GPL v3: V for vindication

Recent events underscore the Free Software Foundation's foresight in drafting the new license

Version 3 of the Gnu GPL (General Public License) is nearing completion. The third draft -- expected to be the last before the license is finalized -- was released last Wednesday, fully eight months after the first draft was made available for public comment. Yet despite the long and painstaking public ratification process, the new GPL remains embroiled in controversy.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has made its intentions clear. Its lawyers have been busy weaving clauses into the new license that take specific aim at perceived threats to the Free Software movement, such as DRM (digital rights management) technology. In addition, it plans to close any loopholes uncovered in the previous version of the license; in other words, it has the Microsoft/Novell partnership square in its sights.

For its part, Novell has declined to comment on specific clauses in the new draft, citing the fact that the text is not yet final. In a post to the company's PR blog, Novell spokesman Bruce Lowry says only that "if the final version of the GPL3 does potentially impact the agreement we have with Microsoft, we'll address that with Microsoft."

Not everyone is so tight-lipped, however. Braden Cox of the Association for Competitive Technology (ACT), a lobbying organization that promotes an agenda friendly to the proprietary software industry, sees the GPL v3 effort as openly hostile, saying it "can be simply written 'GPL v' -- where 'v' stands not for 'version' but for 'vendetta.'"

Astute observers might question Cox's choice of analogy. In the Hollywood blockbuster "V for Vendetta," based on the graphic novel of the same name by Alan Moore and David Lloyd,, the titular character was a revolutionary hero, striking back against an oppressive totalitarian regime that maintained control through a campaign of disinformation and by restricting the freedoms of its citizens. Surely Cox isn't saying that a comparison exists within the computing industry?

Merriam-Webster defines a vendetta as "an often prolonged series of retaliatory, vengeful, or hostile acts." Even if you agree that this is an accurate description of the actions of the FSF, let's not forget who the first actor in this series was.

Much of the code that Novell packages and sells to its customers as Suse Linux doesn't belong to Novell. It belongs to the programmers who originally wrote it, and who have licensed it to Novell under very specific terms, as outlined in the GPL v2. The patent indemnification provisions of Novell's deal with Microsoft clearly ran contrary to the spirit of that license (if not the letter). Is it any surprise that the GPL's authors would seek to clarify and strengthen its terms?

"When it comes to GPL Vendetta, software developers may want to resist the upgrade urge," Cox writes. "The new GPL is more complicated and harder to administer than the previous version." That may be true; but then, we live in complicated times.

Eight months ago, when Linus Torvalds publicly expressed his displeasure with the first draft of GPL v3, few had foreseen a commercial entity attempting a direct end-run around the provisions of the GPL, as Novell has attempted with its deal with Microsoft. Today, Torvalds says he's "actually pretty pleased" with progress on the new license, and he's no longer ruling out the possibility of using it as the future license for the Linux kernel.

V for vendetta? More like V for validation.

Commercial open source vendors should follow the lead of the FSF and embrace the final version of GPL v3 when it appears. The new license won't "hurt the open source community," as the ACT's Cox claims. Rather, it will reaffirm the very principles that have made the community so strong to begin with -- strong enough to resist the ongoing vendetta declared by Microsoft and its allies.