New GPL 3 Draft Imminent, Yet Final Release Delayed

The GPL 3 drafting process is playing out publicly and behind closed doors. The FSF has posted two drafts and extensive documentation about the revision process on its GPL 3 Web site. But detailed discussions among industry stakeholders about the revisions are being carried out through three discussion committees, which host private meetings and online discussions.

Committee members include representatives from an assortment of open-source and commercial organizations invested in open-source development, including IBM, Novell, Sun Microsystems, Red Hat, Hewlett-Packard, the Eclipse Foundation, the Mozilla Foundation and several universities.

Participants in the committee discussions say a new, near-final draft is imminent. The upcoming release will be the third public draft of GPL 3 and the first new public draft in seven months.

The GPL 3 drafting process was thrown for a loop by the surprise pact Novell and Microsoft announced in November. The deal includes a patent covenant that critics fear will give Novell and its customers a legal immunity not shared by other developers. The GPL's author, FSF president Richard Stallman, quickly pledged to patch loopholes in the GPL 3 draft to prevent such tactics.

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"It turns out that perhaps it's a good thing that Microsoft did this now, because we discovered that the text we had written for GPL Version 3 would not have blocked this. But it's not too late, and we're going to make sure that when GPL version 3 really comes out it will block such deals," Stallman said in late November at a GPL 3 conference in Tokyo.

"We're going to say not just that if you receive the patent license, but [also] if you have arranged any sort of patent licensing that is prejudicial among the downstream recipients, that that's not allowed. That you have to make sure that the downstream recipients fully get the freedoms that they're supposed to have," he said. "The precise words, we haven't figured out yet."

The imminent release of GPL 3 is generating excitement and alarm in the software industry. The widely used license was last revised more than 15 years ago. The new version aims to address a variety of political and technical issues that have arisen since then. However, it has the potential to split the open-source world, as projects that depend on interoperability move forward with different and incompatible licenses.

One ISV executive who has followed the discussions around the upcoming third draft said the new draft is a significant, controversial revision -- one that makes a schism inevitable. "Linux is going to split," he predicted.

The FSF controls key GNU operating components used in all Linux distributions and intends to adopt GPL 3 as soon as it's finalized for future development on all of its holdings. Meanwhile, the maintainers of the Linux kernel license the kernel only for use under GPL 2 and have announced that they won't migrate to GPL 3.

When the GPL 3 is officially released, that face-off could turn into a major headache for Linux developers.