David Canton – For the London Free Press – February 11, 2006
UPDATE - Feb 16 – See below for an email sent by Richard Stallman that clarifies that while he launched the Free Software Movement, he does not favour the concept of open source.
The GPL — perhaps the best known open source software licence — is being rewritten.
The concept of “open source” software was first put forward about 20 years ago by computer programmer Richard Stallman. It began as a philosophical notion that software should be distributed in a form that allows it to be modified by its users.
This means the source code — or human readable code — is distributed along with the object code — or computer readable code. Most open source software is free or low cost. It is improved and modified by a bevy of users, rather than employees of the creator.
Businesses using open source software as part of their software offerings have to be careful how they use it, since they may be required to provide their own source code.
The General Public Licence (GPL) is one of dozens of open-source licences, so it is crucial for the actual licence that accompanies any source code be read and understood.
The GPL reads as much as a manifesto as a licence. It is “intended to guarantee (the user’s) freedom to share and change free software — to ensure the software is free for all its users.”
“Free software” in this context is not necessarily meant to be free of charge. Rather it is free from restrictions on distribution and modification.
Most software licences place restrictions on the user to prevent the unauthorised distribution or modification of the program. The GPL encourages the modification and distribution of software.
In January, the Free Software Foundation began the process of updating the General Public Licence. Stallman and Free Software Foundation counsel Eben Moglen have begun a process of public debate and revision they hope will culminate in a GPL 3.0 in early 2007.
Stallman and Moglen have definite ideas about where they want the GPL to go in its next revision. Moglen calls the new version “an evolution representing catching up to 15 years of history (in which) technology . . . (and the) environment of free software changed for the better and the legal environment changed for the worse.”
They hope to address two main issues with the new GPL.
In 1991, the GPL was considered forward-thinking when it included provisions addressing patent law. Today, many complain these provisions are outdated. Stallman and Moglen are hoping to revise the patent provisions to ensure patent law cannot be used to restrict a user’s rights of distribution and modification of open source software.
The second key area deals with digital rights management. They anticipate the new GPL will limit the use of DRM in conjunction with open- source software.
An example is the increased use of TiVo in the U.S. TiVo, which allows viewers to record and watch television programs on demand, runs on a Linux core. Linux is one of the stalwarts of the open source community.
The TiVo system includes a digital rights management component that records every key-stroke that a user makes, thus tracking their viewing activity.
Moglen says TiVo just barely complied with the GPL 2.0 and thinks it unlikely it will be able to comply with the digital rights management provisions in GPL 3.0.
Linux may not, however, be subject to GPL 3.0. Linux creator Linus Torvalds is not happy with the proposed GPL 3.0 and says Linux is governed by version 2.0, not by any later version.
The draft GPL 3.0 can be found on the Free Software Foundation’s website at gplv3.fsf.org .
E-mail from Richard Stallman:
Your Feb 11 article inaccurately credited me with the “concept of open source”–a concept I do not favor. In 1983 I launched the Free Software Movement, a social movement to establish for computer users the freedom to redistribute and change the software they use. I wrote the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) to defend the freedom of all users for the programs we developed for the GNU operating system (gnu.org).
GNU today is used with the kernel Linux, in the GNU+Linux combination.
The developers of Linux will decide whether Linux will use GNU GPL version 3, but we will certainly use it for the many GNU components in the GNU+Linux system.
The concept of “open source” was formulated in 1998 by those who wished to replace the ethical values of the Free Software Movement with purely practical values. They are entitled to their views, but please do not label us and our work with their slogan.
President, Free Software Foundation (fsf.org)