December 23, 2004 4:00 AM PST

Sprucing up open source's GPL foundation

Modernization is coming to the General Public License, a legal framework that supports a large part of the free and open-source software movements and that has received sharp criticism from Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates.

GPL author Richard Stallman said he's working on amendments that could deal better with software patents; clarify how GPL software may be used in some networked environments and on carefully controlled hardware; and lower some barriers that today prevent the mixing of software covered by the GPL and other licenses.

In the 13 years since the current GPL version 2 was released, the license has moved from the fringes to the center of the computing industry. GPL software is now common at Fortune 500 companies and endorsed by most large computing firms. But that prominence has made some eager for an update.


What's new:
The General Public License, the legal foundation for free and open-source software movements' collaborative philosophy, is being modernized to deal with new realities in the software realm.

Bottom line:
Observers believe the GPL could be improved to better deal with a world that involves patent lawsuits, locked-down hardware and publicly available Web services--all items on the GPL agenda.

More stories about the GPL and other licenses

"The GPL has become the pivot point of a multibillion-dollar industry. Frankly, I don't think it was designed for that," said Mark Radcliffe, an attorney with Gray Cary who has studied the GPL and other licenses extensively.

For example, some would like to see clarifications that could help reduce the threat that using GPL software could entangle users in patent litigation. And the GPL could be better adapted to recent industry initiatives such as building sophisticated Web services on the Internet and boosting security through trusted computing methods.

Ordinarily only attorneys give much thought to the legal documents that govern how software may be used. But the GPL is different.

The license is the agreement that helped show that cooperation can work in an industry dominated by competition. And the most persuasive illustration of its power is Linux, a rising threat to computing giants such as Microsoft and Sun Microsystems.

The GPL governs the programming instructions called source code that developers write and then convert into the binary files that computers understand. At its heart, the GPL permits anyone to see, modify and redistribute that source code, as long as they make changes available publicly and license them under the GPL. That contrasts with some licenses used in open-source projects that permit source code to be made proprietary.

Another requirement is that GPL software may be tightly integrated only with other software that also is governed by the GPL. That provision helps to create a growing pool of GPL software, but it's also spurred some to label the license "viral," raising the specter that the inadvertent or surreptitious inclusion of GPL code in a proprietary product would require the release of all source code under the GPL. Gates in particular derided the license as "Pac Man-like," evoking an image of a GPL software module gobbling its way along and forcing the release of source code it touches.

Thus far, that scenario hasn't come to pass. The GPL, though, has threatened Microsoft in another way: It helped foster a vast, vibrant programming community.

Microsoft is keenly watching the arrival of the new GPL, which Stallman said likely will be labeled version 3. But the company probably won't see changes to that core provision separating GPL and proprietary code.

"Overall it's going to be the same," the globe-trotting Stallman said in a telephone interview from Morocco. "I don't expect anyone releasing

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The GPL is not viral
Statements from Microsoft about the GPL being viral stem either from a misunderstanding that the GPL is just a license, not a contract, or perhaps from a deliberate desire to misrepresent the GPL (in order to promote fear, uncertainty, and doubt). A very good commentary on the nature of the GPL can be found here:

<a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>

The summary is as follows:

If someone uses GPLed code in their proprietary code and then distributes either the source or the binary (compiled from that code) without complying with the provisions of the GPL, they are in violation of the copyright of the GPLed software (since they don't have any permission to distribute GPLed code apart from the GPL). At no point would the owner of the proprietary code be forced to release their own work under the GPL (or any other license), though they could *choose* to do so in order to avoid a Copyright-infringement lawsuit.
Posted by (1 comment )
Reply Link Flag
to avoid copyright lawsuit they release under gpl.
that is forcing it.

personally, I will not release under as restrictive a license as the gnu-gpl.
I'll use the bsd license.
far less restrictive.
Posted by (2 comments )
Link Flag
License with room to change...
Inside the GPL is the stipulation that the code covered under the GPL may be distributed under that current version or any future versions of the GPL.

This single power gives the GPL a license to change, and offers unforseeable protections, opportunities and reward for those using code covered by any version of the GPL.

No other license in mainstream use allows the anyone to distribute code with a freedom of choice over licenses in this manner.
Posted by zaznet (1138 comments )
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Explanation of how GPL is Viral (in Microsofts point of view)
The following is taken directly from the GNU Lesser General Public License Version 2.1. It is a slightly different version of the GPL, and governs software libraries intended not to be stand alone programs as such, but embeded with other software. This is where you can use one program to access another, such as DLL files in Windows. This demonstrates how Microsoft could use a GPL licensed .DLL within their popular Windows Operating System without having to release Windows as GPL'd code.

"These requirements apply to the modified work as a whole. If identifiable sections of that work are not derived from the Library, and can be reasonably considered independent and separate works in themselves, then this License, and its terms, do not apply to those sections when you distribute them as separate works."

The only way that the Microsoft code could become GPL licensed is if they re-write the DLL and then that DLL's code would be GPL. This would mean Microsoft would have to use code derived from copyrighted code, and that's theft and copyright infringement. So a claim of "virul nature" could only mean Microsoft wants to copy GPL code as it's own.
Posted by zaznet (1138 comments )
Reply Link Flag
that is microsofts standard business practice.
steal code from other sources and distribute as thier own...
started with dos, then windows 1.0 then windows 95.
even windows nt is microsofts corrupted stolen version of unix.

ms office is stolen from wordperfect office suite.
Posted by (2 comments )
Link Flag
What Version GPL?
An important question this article does not seem to answer is "What version of the GPL will code be covered by?"

The short answer is that code is covered by the version specified with the covered software or any future version at the licensees choice. The licensee being the person provided with a license to copy, modify and distribute the code.

This is one of the most important and least emphasised portions of the GPL. It is a license to change the license at YOUR choosing. So when GPL 3.0 comes out, all previously covered GPL code is now also available under the new version of the license.

Here is the section verbatim from the GPL 2.0 -

"Each version is given a distinguishing version number. If the Program specifies a version number of this License which applies to it and "any later version", you have the option of following the terms and conditions either of that version or of any later version published by the Free Software Foundation. If the Program does not specify a version number of this License, you may choose any version ever published by the Free Software Foundation."
Posted by zaznet (1138 comments )
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Protecting sound patent policy by opposing software patents....
This article included a statement from Linux seller Novell saying "Intellectual-property protection and open source can work hand in hand and are not mutually inconsistent". The context in the article suggested that this was a middle-ground that is different from those of us that oppose information/mental process patents (AKA: software patents).

I believe that this confuses PCT (Patent, Copyright, Trademark and related rights) protection with a very narrow political agenda known as the "maximalist agenda". This ideology suggests that "if some PCT is good, then more is better".

The reality is that PCTs are to creativity and innovation like water is to humans: too little and you dehydrate and die, and too much and you drown and die.

Believing that pouring water on a drowning person is good for that persons health is about as logical as suggesting that the maximalist ideology is a promotion of the public policy goals of patents.

Russell McOrmond

Information/mental process patents <a class="jive-link-external" href="" target="_newWindow"></a>
Posted by Russell McOrmond (63 comments )
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