The Free Software Foundation tightens the GPL
The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has published the third draft of the third version of the GNU General Public License (GPL), which now includes provisions to outlaw agreements similar to the patent deal agreed by Novell and Microsoft.
In that agreement, Novell and Microsoft agreed to hold each others’ customers harmless to any patent claims from either side. However, the open-source community saw this as a sneaky move from Microsoft to imply that Linux-based operating systems did infringe its intellectual property and a cheap way to sidestep the patent provisions of the GPL.
Richard Stallman, president of the FSF and principal author of the GNU GPL, said, ‘The GPL was designed to ensure that all users of a program receive the four essential freedoms which define free software. These freedoms allow you to run the program as you see fit, study and adapt it for your own purposes, redistribute copies to help your neighbour, and release your improvements to the public. The recent patent agreement between Microsoft and Novell aims to undermine these freedoms. In this draft we have worked hard to prevent such deals from making a mockery of free software.’
This third draft explicitly denies licencees the opportunity of entering into such deals ‘if you are a party to an arrangement with a third party … under which you make payment to the third party based on the extent of your activity of conveying the work, and under which the third party grants, to any of the parties who would receive the covered work from you, a patent license … which license does not cover, prohibits the exercise of, or is conditioned on the non-exercise of any of the rights that are specifically granted to recipients of the covered work under this License.’
However, these terms are not retrospective, and apply only to deals that contravene this provision made on or after 28 March 2007.
Microsoft’s Horacio Gutierrez, VP of intellectual property and licensing, said that ‘It is unfortunate…that the FSF is attempting to use the GPL 3 to prevent future collaboration among industry leaders to benefit customers.’
It is far from clear how quickly version three of the GPL will be adopted. There remains a further 60 days of consultation, after which a ‘last call’ draft will be produced. A further 30 days will follow this for discussion, after which a final version will be published.
Key figures such as Linus Torvalds have been sceptical on the issue, suggesting the third version is more political than pragmatic and that he won’t be rushing to distribute the Linux kernel under version three of the GPL.
Even so, authors Eben Moglen and Stallman have made efforts in the latest draft to simplify the licence and make it more compatible with GPLv3. And first time violators of provisions in the GPL can have their licence restored if the issue is resolved within 30 days.
There are also provisions to counter device makers’ efforts to lock down versions of Linux in products such as Tivo, preventing users from modifying the software.
More information is available at the GPL website.