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For 15 years, the current version of the GNU General Public License (GPL) has remained untouched. One of the oldest, most widely used open-source licenses, the GPL is a foundational text and an ideological marker. When Sun Microsystems wanted to park Java in the open-source mainstream, it opted for GPL licensing, earning the company instant street credibility
Yet this spring, the GPL's author will release a controversial new version of the license, a move that's already sending tremors along the software industry's fault lines.
"It's almost like an iceberg waiting. There's been so much less awareness and discussion than I would have expected, given the likely implications of the new license," said Bernard Golden, CEO of Navica, a San Carlos, Calif., solutions provider that specializes in open-source projects and strategy.
While a heated debate about GPL 3 has raged for more than a year among hard-core open-source enthusiasts, the tempest hasn't attracted mass attention. That will change in March, when the Free Software Foundation (FSF) is slated to release a final version of the new GPL. Once GPL 3 becomes official, it will cover all subsequent code issued by the FSF, which oversees the GNU operating system components that are an essential part of all Linux distributions. As GNU and other projects migrate to GPL 3, the new license has the potential to strengthen the free- and open-source community or deepen its divisions.
License proliferation is one of the biggest banes of the open-source world, and revisions are major undertakings. The current GPL was adopted in 1991 -- when Microsoft had just shipped Windows 3.0, the World Wide Web was still in its infancy and work had barely begun on the Linux kernel. The license has proved to be remarkably durable, but it was written in a different era. GPL 3 sticks closely to GPL 2 in spirit but incorporates new sections addressing several issues confronting modern developers, including compatibility with other licenses, the problem of software patents and the restrictions of digital rights management (DRM) technology.
The DRM plank, intended to prevent developers from using GPL code in any software with modification restrictions, is a key part of the controversy engulfing GPL 3. Software source code has long been the battleground for a holy war. Proprietary software is the mortal enemy, but the share-your-code camp is divided into two factions: one ideological, one pragmatic.