The GNU GPL - a software license for yesterday, today and tomorrow

With the draft of the GNU General Public License Version 3 (GPLv3) have come many interesting comments, although not all of which I have found positive. While I understand proprietary vendors have offered complaints against a license they do not even use, I was surprised that Linus Torvalds had taken some issues which I thought were in any case misguided criticisms.

For my part, I maintain a few packages that are part of the GNU project. Our software has always been licensed under the GNU GPL, version 2 or later. Naturally I am concerned with the drafting of GPLv3, and I have had to ask myself why I use the GNU GPL.

For some the GNU GPL is seen as a means to create a proactive and self-defending public domain. Others see it as an extension of the idea of code as speech. I however see software as a scientific process, and use the GNU GPL in part as a means of preserving equality of opportunity; that is, I know through it I can offer others the very same freedoms and opportunities in writing software that I myself initially received. This fundamental idea, remains a constant in the GPLv3, and so I find no reason not to use the license when it is formally released for current and future packages.

There are those who have raised questions about the Digital Restrictions Management clause. I find that while not expressed there, the idea is fully consistent with the original intent and purpose of the GNU GPL v2, and is at least strongly implied by the existing language. The GNU GPL v2 does not allow one to redistribute the software you receive if you cannot do so offering the same freedoms you enjoyed, and this surely means that if you redistribute software in source for a DRM platform that does not allow one to actually run self compiled and modified binaries because the keys needed to operate the hardware are not actually provided, you clearly have violated the stated intent and purpose of the GNU GPL v2. Hence, I see the DRM clause simply as a clarification of something that already was true, rather than something added that is new.

Given my personal interpretation, I have come to believe removing the DRM clause would actually weaken the protections already offered under the existing GNU GPL v2 license for those packages which are licensed GNU GPL v2 or later. In a related way I have come to a similar view on the question of software patenting as expressed in the new license. Again, I believe that if software patenting, as well as defective by design methods like DRM, had been commonplace at the time of the drafting of earlier versions of the GNU GPL, I would have expected explicit language covering them as we see today in the GPLv3. But clearly they are implied as part of the GNU GPL all along.

I will be away at LinuxWorld in San Francisco later today, so I expect to have something interesting to write about that very soon as well.


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