Jan 112006

GNU General Public LicenseThe first major overhaul of the General Public License (GPL) in almost 15 years is set to be released to the public by the Free Software Foundation at the First International Conference on GPLv3 at MIT on January 16th. Monday’s draft, which will begin the public debate about the wording of version 3, is just the first of 2-3 “discussion drafts” planned for this year leading up to the final revision. The official version is scheduled to be completed one year to the day after the release of the first draft but could actually be finalized anytime during the first quarter of 2007.

First published in 1985, the General Public License is the software license at the heart of the open-source movement. While not always fully understood nor always observed (as a result of ignorance or on purpose), the GPL outlines several freedoms that must be observed by software, or more specifically by software developers and publishers. The most important of these freedoms is that the source code of a GPL program must be freely available to anyone for downloading, viewing, copying, modifying, and redistributing. Once released under the GPL no one may put additional restrictions on the code or change its license. In other words, while you are free to download, modify, and re-release a GPL’d program, the modified software must still meet all the requirements of the GPL.

Version 2 of the GPL was released by Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation, in 1991 and has been pivotal in the development of many programs including the GNU/Linux operating system itself. Unforeseen patent and technology issues over the last decade and a half have brought to light some weaknesses and ambiguity in v2 that will be addressed in the new version. The modifications will address, among other things, the use of GPL software in conjunction with DRM systems which restrict consumer freedoms, the use of GPL software on servers where the public makes use of a service but does not run the software directly, penalties for companies who sue GPL software makers for infringement, and interoperability with other software licenses.

In a recent FSF press release Stallman said, “As we address the issues raised by the community, we will do so in terms of the four basic freedoms software users are entitled to — to study, copy, modify and redistribute the software they use. GPLv3 will be designed to protect those freedoms under current technical and social conditions and will address new forms of use and current global requirements for commercial and non-commercial users.”

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