powerful instrument in making that philosophy happen.

How powerful? Thousands of open source applications use the present version of the GPL (version 2), including Linux, MySQL, and Samba. It is also noteworthy that the GPL isn't just part of the larger open source set of licenses: It is a free software license, focusing on free, as in freedom. Some would say it is the Free software license.

The license's staying power also attests to its strengths. Free Software Foundation (FSF) founder Richard Stallman created version 1 of the GPL in February of 1989. Version 2 was rolled out in June of 1991. For nearly 15 years, GPL v2 has been the gold standard on which all free (and much open source) software is based.

Now that's what we call a bestseller.

But even a good read can get a little dated, as time marches past and changes the environment in which the work was first created. This has even happened to the GPL, as Stallman and the rest of the FSF are about to begin a effort to update the GPL to version 3.

If there was any doubt to the importance of this move, consider that the process will undergo a year-long review and update procedure, with comments being fielded by anyone who cares to participate. In a framework announced late last year, it was revealed that the FSF will have set milestones in the process after the public draft is released next week. In June, a second draft will be released for discussion, and a possible third draft will come out in September. The FSF has stated that the final version could be ready in September if that third draft is not needed, but it is realistically targeting January 15, 2007 as the date of release, with an option for more drafts and discussions, if needed, and an outside date of March 2007.

Quite a change from 1991, when Stallman cranked out version 2 on his own.

Or, maybe not. According to FSF General Counsel Eben Moglen, the discussion phase will be open and dynamic, but ultimately, the final decision on what GPL v3 will be falls solely on Stallman's shoulders.

So what prompted this re-write?

According to the FSF, patent litigation, Web services, digital rights management, and compatibility with other open source licenses are among the areas targeted for addition and review. This last is very interesting, given that quite a few new open source licenses officially recognized by the Open Source Initiative (OSI), including two new draft open source licenses authored by Microsoft, are most definitely not compatible with the GPL. This incompatibility usually stems from the GPL's firm stance on sharing code. We are most curious to see how and if the new GPL will make itself more open source friendly.

Considering the OSI seems to be giving out seals of approval to every open source license under the sun since the departure of founder Eric Raymond, we're not 100 percent sure the GPL v3 should be more friendly to other licenses. We will wait and see while we also await our mail-order law degree.

Many pundits out there are wondering how this will affect the software projects licensed under the current GPL. We can hear the proprietary vendors sharpening their FUD teeth and nails, too. But worry not, reader. Projects like Samba, MySQL, and the one from that Finnish guy will likely remain under GPL v2, at least until their creators figure out if the new version will be more beneficial.

Since the free software community is notoriously calm and quiet in their discussions, we're sure that there won't be too many fireworks.

Seriously, we'll be geeky enough to download that first draft next week because seeing what happens promises to be exciting. Good or bad, change is in the air, and there's nothing more exciting to us than an armchair view of history in the making.

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