The first draft of Version 3.0 of the GNU GPL (General Public License) has arrived, and its authors -- Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) -- predictably aren't shying away from controversy. You can expect public debate about GPL3 to carry on for at least the next year or so. As to whether the community will arrive at a compromise that satisfies all affected parties, however, the answer is almost certainly not.
Some of the changes since Version 2.0 are indisputably improvements. The overall language has been cleaned up. Definitions of terms have been moved up front, and ambiguities have been removed.
When it comes to the terms of the new license, however, the benefits aren't as clear-cut. Whether you're likely to agree with all of the terms of the new license probably depends on the extent to which you subscribe to Stallman's personal philosophy -- a philosophy that seems to have grown beyond the use and distribution of software to encompass a much larger mandate.
For example, GPL3 is strongly patent-hostile. Whereas the previous version allowed licensors to exclude distribution of software from countries where patents or copyrights might prevent it, the new version explicitly allows authors to add their own "software patent retaliation" clauses to the license -- even though most other kinds of modifications are forbidden.
DRM (digital rights management) technology is another target. Correction: Stallman and company prefer to recast the acronym as "digital restrictions management," a popular yet politically charged coinage. (Think pro-choice vs. anti-life.)
No program licensed under GPL3 can "illegally invade users' privacy." Furthermore, you can't distribute a GPL-licensed program using any kind of technology that restricts the user's ability to redistribute the program under the terms of the GPL.
No real surprises there, but the wording goes even further. "As a free software license," it says, "this License intrinsically disfavors technical attempts to restrict users' freedom to copy, modify, and share copyrighted works." Read that again. Not software, but copyrighted works. A later clause forbids authors of GPL-licensed software from taking any technological measures to foil another person's ability to access that software's data.
I've said before that blanket condemnation of DRM technologies is shortsighted. We shouldn't denounce a technology based solely on how people choose to use it. If DRM should be abandoned just because it can prevent people from making copies of songs, then surely we should have burned the formula for gunpowder centuries ago.
The larger issue, however, is whether a software license like the GPL is even the place for activism on public policy issues such as intellectual property. If you're Richard Stallman, I'm sure it is. But the first word in GPL is "general." Is it really appropriate to shoehorn software from a vast range of contributors into the narrow view of one man's personal political agenda?
Then again, does it matter? Companies who have concerns over the GPL have plenty of other licenses to choose from, such as Sun Microsystems' decidedly corporate-friendly CDDL (Common Development and Distribution License).
But the wild card in all this is of course Linux. If the Linux kernel chooses to adopt GPL3 then every product that incorporates the kernel -- every OS distribution, every router, every handheld device, every specialized embedded system -- will be forced to comply with its terms, and DRM and patents be damned. If you think that won't stir up controversy then I've got some free software to sell you.