September 6, 2005 12:25 PM PDT

Next GPL to protect free software from lawsuits?

The next version of the General Public License may contain a clause to penalize companies that use software patents against free software.

GPL version 3, a draft of which will be released in January 2006, may contain a patent retaliation clause, Georg Greve, the president of the Free Software Foundation Europe, said Tuesday. Such a clause would mean that if a company accused a free-software product of infringing its software patents, that company would lose the right to distribute that product.

Joachim Jakobs from FSF Europe said such a clause would only affect companies that used their software patents against free software. "We don't want to hinder people from using free software if they merely hold software patents," Jakobs said.

The GPL may also contain a clause to penalize companies that use copy-restricting technologies. "There could be something that addresses this if we can find a sensible way to put it," Greve said.

It is not currently certain whether clauses opposing software patents and digital rights management will actually make it into GPL 3, Greve said.

"These are things that are being tossed around, but whether, how and in what form it will take place, we don't know," he said. "Even (GPL author) Richard Stallman hasn't sat down to work it out yet."

The next version of the GPL is also expected to offer improved compatibility with other free-software licenses and improved internationalization.

Ingrid Marson of ZDNet UK reported from London.

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Can it really work?
A company uses patents against open source software is barred from distributing that software? Somehow this doesn't add up. Now I do agree that the patent system is completely unfair, but nevertheless it is there and it is law. And if a company has a patent, no matter how unfair, the law gives it the right to enforce that patent. That would mean that open source would be free to use any and all patents without the possibility of litigation. That would be great, but it seems illegal under current law. I think under current law it is not possible to write a document that not only allows patents to be violated but also encourages it. Also, barring a company from distributing a particular software would not be much of a punishment. Companies that pursue patent litigation are not always in the software distribution bussiness, or they may not have an interest to distribute that particular piece of software, they may just want to stop its distribution by others.

I think it's great that OSS is looking for a way to avoid litigation over patents and achieve ultimate freedom and I applaud their efforts. This measure, however, does not seem to be an appropiate solution. It is understandable that GPL v. 3 is still in pre-draft stages, so this measure might be better thought out in the final draft. Keep up the good work guys!
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