GPLv3 author: Business needs free software

Unfettered innovation, sounder security just two benefits of using free software programs, says FSF leader

Free Software Foundation (FSF) leader Richard Stallman said at the launch of the group's new version 3 of the General Public License (GPLv3) that businesses are "foolish" not to adopt nonproprietary technologies as he contends that the continued use of paid products limits companies' innovation and weakens security of their IT operations.

Surrounded by supporters from the software programming and academic fields on June 29 at the GPLv3 launch at FSF's Boston headquarters, Stallman detailed his opinions on why businesses, large and small, would be better suited to pursue the use of free software programs.

By turning to alternatives like his GNU operating system rather than the proprietary technologies, such as Microsoft's Windows OS, that dominate corporate IT shops today, Stallman said, businesses would become less dependent on technology vendors to help solve many of the issues around applications development and security that currently prove troublesome.

As the free software guru waved off the champagne being circulated among his advocates to mark GPLv3's arrival with an admission that he doesn't much like the pricey beverage's taste, it was clear that the legendary hacker and grassroots technology advocate remained more eager to convince IT users that they should move away from proprietary software than to begin celebrating.

Catering directly to businesses isn't what FSF is about, said Stallman, who reiterated that he considers the group's mission more of a human rights campaign than a technological debate.

However, the expert said that businesses could help loosen the current stranglehold on the market maintained by proprietary products like Windows if they were more open to the use of free software.

"Business users should have the same freedom over the control of their software as everyone else, and for businesses to use software they don't have control over is foolish," Stallman said. "Today, many businesses look at free software in terms of convenience and say that it is impossible to make a shift, but there is already free software available for doing a lot of the jobs businesses want to do."

As a stack of empty boxes wearing the logo for Microsoft's newest Windows Vista OS stood in a nearby room awaiting their use in some sort of protest against the software giant, Stallman cited multiple "dangers" he sees in the use of such products.

For example, he said that Microsoft's process of removing support for various computing devices and applications in its products forces businesses into a never-ending cycle of "forced upgrades," a system he said should be made illegal.

In another sense, onboard functions like Vista's remote software upgrade feature allow Microsoft to essentially take control and manipulate end-users' computers whenever they feel like it.

Another hotspot for FSF's advocacy efforts is its continued opposition to DRM (digital rights management) technologies, such as those built into both Microsoft and Apple products.

"Businesses have to give up their current approach and suffer some of the inconvenience of moving to free software to get back control, but that is a long-term process, and businesses are typically focused on the short term," Stallman said. "Like all areas of computing, business users must insist on the same level of freedom as everyone else; it's not just an alternative to proprietary software, it's the only way to ethically defend the rights of users."

As with its predecessors, GPLv3 is a licensing model for use by providers of free software programs that allows products covered by the certification to be altered by their users as they so choose, without fear of subsequent copyright infringement charges.

Among the most important updates in the newest version of GPL -- the first official update of the model since the previous version was released June 1991 -- are new implications for free software licensing and compatibility, additional definitions for programmatic source code, and terms that prevent so-called "tivoization" of free software programs -- the practice by device makers of using hardware features to prevent users from running modified software programs on their products.

The latter term is derived from the use of the GNU OS on digital video recorders made by TiVo.

The reengineered software licensing terms are meant specifically to prevent additional deals like the joint patent agreement signed between Microsoft and open-source software vendor Novell in November 2006, which the FSF has characterized previously as "a narrow and discriminatory promise by a patent holder not to sue customers of one particular distributor of a GPL-covered program."

"The freedom of users and developers to use software as they choose has been put in danger by these types of patent agreements," Stallman said. "We wanted to do whatever we needed to do to abolish this type of practice and protect users from being sued by patent holders."

While use of free software programs like GNU remains nascent among enterprise businesses by most estimates, some experts do believe that companies can begin adopting the tools today.

For instance, the ability to use free programs to build customized EDI systems, such as those used by companies to trade materials with partners, is already available, said Thomas Dukleth, CEO of Agogme, a maker of a tool used to aid in the cataloguing and searching of library books.

"The free software programs necessary to support systems like EDI already exist," Dukleth said. "Some libraries are already using free software to do this very sort of thing."

Sanjoy Mahajan, an associate director for teaching initiatives at MIT who lectures on the topic of electrical engineering, observed that businesses can significantly benefit from the ability to see the source code in their software programs.

It's much easier to find potential security flaws and build new features on top of existing programs when the underpinnings of the technologies being used aren't hidden as they are in proprietary products, he said.

"You have companies today saying that they can't accept file attachments in Office 2007 because the product is too incompatible with their existing systems, which is something that definitely interferes with business," said Mahajan.

"When something in the free software world gets improved, there's no waiting to buy a new license, everything is shared with all users, so everyone benefits," he said. "I think that now would be a good time for businesses to put more effort into free software; they will get back more than they put in."

Whether or not many enterprise businesses heed such advice remains to be seen, but in the area of vendor support, GPLv3 appears to have already impressed some significant players.

In an e-mail sent to InfoWorld, officials at Sun lauded the additional licensing clarity provided by the updated version, and the company said it would continue to pursue many different distribution models.

"We regard the GPLv3 as a great achievement by the FSF in particular and by the greater open-source community of free software communities," Simon Phipps, chief open source officer at Sun said in the note.

"Sun believes the GPLv3 revisions represent important steps in the evolution of the free software movement. In particular, it clarifies language that was unclear in GPLv2 and addresses many issues that did not exist when GPLv2 was written more than 15 years ago," Phipps said. "We have a strategy to free all our software into open-source communities, and we have strategies for each technology that lead us to choose certain licenses on a case-by-case basis."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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