The next GPL: Why it's being shaped on GitHub

After five years, the open source community is revisiting compromises in GPLv3 -- and using a new medium for the discussion

While you were getting ready to stick a fork in a burger for the Independence Day holiday, Red Hat employee Richard Fontana was making a fork of the GPL. Fontana previously worked at the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), a nonprofit law firm providing pro bono legal services to free and open source projects. He's now the open source licensing and patent counsel at Red Hat, but he's been careful to explain that the GPL fork is a personal project.

Fontana is more than qualified to work on evolving the GPL. Along with Gnu Project founder Richard Stallman and SFLC chief Eben Moglen, Fontana is credited as one of the main authors of the revised Gnu GPL version 3.

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The project to create that license was of epic proportions. Following publication of the initial draft in January 2006 by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), a public consultation drew interest from throughout the world of open source software (I participated on behalf of Sun). With each round of consultation, Stallman, Moglen, and Fontana studied the feedback and drafted another version of the revised license. After four iterations, the final version of the GPLv3 we have today was published five years ago, on June 29, 2007.

GPLv3 was clearly a compromise

Despite all the consultative processes, further work was certainly needed on the GPL at the end of the process. Although the GPLv3 is showing early signs of success, it was a clear compromise.

The more radical free software advocates wanted the license to force Web service providers to deliver the source code to their Web applications if they used any GPL software. This is not currently a requirement of GPLv2 or GPLv3; providing the source code that corresponds to a particular GPL-licensed software program is mandatory only when you give the program to someone else. Run as a Web service, that doesn't happen, so the GPL has almost no consequences for even the largest users of GPL software, such as Google.

The clauses to make the GPLv3 more radical were excised during the review. Instead, another license -- the Gnu Affero General Public License (AGPL) -- was created to include those clauses. (Fontana helped draft the AGPL as well.)

On the other hand, the corporate voices involved in the process were keen to streamline the license and make it simpler to understand, both for legal professionals and for businesspeople. Despite their concerns, the preamble to the GPL -- a long philosophical statement explaining the rationale for having the license -- was retained, along with a long postscript explaining how to apply the GPL to software.

For reasons he's not yet explained, Fontana decided now was the time to create a non-FSF-sponsored revision of the GPL. Calling it GPL.next, he has created the project at the popular GitHub project hosting website. On the subject of naming, Fontana provides an interesting history lesson:

Contrary to what some believe, the "G" in "GPL" does not stand for "Gnu," but "General"; "GPL" means "license to (or for) the general public." As such, the name "GPL" seems generic. Indeed, the common use of "public license" in free software license names without the word "general" probably represents a historical failure to parse "GPL" correctly.
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