Second GPLv3 draft tones down DRM language

The second draft of an update to the GPL, a key license governing free and open-source software significantly tones down the language of the first draft on DRM.

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) unveiled the second draft of the GNU general public license version 3 (GPLv3) Thursday. The new draft adopts a different, more measured tone than the initial take released in January, in particular replacing strident language around the issue of DRM (digital rights management).

The variations in the two drafts reflect different levels of involvement in the process. "Draft 1 was exclusively the work of the FSF," said Eben Moglen, an FSF board member and one of the authors of the draft. "The second draft is reflective of broader opinion, of the FSF and thousands of other people around the world." After bringing out Draft 1 at the start of the year, the organization initiated a period of public debate on the proposed license.

Created by Richard Stallman in 1989 for the GNU free operating system project, the GPL was last fully revised 15 years ago. The license gives users the right to freely study, copy, modify, reuse, share and redistribute software, and govern a good deal of free and open-source software (FOSS) including the Linux operating system, MySQL AB's database and the Samba file and print server project.

When the FSF issued Draft 1, the proposed license's take on DRM and software patent licensing provoked the most controversy.

The draft referred to DRM as "digital restrictions management" and prevented GPL-licensed software from being used in DRM copy-protection software. After public debate on that section, FSF realized that it needed to clarify what it sees as the relationship between free software and the kind of copyright provisions that came into play with the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in 1998, Moglen said.

In Draft 2, the section that had previously referred to DRM has been substantially rewritten, no longer directly concerns that technology and has been more generally retitled "no denying users' rights through technical measures." The idea is to ensure that third parties can't use technical means to limit users' abilities to use or modify software covered by the GPL. GPLv3 doesn't forbid the implementation of DRM features per se, but instead prevents such limitations being imposed on users in a way that they can't remove.

The FSF also provided more clarification on its call in Draft 1 for large software distributors that own patents and cross-license patents with their peers to "shield downstream users" against any potential patent infringement claims.

In Draft 2, the organization suggests an "effective low-cost way" to protect downstream users, Moglen said. Prior to engaging in any exclusive licensing of GPL software, a company might ensure that anyone can continue to access that source code free of charge by pointing users to a site where the software is hosted either by the firm itself or a third party.

The FSF has also rewritten a section in the license about licensing compatibility that many people found difficult to understand, Moglen said. Draft 2 now splits up the segments referring to additional permissions and additional requirements.

The organization's mission to more fully internationalize the wording of the GPLv3 continues. "It's crucial, important work," Moglen said, involving the "denationalization" of terms that have tended to be used in U.S. copyright law.

There continues to be a great deal of discussion around the issue of legally binding translations of the GPL.

Moglen believes the FSF will have to reach a decision on the matter before the license is finalized. "Mr. Stallman has been skeptical of the value of official versus unofficial translations," he said, an opinion Moglen adds is shared by many commercial multinational companies. "They're concerned about legal variation," he added, and feel more comfortable with a single license in a single language, English. But other interest groups do see a value in having official translations, so the debate is ongoing.

After receiving public comment on the second draft, Moglen expects he and Stallman will come out with a "last-call" third draft of GPLv3 sometime between mid-October and Nov. 1. "Often the last-call draft is the first draft people pay attention to," Moglen quipped. Should that third draft meet with a broad consensus of approval from the FOSS community, FSF would then hope to issue the final version of the license around Jan. 15, 2007, he added.

The FSF has also worked to bring together the GPL with the GNU Lesser General Public License (LGPL) version 3. "They're actually facets of one another," Moglen said, with the LGPL effectively the GPL plus additional permissions. The LGPL is a looser license than the GPL and can be linked to free or proprietary software not licensed under the GPL.

GPLv3 Draft 2 is available at

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