GPLv3 upgrade set for Friday

New GPL provides 'patent insurance' in response to Microsoft-Novell pact

A controversial update to the GNU GPL (General Public License) is set to be released Friday by the Free Software Foundation, a representative of the organization said on Tuesday.

GPL version 3 is arriving 16 years after version 2 of the license for open-source software. Questions remain, however, about who exactly will adopt it.

Among improvements is a copyright technology not found anywhere in the world with the goal of providing uniformity in different jurisdictions, said Brett Smith, licensing compliance engineer for the foundation.

"There's a lot of copyright laws that talk about distribution, but they don't mean the same thing," in different places, he said.

"Now, GPL talks about propagation and conveying," Smith said. With this new provision, the terms are the same everywhere worldwide, he said.

Version 3 also works to ensure that users can modify software installed on personal computers or in household devices. If software is conveyed inside a device, users must be given enough information so they can modify the software in the device, Smith said.

An explicit patent provision in GPL 3 means people who contribute to free software cannot sue users for patent infringement, Smith said. This was not clear in the GPL previously.

"This will make sure it's very clear and works across the board," he said.

Microsoft and Novell recently forged an agreement not to sue each other's customers over patent issues. The foundation in version 3 provides what has been described as "patent-insurance" in response to the Microsoft-Novell arrangement.

GPL 3 also spells out requirements for license compatibility. In May, the Foundation expressed intentions to iron out incompatibilities with other open-source licenses such as the Apache license.

With this provision, users can copy Apache-licensed code into GPL projects, said analyst Stephen O'Grady of RedMonk. "For a variety of folks, that's a big deal," O'Grady said.

Whether to actually migrate to GPL 3 is a developer decision, Smith said. At Digium, which produces the Asterisk open-source telephony platform, no decision has been made yet, said Mark Spencer, chairman and CTO of Digium.

"There are some complications around the patent terms that place some additional requirements upon the developers and distributors that we need to fully understand in more detail," Spencer said. Patent provisions add uncertainty about being able to distribute software covered by someone else's patent, he said.

But GPL 3 has its merits, he noted.

"GPL version 3 does clean up a lot of things about the GPL that were sort of implicit in previous and become much more explicit here," such as how the GPL interacts with other licenses, Spencer said.

Sun has expressed the possibility of offering its Solaris OS under the GPL 3. The Linux kernel has been offered under the GPL previously.

Novell, Microsoft, and the Linux Foundation deferred comment on Tuesday until the actual release of the license.

The FSF has published an essay by FSF President Richard Stallman in which he argues for the benefits of GPL version 3.

“The reason to migrate is because of the existing problems which GPLv3 will fix, such as 'tivoization,' DRM, and threats from software patents. Further advantages of GPLv3 include better internationalization, gentler termination, support for BitTorrent, and compatibility with the Apache license," Stallman said in a statement released by the foundation in May.

Tivoization, which refers to Tivo's software, is when computer appliances feature GPL-covered code that cannot be changed because the appliance will shut down.

Actual impacts of GPL version 3 could take a year or more to gauge, said Doug Levin, CEO of Black Duck Software, which offers a software compliance management platform.

"Right now, it appears there will only be a small number of projects that will adopt the license," but that could change, Levin said.

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