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.

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Potential Gotchas in GPLv3

1) Version 3 contains language designed to address what the FSF calls “Tivoization.”

A provision of the GPL requires a company using GPL software in its products to make generally available to customers the source code to all the GPL’d software, including any changes that the company made. TiVo, which uses Linux inside the box, has traditionally done this. However, TiVo also placed a clever locking mechanism in the software, such that if it is changed by the user in any way, the box will not operate.

Version 3 slams the door on this practice. It states, in brief, that if you sell a product whose software can be upgraded, you may not prohibit customers from making their own changes. This could have far-reaching consequences.

For example, many home broadband routers are based on Linux, and have firmware that can be upgraded. Under version 3, the router manufacturers would have to allow customers to make their own modifications to the firmware. In fact, they would have to provide documentation on how to do it, since the GPLv3 requires that the company offer “all the necessary installation methods, procedures, authorization keys, or other information required to install and execute modified versions of GPLv3 covered works.” For companies like TiVo, which need to lock out changes to enforce digital rights management (DRM, more on this in a second), it is pretty much a deal killer.

2) It bans DRM.

Any GPLv3 product is allowed to have DRM in it, but it must allow users to remove it. So essentially the DRM becomes useless.

This could cut two ways—first by making it virtually impossible for any GPL’d product (such as a Linux-based media appliance) to play proprietary media formats, since the likelihood that the RIAA and MPAA will allow distribution of software that can strip the DRM off music and films approaches zero. It also means, as a producer of such products, that you will, of necessity, be driven to use operating systems such as Microsoft Windows (and pay the Microsoft license fees).

What Does This Mean in the Short Term?

Even if the GPLv3 would put your company out of business, you don’t need to start panicking quite yet. Version 3 is not retroactive. While developers are free to release existing products under the new license, they must still be available under the old license.

However, this is a short-term relief, at best. As soon as new versions of software begin to be released, they can be licensed exclusively under the v3 version of the GPL. So, assuming that you want to incorporate bug fixes or new features into your products, you would have to comply with the version 3 provisions.

In short, GPLv3 is going to affect your company to a varying degree depending on how you use GPL’d software. For companies with large patent portfolios or that depend on locking users out of their software, the new version is going to be a major concern. Companies that use GPL’d tools internally probably won’t notice a thing.

In some cases, you may not have a choice about adopting GPL3, if the vendors or products you depend upon adopt it. For example, if your company uses the open-source Eclipse development environment to write Java code, it is almost certain that in the future some of the packages that come together to make Eclipse will move to a GPL3 library. So, if you need to keep Eclipse up to date and compatible with new tools as they come along, you may end up with GPL3 libraries intermingling with your end product.

But you need to start thinking about it soon, because as soon as the license is released, GPLv3 software won’t be long behind!

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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