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The Controversy Over GPL 3

There's a rift developing between camps within the free software movement over the next version of the most popular open source license, known as the General Public License, or GPL. And while that infighting might appear to be little more than a family squabble, its ramifications could be significant for how companies use open source software in the future.

A new version of the GPL, the third overall and the first revision since 1991, was supposed to be released this month. But controversy over several new provisions--and the authors' ambitions to thwart Microsoft's Linux pact with Novell--have delayed it until later this year.

Unless there's a radical reworking of GPL version 3 (GPLv3, in the programmer lexicon), a significant portion of the open source community will reject it, chief among them Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux. "I will not sign on to GPLv3 if it limits how the code is used," Torvalds says in a lengthy E-mail exchange with InformationWeek.

If popular GPL projects diverge over time into incompatible products--those developed under GPLv3 and those under GPLv2--it will multiply the licensing and compatibility complications that already dog corporate open source adoption.

This at a time when business interest in open source software is taking off. Linux is established as a server operating system--a third of respondents to InformationWeek's most recent IT priorities survey have Linux servers on their 2007 project lists--and it's generating increasing interest as a PC operating system, partly as an alternative to Windows Vista. In Europe, at the current rate of uptake, open source code will represent 32% of all software services delivered by IT by 2010, according to a study by the European Commission.

Terry Barbounist, CTO of the Christian Science Monitor, says his organization's "foray into open source" was primarily an effort to leverage a community of developers. The Christian Science Monitor uses the open source content management system Alfresco, among other open source apps. He's concerned about the controversy over GPLv3 because "any rift in a community that has to police itself is never a good thing."

Bare facts: What's the difference betweekn free and open? Ask Richard Stallman, who wrote the first GPL

Bare facts: What's the difference betweekn free and open? Ask Richard Stallman, who wrote the first GPL.
There are many types of open source licenses, but a select few rule most of the code that finds its way into commercial use. The most popular is the GPL, the first version of which appeared in 1989. The GNU GPL, as it's officially known (GNU stands for Gnu's Not Unix, a play on words) was as much a political statement as it was a contract, advocating the free distribution and modification of software source code and railing against its proprietary, commercial exploitation. It was written by Richard Stallman, who founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985.

To call Stallman an interesting character is like describing Dennis Rodman as an interesting basketball player. In the 1980s, Stallman was the embodiment of the hippy programmer ethic: anti-capitalist, anti-authoritarian, a binge programmer in MIT's artificial intelligence lab who slept under his desk and couldn't find a real job. Still, he's considered a prophet by some. Stallman's radical software-wants-to-be-free philosophy, which he called "copyleft," led to the GNU toolset, which includes such invaluable IT tools as the GNU C compiler, then to the GPL, and consequently guided the development of the open source software industry.

To understand the nature of the current controversy, it's important to understand the distinction between free and open source software. Free software advocates want software that's unencumbered by patents or prohibitive, proprietary licenses. Open source software advocates are more practical, accepting commercial products built on top of open source code.

Stallman declined to be interviewed for this story, citing InformationWeek's refusal to refer to Linux consistently as GNU Linux. That demand reflects an old source of tension between the two camps. Torvalds is credited with masterminding the Linux kernel. Stallman says the kernel was based on an unfinished operating system being assembled by the FSF. Torvalds credits the FSF and the GNU tools with contributing to the success of Linux but says he frequently disagrees with the political agenda the FSF represents.

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The GPL's most controversial feature--until this point--was a provision that requires anyone who modifies the source code of a free software program, and then distributes that modified version, to make those changes available to the community. Now that "giveback" requirement is seen by many as open source software's most distinctive, and rewarding, feature.

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