Clarity, internationalization on GPL 3 agenda

The FSF is due to release the initial draft of the GNU GPL version 3 Monday which is likely to address internationalization and patent issues.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is due to release the initial draft of the GNU general public license (GPL) version 3 Monday. Software vendors and lawyers expect the draft to include a number of clarifications in the license's wording so it can better recognize global copyright.

FSF plans to release the draft at the First International Conference for GPLv3, a two-day conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where developers, companies and government agencies will meet for the first public discussion on what the draft contains.

The GPL is the most popular license for free software and was created by Richard Stallman in 1989 for the GNU free 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.

Over the course of Monday and Tuesday, attendees will hear from Stallman, who is the FSF's founder and president, Peter Brown, FSF executive director, and Eben Moglen, a member of FSF's board. Moglen also chairs the Software Freedom Law Center and is a professor of law and legal history at Columbia University Law School.

There will be a panel discussion Monday to review the so-called rationale document that accompanies the draft release, where the authors lay out their reasons for inclusions and non-inclusions in the license. On Tuesday, there will be discussion of specific elements of the license draft, digital rights management (DRM) and GPL 3's international implications.

"Internationalization will be a challenge because copyright law, particularly as it applies to software, does not uniformly track U.S. law on the subject," Mark Webbink, deputy general counsel and secretary with Linux distribution company Red Hat Inc., wrote in an e-mail interview. FSF board member Moglen has stressed the need for GPL 3 to become more legally cosmopolitan so the license becomes more accessible to lawyers outside of the U.S.

Overall clarity in the language of the license is also very important, according to Diane Peters, general counsel with Linux development consortium Open Source Development Labs (OSDL).

"My hope is that the revised GPL provides clarity on terms that to date have been the subject of conflicting interpretation and ambiguity for both commercial interests as well as open-source software developers," she wrote in an e-mail interview.

A perfect example is Web services, where what is being redistributed is not a copy of the software itself, but a service based on that software. "Companies providing Web services deserve some degree of certainty such that they can make intelligent business decisions and understand their rights and obligations," Peters wrote.

Another area lawyers are hoping the new license will clarify how and why software under development gets pulled into the terms of the GPL, according to Claire Philpott, a shareholder at the law firm of Lane Powell, whose practice includes intellectual property, mergers and acquisitions.

"It remains unclear when a copyright/patent protected program is entirely subject to the GPL or when only a portion of it is subject to the GPL (i.e., only a portion of it utilizes open source)," she wrote in an e-mail interview. Developers and companies need more commercial certainty when entering into hybrid licensing agreements that involve the licensing of both open-source and proprietary technology, Philpott added.

Over the course of the coming year, a "perfect storm" is brewing in relation to software licensing and patent issues, according to Sam Greenblatt, strategic technical advisor at software vendor CA. "There are three things coming at once," he said in a phone interview Wednesday.

There's the Patent Reform Act of 2005, introduced in June by Representative Lamar Smith, a Texas Republican, which is set to change the way in which patents are granted and enforced. Then, the Open Source Initiative (OSI), the organization best known for deciding what is and what is not open source, is planning to reform its licensing policy. Finally, there's the GPL 3. All three factors will combine and result in "a very good" GPL 3, Greenblatt said.

A new version of the GPL could be incredibly important, according to Jim Harvey, a partner in lawyer Alston & Bird's technology practice wrote in his e-mail. "Done right, it will spur increased usage of the license and GPL software," he wrote in an e-mail interview. "Done wrong, and it could negatively impact perception of free and open-source software, which would ultimately decrease the use of the license and GPL software."

Philpott at Lane Powell believes there is a risk that changes to the GPL could create a split within the open-source community, with some developers adopting version 3 and others sticking with the provisions of GPL 2. "However, the public review and comment process should help mitigate that risk," she wrote.

Following publication of the first draft, the FSF plans to form discussion committees around the world made up of vendors, developers and individuals, according to the "GPL3 Process Definition" document it released in December. The organization expects to publish a second GPL 3 discussion draft in June, with the final version of the license likely to appear no later than March 2007 and perhaps even as early as September 2006.

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