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GPLv3 could kill open source, top Linux dev’s warn

Many of the top Linux developers have announced their objections to the proposed GPLv3. In a position paper released on September 22, leading Linux developers like Andrew Morton, James E.J. Bottomley, Greg Kroah-Hartman, Christoph Hellwig, and six others explained in detail why they “reject the current license proposal.”

While Linux founder Linus Torvalds did not sign this document, he has already voiced his objection to version 3 of the GPL (GNU General Public License). In a note concerning the paper, Kroah-Hartman explained, “No one else is standing up in the free software community besides Linus stating that they think the GPLv3 is bad. So we wanted to make our statement also known.”

The developers open by saying that this is their position on GPLv3 in its current Draft 2 form, “and its surrounding process issued by some of the Maintainers of the Linux Kernel speaking purely in their role as kernel maintainers.”

They go on to write that they don’t see any significant reasons to change the GPL. “Since GPLv2 has served us so well for so long, and since it is the foundation of our developer contract which has helped propel Linux to the successes it enjoys today, we are extremely reluctant to contemplate tampering with that license except as bug fixes to correct exposed problems or updates counter imminent dangers.”

From there, they talk about why the freedom contained with the GPLv2 has been so important in getting developers to work together on Linux.

However, the kernel maintainers, on closely reading draft 2 of GPLv3, found “three key objections noted in section 5 are individually and collectively sufficient reason for us to reject the current license proposal.”

First, the developers object to the DRM (Digital Rights Management) clause. They explain that “While we find the use of DRM by media companies in their attempts to reach into user owned devices to control content deeply disturbing, our belief in the essential freedoms of section 3 forbids us from ever accepting any license which contains end use restrictions. The existence of DRM abuse is no excuse for curtailing freedoms.”

They also add that they believe that “What constitutes DRM abuse is essentially political in nature and as such, while we may argue forcefully for our political opinions, we may not suborn or coerce others to go along with them.”

Even more troublesome for the developers is the additional restrictions section. They believe this section “makes GPLv3 a pick and choose soup of possible restrictions which is going to be a nightmare for our distributions to sort out legally and get right. Thus, it represents a significant and unacceptable retrograde step over GPLv2 and its no additional restrictions clause.”

The developers also object to the patents clause. As written, they believe it could “potentially jeopardize the entire patent portfolio of a company simply by the act of placing a GPLv3 licensed programme on their website. Since the Linux software ecosystem relies on these types of contributions from companies who have lawyers who will take the broadest possible interpretation when assessing liability, we find this clause unacceptable because of the chilling effect it will have on the necessary corporate input to our innovation stream.”

The maintainers also point out that “some companies who also act as current distributors of Linux have significant patent portfolios; thus this clause represents another barrier to their distributing Linux and as such is unacceptable under section 2 because of the critical reliance our ecosystem has on these distributions.”

They then write, “Therefore, as far as we are concerned (and insofar as we control subsystems of the kernel) we cannot foresee any drafts of GPLv3 coming out of the current drafting process that would prove acceptable to us as a license to move the current Linux Kernel to.”

This could mean far more though than simply Linux would remain under the GPLv2 and the GPLv3 being a dead letter.

These developers fear that “since the FSF is proposing to shift all of its projects to GPLv3 and apply pressure to every other GPL licensed project to move, we foresee the release of GPLv3 portends the Balkanization of the entire Open Source Universe upon which we rely. This Balkanization, which will be manifested by distributions being forced to fork various packages in order to get consistent licenses, has the potential to inflict massive collateral damage upon our entire ecosystem and jeopardize the very utility and survival of Open Source.”

They finally conclude, “Therefore, we implore the FSF to re-examine the consequences of its actions and to abandon the current GPLv3 process before it becomes too late.”

As it is, unless the FSF (Free Software Foundation) and other GPLv3 authors drastically change the direction they have taken with the GPLv3, that seems very unlikely.

For example, when the first GPLv3 draft was released on January 16, Richard Stallman, the GPLv3’s co-author, said that DRM “is a malicious feature and can never be tolerated, as DRM is fundamentally based on activities that cannot be done with free software. That is its goal and it is in direct opposition to ours. But, with the new GPL, we can now prevent our software from being perverted or corrupted.”

The Linux maintainers and the FSF seem, for now, very, very far away from each other.

A version of this story first appeared in Linux-Watch.

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