The rules governing the use of most free software programs will be revised for the first time in 15 years, the New York Times reports today.
Increasingly, vendors are developing proprietary add-ons to “improve” open source applications, raising the question of how long open source can remain truly free and truly open.
A document that describes the principles and timeline for updating the General Public License (G.P.L.) that governs the development and distribution of open source software, as well as the process for public comment and resolving issues, will be posted today at www.gplv3.fsf.org. A first draft will be presented at a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scheduled for Jan. 16 and 17.
A second draft is expected by summer. If a third draft is required, it should be completed by the fall of 2006. The process, says Eben Moglen, general counsel to the Free Software Foundation, which holds the license, commonly known as the G.P.L., could involve comments from thousands of corporations and individuals, but the Free Software Foundation will make the final judgments.
The revision process is supported by Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation. It’s necessary, according to Mr. Stallman, to protect what he calls the “four basic freedoms of software” – the unrestricted right to use, study, copy and modify software. The license currently requires that any modifications be redistributed with the same unrestricted rights.
The process will also be closely watched for how the new G.P.L. will take account of software patents, which have exploded among proprietary software developers since 1991, the last time the license was revised.
Industry analysts estimate that the value of hardware and software that use the Linux operating system is $40 billion. And Linux has become a competitive alternative to Microsoft’s Windows, especially in corporate data centers.
In Stallman’s view, proprietary software is an unwarranted restriction on the freedom of information. This attempt to revise the G.P.L., he says, is “part of something bigger—part of the long-term effort to liberate cyberspace.”
Software patents, he says, are “utterly insane.”
For Microsoft’s part, Steven A. Ballmer, its chief executive, has called the G.P.L. a “cancer.”