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

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Why GitHub is the home for

GitHub is becoming the preferred destination for innovative new open source projects of all kinds. An implementation of the Git version control system created by Linus Torvalds to host the Linux kernel, GitHub offers all the tools for a developer -- even a license developer -- to post text and collaboratively evolve it in public.

Anyone can fork a project on GitHub. Doing so creates a full copy of the project in a private space, letting you revise whatever you want. You can then offer your alterations to the original project creators by asking them to pull your changes into their version: a "pull request."

Coupled with a built-in issue tracking system, GitHub provides an almost optimum instant governance for a new community that leaves every participant free to act as they wish.

Fontana is not the first to use GitHub as a venue for licensing work. Twitter has used GitHub for its innovative and interesting approach to disarming the software patent wars, the Innovators Patent Agreement, for example. He's already attracted attention, with 22 people "watching" the project as of July 3 and a growing number of issues in the issue tracker seeking clarifications.

It will be interesting to see how this experiment progresses and whether GitHub really can provide a context for serious discussion and improvement of a complex legal agreement.'s proposed changes to the GPL

To date, Fontana's changes mostly relate to the concerns of the corporate voices in the GPLv3 process. The preamble -- "an inspiring and important political statement," according to Fontana -- has been removed, as has the "How to Apply" appendix. Those simple steps alone dramatically shorten the text.

The rest of the changes seem to fix apparently redundant compromises that made their way into the text as part of the negotiation process among all the corporate participants. Those include removal of text allowing the GPL to apply to hardware designs, the heading text for the liberty-or-death clause, and the removal of the clause permitting "badgeware."

This may all seem esoteric, but the whole project provides useful insights. It shows the power of Git and of GitHub (and by implication any other Git host, such as Gitorious). It shows the willingness of the free and open source communities to think in public. Most of all, it shows that no matter how many people may believe that open source is a story that's been fully told, there are new chapters yet to be written.

This article, "The next GPL: Why it's being shaped on GitHub," was originally published at Read more of the Open Sources blog and follow the latest developments in open source at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

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