GPL3 Sees the Light of Day

Starting today, you can actually use the GPL Version 3 to license your code. After an extended gestation, the Free Software Foundation has released its update to the license.

And, contrary to what I expected, it represents significantly less change than might have been expected from earlier drafts. Richard Stallman is a stringent ideologue, but it appears that he concluded that he would rather lead a movement than move forward at the head of a one-person parade.

First, the good news. If you're an end user of GPL3-licensed code, you won't see much difference in terms of how you have to handle code.

Next, the bad news. The 18-month comment period has let many, many, many lawyers submit comments. The resulting license has much more legalese than GPL2. This means you'll need to get attorneys involved much more than in the past to understand just what in the heck the license means in a particular situation.

Now to the specifics.

The DRM conditions have been loosened. What originally read like a screed now reads like a government report, complete with reference to the WIPO copyright treaty. Stallman's idee fixe with "Tivo-ization" resulted in earlier versions effectively negating any protection against user modifications, which, in the case of medical devices (for example) was clearly not desirable. This version explicitly focuses its restrictions on consumer devices, using language like "normally used for personal, family, or household purposes." I predict that this effort will result in lots of billable time for lawyers, since attempting to explicitly define something offers opportunity to figure out how to circumvent the definition.

The patent provisions have kept the original intent, which was to ensure that contributors who put code out under a GPL license explicitly renounce asserting patent rights against users of the code, which is, I think, exactly the right thing to do.

The license also responds to the Novell/Microsoft deal by prohibiting discriminatory patent licenses by third parties; on the other hand, it grandfathers in the Novell/Microsoft deal. Overall, I applaud the prohibition of discriminatory patent protection, because, as Eben Moglen pointed out, the Novell/Microsoft agreement protected users but didn't extend protection to developers -- clearly not a desirable end. (It must be said, however, that the GPL3 patent resolution is but one skirmish in the war regarding software patents, which is a much more troubling contest

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