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Open source GPL to get major revision

Dec 05, 20053 mins
Enterprise ApplicationsOpen Source

A proposed revision of the GNU General Public License could have lasting effects on users and developers of open source software.

Radio: The GPL roadmap

Peter Brown, executive director of the Free Software Foundation, discusses the future of the General Public License.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Software Freedom Law Center last week said they are working on GPL Version 3 (GPLv3), which will be the first major update to the open source license since 1991.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” is part of the reason why the GPL’s current version has lasted for 14 years, says Peter Brown, executive director of the FSF. However, he acknowledges that 14 years is an eternity in the world of software development, and that the dramatically changed climate in which open source code is written and used calls for an update to the license.

The FSF is scheduled to release a draft of GPLv3 next month, with subsequent second and final drafts expected by the summer and fall. The final version of GPLv3 is expected by the spring of 2007.

While Brown would not give details of the revamp, a major aspect of revision will center on open source license compatibility.

“We are looking to improve compatibility with other important free software licenses,” he says. “GPL is the dominant free software license, with 70% of open source software licensed under” it.

Brown says most software licensed under GPLv2 will be supported by GPLv3. Most individuals and organizations that write software under the GPL opt for language that allows their products to be supported by any future version of the GPL. However, this is not the case with Linux, which is licensed explicitly under Version 2 of the GPL and will not be grandfathered into GPLv3.

Brown adds that any open source product licensed under GPLv2 will have to be relicensed for Version 3. “It’s their decision to do so,” Brown says of software developers. “We’re pretty confident that the improvements we’ve made to the license will encourage [developers] to make the switch.”

The issue of compatibility among GPL and other open source licenses can affect developers as well as users. Vendors, resellers and systems integrators use various chunks of open source code – Linux, Apache, MySQL and PHP is a common open source stack – to deliver products. But if chunks of code are combined with others whose licenses do not allow for such mixing, sellers of these systems, and even users, could find trouble.

The climate of increased government regulations and scrutiny over corporate processes and systems should bring the issues of open source software licensing to mind for network executives, one analyst says.

For example, if an organization’s financial operations are audited, “they might have to say where each and every piece of that software came from, how it’s being used,” says Daniel Kusnetzky, vice president of system software research for IDC. “If a company doesn’t know where it all comes from and under what licenses they’re using it, that could be kind of frightening for the executives who have to sign on the dotted line.”