FSF kicks off process to overhaul GPL

The Free Software Foundation released the process guidelines and dates for the first public discussion for revising the general public license Wednesday.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) and the Software Freedom Law Center released process guidelines and dates for the first public discussion of the proposed revision of the GPL (general public license) Wednesday.

The organizations intend to publish the first discussion draft of the new license, GPL 3, in January, with the final version of the license likely to appear no later than March 2007 and perhaps even as early as September 2006.

The GPL is the most popular license for free software and was created by Richard Stallman in 1989 for the GNU free software operating system project. Version 2 of the GPL appeared in 1991. The license gives users the right to freely study, copy, modify, reuse, share and redistribute software. The FSF estimates that close to 75 percent of all free and open-source software (FOSS) is distributed under the GPL.

The organizations had originally hoped to make Wednesday's announcements at the start of this month at the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) East, according to Eben Moglen, an FSF board member.

"We're not quite there yet," Moglen said in an interview at the show on Nov. 2. Moglen, FSF founder Stallman and other members of FSF are working on drafting GPL 3. Moglen is also the chair of the Software Freedom Law Center, which counts FSF as one of its clients and is providing legal advice as well as logistical support to the organization in the work on the new license.

In overhauling the GPL, several key areas are emerging requiring particular work, notably internationalizing the license so it recognizes global copyright more explicitly, resolving incompatibilities with other licenses, and reflecting changes in technology, particularly Web services. At issue is how to deal with redistribution, when what's being redistributed is not a copy of the software itself, but a service based on that software.

The FSF plans to release the first discussion draft of GPL 3 for comment at its first international public conference on GPL 3 due to take place at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) on Jan. 16 and Jan. 17, 2006, according to a release from the organization. The draft will be accompanied by a rationale document explaining the FSF's reasoning behind the changes to the GPL as well as summarizing public feedback on the suggested alterations. FSF plans to issue a rationale document with each GPL 3 discussion draft.

Following publication of the first draft, the FSF will embark on a more structured process to receive feedback from the FOSS community. The organization plans to form discussion committees around the world including vendors large and small, developers and individuals. Drawing on all the feedback, FSF will develop the final release of GPL 3. Moglen told IDG News Service in an interview in August that he expects as many as 150,000 comments once the first draft of GPL 3 is released.

The FSF expects to publish a second discussion draft of the license in June 2006. It's possible the final release of GPL 3 might appear as early as September 2006, according to the organization. However, the FSF is also considering issuing a final discussion draft in October 2006 which could mean the final release of the license may not occur until March 2007. Should the license be finalized before the end of 2006, the organization is hoping to adopt GPL 3 on Jan. 15, 2007, when it would relicense under the new license all parts of the GNU project for which the FSF holds copyright.

Wednesday's document titled "GPL3 Process Definition" can be accessed at http://gplv3.fsf.org/. It lays out the principles, time line and process for public comment and issue resolution.

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