Wednesday, March 22, 2006

GPL [Version 3 in the Works]

The Free Software Foundation has announced plans to version the GNU General Public License (GPL). The current version, GPL Version 2, was released in 1991. The FSF has not indicated the substantive changes that will be made, only that the re-versioning will be done through a public discussion process.
While the inaccessibility of the GPL has been great fodder for lawyers, it would seem desirable for the GPL to become a more lucid document, given its worldwide reach and impact. At this point in the lifecycle of the license, and its well-publicized ambiguities, you would have to assume that any failure to address this issue would have to be purposeful, even strategic.
However when you look at the “four distinct purposes” that the GPL serves (as outlined below), it seems doubtful that the GPL will improve as a coherent legal document, since this is only a limited part of its stated purpose. In fact, the FSF release states that “The GPL serves, and must continue to serve, multiple purposes. Those purposes are fundamentally diverse, and they inevitably conflict.”
The “four distinct purposes” that the GPL serves, according to the FSF, are:
(1) “The GPL is a worldwide copyright license”
The FSF explains that GPL2 was written with reference to US law, and accordingly GPL3 will seek to “ease internationalization difficulties” in view of the “otherwise unsought ideal of the global copyright license.”
(2) “The GPL is the code of conduct for free software distributors”
As such, the FSF says its role is in the nature of “standard-setting”, or ‘best practices' definition”.
(3) “The GPL is the constitution of the free software movement”
The FSF notes that its primary goals are “social and political” not “technical or economic.” Accordingly, it may address measures that it sees as “harmful to freedom,” such as trusted computing and patents.
(4) “The GPL is the literary work of Richard M. Stallman”
As the author of the GPL, Stallman will continue to guide its evolution. It is interesting that this fact qualifies as a distinct “purpose” of the GPL, according to the FSF, -- i.e., for Stallman to preserve the integrity of the work as representative of his intentions.

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