December 23, 2004 4:00 AM PST
Sprucing up open source's GPL foundation
- Related Stories
IDC: Linux PC sales to hit $10 billion in 2008December 15, 2004
Sun open-source license could mean Solaris-Linux barrierDecember 2, 2004
Firefox cutting into IE's leadNovember 22, 2004
SpamAssassin sports new open-source licenseSeptember 22, 2004
IBM pledges no patent attacks against LinuxAugust 4, 2004
Group: Linux potentially infringes 283 patentsAugust 1, 2004
Red Hat adds legal firepowerMay 17, 2004
Attorney: More disclosure will end GPL caseApril 23, 2004
GPL gains clout in German legal caseApril 22, 2004
MySQL takes cue from the masterApril 14, 2004
The greening of LinuxDecember 3, 2003
SCO attacks open-source foundationOctober 28, 2003
Gates wades into open-source debateJune 19, 2001
Netscape now--for freeJanuary 22, 1998
(continued from previous page)
software under the GPL to be unhappy with the changes."
Changes aren't going to happen anytime soon, though. "We're nowhere near ready to have anything to show people anything yet. We know what we'd like to do, but how to do it is not clear," Stallman said. Only when he's good and ready will he begin seeking comments on a draft.
Stallman wrote the GPL in the 1980s as part of his Gnu's Not Unix, or GNU, project to create a clone of the operating system unfettered by Unix's proprietary constraints--thus the term "free software" and the Free Software Foundation that Stallman established to promote it.
According to Freshmeat, which calls itself "the Web's largest index of Unix and cross-platform software," there are more than 19,000 GPL-covered software projects, and the GPL governs 68 percent of projects in the Freshmeat index.
The most prominent GPL project is Linux, the kernel of an operating system that will underlie a $35.7 billion business in 2008, according to a forecast by market researcher IDC. Among others: the MySQL database, the netfilter/iptables protective firewall and the Samba file-sharing software.
But programmers have other choices if they're not happy with the GPL. Other licenses cover the Mozilla project, which helped launch the open-source movement in 1998, and the widely used Apache server software. And Sun Microsystems is testing its Community Development and Distribution License, which likely will be used to govern its Solaris version of Unix.
The patent problem
Patents are one reason Sun chose the license it did. How the GPL deals with that thorny legal area is the issue more than a dozen experts raised most often in discussions for this story.
The patent problems boil down to two issues. First, should the license explicitly require those who distribute GPL software to grant others unhindered use of whatever patented technology is involved in that software? And second, should there be some form of punishment for those who file lawsuits alleging that GPL software infringes their patents?
These issues are under discussion for the next version of the GPL. "It may possibly help protect our community from pirates armed with patents," said Stallman, an outspoken critic of the overall idea of software patents.
One interpretation of the current GPL is that patent holders who distribute GPL software "are in effect granting an implied license" to those patents, said Mark Webbink, the lead intellectual-property attorney for Linux seller Red Hat and a person who first saw revised GPL drafts in 2000. But it might be useful to have an explicitly expressed patent agreement, he said. "A distributor may not want to leave that ambiguous as to what rights they are giving."
Frank Bernstein, an attorney with Sughrue Mion, suggests Stallman look for inspiration to Apple Computer's Apple Public Source License and the Common Public License IBM often uses. Both grant a license to use patents covering the software, and when it comes to organizations that sue for patent infringement, both licenses terminate their rights to use and distribute the software.
Bernstein said addressing patents could make the GPL more palatable among corporations--users that have become major contributors to, and customers of, open-source software.
But some would like to see the GPL be more of a political tool to
7 commentsJoin the conversation! Add your comment