The Manager’s View of GPL Version 3: Two (and a Half) Things to Like and Two More to Look Out For

IT departments that embrace open-source software are uncertain about the new version of the GNU Public License, arguably the most common FOSS license. Learn what’s in the works, and how GPLv3 may change the way your company adopts new software.

The GNU Public License, one of the oldest and most widely selected open-source licenses, is about to get its second makeover. There’s been a lot of uncertainty about the GPL’s differences in version 3, and exactly what they mean for end users, developers and corporations.

Part of the uncertainty stems from the fact that it was hard to pin down the exact nature of GPLv3 until late in the day. The license underwent multiple drafts, and some specific provisions (such as allegedly anti-Novell patent language) were added between drafts. But the current draft appears at last to be the final language that will be adopted—sometime this July, according to current plans.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF), the caretaker of the GPL, has a clear political agenda regarding the creation and distributions of software. Consider this portion of its FAQ for the GPL:

Of course, your software is not a contribution to our community if it is not free, and people who value their freedom will refuse to use it. Only people willing to give up their freedom will use your software, which means that it will effectively function as an inducement for people to lose their freedom.

If you hope some day to look back on your career and feel that it has contributed to the growth of a good and free society, you need to make your software free.

Leaving aside any discussion of whether its premise is even true (that most people place much weight in the relative “freeness” of software as a measure of its value), this statement provides a fairly accurate snapshot of the FSF’s attitude. Specifically, it believes that all software should be available without cost and should be freely distributable. This philosophy informs everything the FSF does, and particularly the GPL.

It is likely that if the FSF had its way, the GPL would require that anything that remotely touched a piece of GPL’d software would need to be GPL’d itself. However, even in its stridency, the FSF recognized that the GPL would not be widely adopted if it contained too extreme or coercive measures, and companies might not use open-source software with the GPL license. As a result, the GPLv2 largely concerned itself with GPL’d software, and programs that linked directly with GPL’d libraries. Some, if not most, of that safe haven for proprietary applications has been eroded in version 3.

However, uncertainty does not mean that the GPLv3 should be avoided by all (or even any) enterprises. In this article, I’ll point out the advantages and disadvantages to corporate IT departments.

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