by CIO Staff

GPL 3.0: Open Source Renews Its License

Jan 03, 20065 mins
Open Source

With this entry, guest blogger Bernard Golden begins his series of commentaries on the ongoing revision process for the General Public License.

Open source has brought a new set of rules to the table of which every IT shop needs to be aware. First and foremost are the licenses under which open source software is distributed – and this is a topic you’ll hear a lot about in 2006 as the most common open source license – the General Public License (GPL) – releases a draft of its third version.

Why are open source licenses such a big deal? They enforce all the benefits of open source: freedom to use the software as you see fit, ability to modify the product via the included source code, and right to redistribute the modified code.

The most widely used open source license is the GPL. In addition to the usual open source license conditions, the GPL also requires users to redistribute any modified code under the same GPL conditions. In other words, if you tweak a GPL-based product and distribute your modifications, you must offer your users the same rights to your software as you had for the original product.

Depending upon how you use GPL-based open source, this condition can be either trivial or monumental. If you modify GPL code, but never redistribute (for instance, you’re an IT organization that uses the product solely internally), this condition makes no difference to you. If you’re a packaged software vendor, however, and you distribute GPL-based code, you run the risk of having to distribute your entire source base to the world. For this reason, GPL is often referred to as a “viral license,” since it can “infect” proprietary source code and turn it into open source code.

Now the Free Software Foundation, promulgator of the GPL, is about to release a draft of GPL 3. I predict a tremendous amount of discussion and controversy over the next year as the FSF moves through the draft process. Why? Because while the FSF claims modest goals for the update, it is also rumored to be considering a couple of changes to the GPL that could severely impact the IT industry.

First is the possibility that the GPL will be modified to make it easier for GPL and other open source-licensed code to coexist in a single piece of software. Today, language in the GPL overrides other licenses. That means that Berkeley license-based software that integrates some GPL-based code could get converted automatically (and perhaps unintentionally) to GPL. If the GPL changes to better support mix-and-match licenses, that is all to the good.

Second, and potentially much more challenging, is the possibility that GPL 3 will impose its licensing conditions on GPL-based software that is not physically distributed, but is exercised by remote execution. Specifically, the rumor is that the redistribution requirements will be imposed on GPL software used as part of a “Software as a Service” implementation. This means, for example, if an application service provider uses modified GPL code in its product, it would have to make the modified code available free to the public.

And remember that “viral” thing? That means if the modified GPL code is commingled with the ASP’s proprietary code, the whole thing could potentially becomes GPL. There’s no doubt  that some software-as-a-service vendors will get caught up in this license requirement, should it come to pass.

And there’s another organization that could get tangled: yours. If you are one of the many IT organizations moving to service-oriented architectures (SOA), you are delivering software as a service. If part of your software stack is GPL, any changes to the license could affect your obligation to release your source code publically.

How likely is all this to happen? No one knows. The initial draft of the license is due out in the next few weeks, so then we’ll all see. For his part, the FSF’s general counsel, Eben Moglen, has described the updated license as a minor change. But the organization has also put in place a mechanism to accept comments on the license and announced they’re expecting in excess of 100,000 comments from more than 8,000 organizations. The FSF has also set up a number of committees to represent different interest groups (think software vendors, large IT shops, and so on).

I don’t know about you, but when I hear that they’re planning for that level of community feedback, I don’t think “minor change.” I think “changing the ground rules.” So, you’ll be hearing a lot about GPL 3 during 2006. I’ll be blogging on the topic frequently, so keep looking for more entries. In my next posting, I’ll address whether your general outlook on using open source should be changed due to the GPL (hint: no, but you should review your plans for any GPL 3 impact).

Bernard Golden is Chief Executive Officer of Navica, a consulting firm offering open source strategy, implementation, and training services. He is the author of “Succeeding with Open Source” (Addison-Wesley, 2005).” Contact him at