GPL 3 'Last Call' Draft Issued, Adoption Date Set In June

The last-call draft, posted on the FSF's Web site, features a few changes from the nearly final draft the FSF published in late March. Most significantly, the new draft resolves a number of arcane legal differences between the FSF and the Apache Software Foundation to enable license compatibility between the two groups. License compatibility means that developers can combine software covered under Apache and GPL 3 licenses to create a larger software application.

In conjunction with the last-call draft, the FSF also fixed a date for GPL 3's official publication and adoption: June 29. Until then, the organization will collect public comment on the draft.

GPL 3's adoption will be a significant milestone for the open-source software industry. The most commonly used open-source license, the GPL covers some of the most widely adopted applications and platforms, including Java and Linux.

Leaders of many GPL-licensed projects will face a decision about whether to stick with the 16-year-old GPL 2 or migrate to the new license. The FSF, which holds copyrights on a number of key open-source technologies, will immediately move to the new license, meaning all new updates to its projects made after June 29 will be covered by GPL 3's terms.

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The new license has the potential to open a chasm in the open-source world. The GPL requires that all larger programs incorporating code covered by the license be themselves released under the same version of the GPL -- making the GPL incompatible with different versions of itself. The FSF attempted to head this problem off years ago by encouraging developers to license their works for "GPL version 2 or later," opening up a smooth migration path. But a number of key projects, including the Linux kernel and Sun Microsystems OpenJDK Java SE, remain under "version 2 only" GPL licenses, preventing them from being commingled with GPL 3 code.

FSF president Richard Stallman downplayed the potential conflict in an essay released Thursday in conjunction with the new draft.

"License incompatibility only matters when you want to link, merge or combine code from two different programs into a single program. There is no problem in having GPLv3-covered and GPLv2-covered programs side by side in an operating system," Stallman wrote.

However, Linux distributors often link components in ways that could prove legally problematic if the components are covered under incompatible license.

Stallman urged developers to focus on the benefits of GPL 3. While the license revision's impetus was FSF's frustration with DRM (digital rights management) encumbrances and other user-unfriendly innovations, it gained a new urgency when Microsoft and Novell reached their controversial patent-covenant deal in November, protecting Novell's Linux customers, but not those of other Linux distributors, from potential Microsoft patent lawsuits. FSF's lawyers quickly went back to the GPL 3 draft drawing-board to add provisions preventing GPL software users from striking such deals in the future

Stallman hammered that point in his essay.

"Microsoft made a few mistakes in the Novell-Microsoft deal, and GPLv3 is designed to turn them against Microsoft, extending that limited patent protection to the whole community. In order to take advantage of this, programs need to use GPLv3," he wrote. "Microsoft's lawyers are not stupid, and next time they may manage to avoid those mistakes. GPLv3 therefore says they don't get a 'next time.'"