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GPL Version 3: So Far, So Good. Now What?

For more than ten years, the GNU General Public License has provided the legal foundation for much of what’s been accomplished with free and open source software. Now the license’s steward, the Free Software Foundation, is revising the venerable document to comprehend the complexities of developing and distributing open source software in the modern day. In this exclusive article, Groklaw founder and editor Pamela Jones analyzes many of the proposed changes found in GPL Version 3 and explains what’s in store for you if your name is Joe Coder.

It’s safe to say that there has been more nonsense spoken and written about the GNU General Public License (GPL) than about any other license on earth. Not all of it is Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD). Some is authentic confusion. That alone would be reason enough to update it.

Not all “confusion” about the GPL stems from an inability to understand it. There have even been efforts to litigate to try to undermine the GPL by proprietary software companies and others apparently wishing either to misappropriate the hard work of others or to slow down the inevitable shift to Free and Open Source software, using confusion-based claims, despite having lawyers who are presumably capable of comprehending a license.

Now that the Free Software Foundation has posted a draft of GPL version 3 (GPLv3, http://gplv3.fsf.org/), it’s an opportunity not only to look at the proposed changes but to clarify what the license means, both the old version and the new.

It’s important to state at the outset, however, that the drafting process is still ongoing, and no wording is currently carved in stone. Comments are requested not in a pro forma gesture, but because such input is intended to improve GPLv3. So, if you don’t like some of the wording, now is your opportunity to suggest changes and reasons for your suggested changes. (See the sidebar “Contributing to GPL Version 3” for information on how to participate.)

Let’s take a look at some of the proposed changes.

Changes to Address Confusion

Just as one example, think about the confusion, feigned and otherwise, over GPL version 2′ s (GPLv2) wording about charging for GPL code. Here’s the actual wording from the GPLv2 FAQ (http://www.gnu.org/licenses/gpl-faq.html# DoesTheGPLAllowMoney):

“Does the GPL allow me to sell copies of the program for money?

“Yes, the GPL allows everyone to do this. The right to sell copies is part of the definition of free software. Except in one special situation, there is no limit on what price you can charge. (The one exception is the required written offer to provide source code that must accompany a binary-only release.) ”

Does that match what you’ve sometimes heard? Some of the wording in the proposed draft of the GPLv3, then, is simply to clarify what the GPL says. For example, the words “at no charge” in Section 5 (b) in GPLv2 have been removed from GPLv3. Here’s why, according to comment 187 on the FSF’s page for comments (http://gplv3.fsf.org/comments/):

“The central copyleft provision of the license. The words ‘at no charge’ [are removed]. [They were] often misinterpreted by commentators.”

They certainly were.

Yet, despite all the hostility to the GPL and confusion about it, it is the most popular license in the free and open source software (FOSS) community by far. And it has accomplished its stated goal of preserving the freedoms associated with the license. As the FSF’s revision rationale document (http://gplv3.fsf.org/rationale) explains, “The core legal mechanism of the GNU GPL is that of copyleft, which requires modified versions of GPL’d software to be GPL’d themselves. Copyleft is essential for preventing the enclosure of the free software commons, today as it was in 1991.”

Suggestions to weaken that core aspect of the GPL are certain to be rejected.

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