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GNU GPL initiative takes on licensing threats

Jack Loftus, News Writer

BOSTON – While software technology has varied greatly over the course of the past decade, the GNU General Public License (GPL) has remained in the same state as when it was redrafted to version level 2 in 1991.

However, at the First Annual International GNU General Public License conference held at MIT today, it was apparent that change was coming to the GPL in version 3.

As part of the opening keynote, Free Software Foundation (FSF) founder Richard Stallman and FSF general counsel Eben Moglen discussed the various changes, both large and small, that users could expect would affect their use of the GPL.

The GPL was created by Stallman in order to protect GNU software from being made proprietary. It is a specific implementation of his "copyleft" concept. According to Stallman, copyleft is a derivative of copyright law that serves "the opposite of its usual purpose: instead of a means of privatizing software, it becomes a means of keeping software free."

GNU, or "GNU is Not Unix," is a Unix-like operating system that comes with source code that can be copied, modified, and redistributed.

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Because it has been more than a decade since a new version of the GPL has been drafted, Stallman said that the software world had "sprung nasty threats on [the free software] community and all of its users," and that a series of sessions was needed to redraft the license to fit today's landscape.

The International Conference on GPLv3 is the official beginning of that series.

During his presentation of the GPL version 3 (GPLv3) discussion draft, Stallman said some of the larger changes, including changes in the areas of license compatibility.

"We've partly removed the inconveniences of preventing a user from combining code from various free software packages," Stallman said.

Stallman also addressed the issue of digital rights management (DRM), and how its practice was a threat to the rights of every computer user. The beliefs of the FSF and therefore the GNU GPL are the antithesis of what DRM technology stands for.

DRM is a systematic approach to copyright protection for digital media designed to prevent illegal distribution of paid content over the Internet.

However, to Stallman the term is synonymous with any technology or practice that denies a user the use of software they operate.

"It is a malicious feature, designed to hurt the user," he said. "This is something for which there can never be toleration; DRM is based upon activities that cannot be done with free software."

In December, Sony BMG incorporated DRM tools to prevent piracy. However, Sony BMG also included a rootkit similar to those used by malicious hackers to spy on computer use, installed without consent and difficult to detect and remove.

Even as Stallman and Moglen concluded their remarks of GPLv3, users were already supportive of the changes.

Doug Levin, the president and CEO of Waltham, Mass.-based Black Duck Software was already looking forward to the inclusive and fairly democratic nature of the new GPL.

"The Free Software Foundation has tried to establish a very democratic process. Various committees representing individual developers, software vendors, large enterprises and other industries will now comment on the draft proposal. There's much to discuss, and we anticipate significant debate," he said.

Karen Copenhaver, general counsel for Black Duck Software, said she had spotted an area for new debate as the community discussion over a final GPL draft is conducted this year.

"One [FSF] statement highlights a primary issue to be vetted by the community during the GPL3 review process: [Is] a user of a Web-based application that is based on modified GPL-licensed code entitled to request and receive the source code for the application? This could be one of the great debates during this process," she said.

Even after 15 years, Moglen said, the FSF had recognized that the GPL was due for some changes so that the principals of usability, clarity and stability that had been established in that time could be preserved. The time for discussion and debate had officially come.
Editor's Note: The entire draft version of GPLv3 is now available on the FSF Web site for community review and is, naturally, free of charge.


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