January 19, 2006


Category: F/OSS,Politics — @ 6:48 am

I recently returned from the 1st GPLv3 conference held January 16th and 17th at MIT University. It was not so much a conference that unveiled a license, but was used to kick-start the process for the collective revisioning of the draft.

It was impressive along many fronts. This is the first major revision of the license in 15 years and the time is ripe for such changes given the many transformations in intellectual property law, the software industry, and F/OSS development in the last decade. The current GPL is slated to be clarified (especially related to linking and compatibility with other open source licenses) and new conditions, such as the appearance of DRM and the explosion of software patents, have garnered explicit response in the new draft.

It seemed like much of the new material or, at least talk about the license, dealt with patents, although patent retaliation and restrictions were not as strong or present as some had feared. Here is the basic clause: If a GPL “licensee brings a patent infringement lawsuit against anyone for activities relating to a work based on the program, then one loses the privilege to modify the software.

Another clause, related to web-based applications, was met with great relief among the business-types many of whom were in attendance. As currently drafted, the GPL will not treat web-based applications as distributed, and thus code can remain closed. Now, however, one has the right to choose whether to keep their server application code open, one permission of a few others that will based on personal choice if retained in the final license.

There are many more techno-legal details that I won’t go into here, in part because they are nicely summarized elsewhere and I am more interested in other elements, notably the process of modification that awaits the draft in the coming year. Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen and others at the FSF are clearly well positioned to make the most significant and sound recommendations for the new license. And they have. And in the end, they, and in specific, RMS, will have ultimate authority to decide what stays in and what stays out. But they have opened up the process of revisioning to everyone who is willing and able to contribute, knowing that this is the right way to go, for pragmatic and ethical reasons.

As it currently stands, for revisioning the FSF has devised a related, two-pronged process. One entails a website where the document is currently housed. There, anyone can create an account, and add their comments, and more significant, is that one can read the commentary others have left for that section also and craft a response to others. As Eben stated during one of the speeches, they prefer comments that are hinged to one or two of small sections of the text instead of comments on large chunks or large multiple chunks.

The website is accompanied by 4 discussion committees who more or less are collectors and organizers of the data, but also offer their own input as this unfolds. They are going to wade through the many comments, track patterns, and transform comments into issues and release documents to the public (I think related to their recommendaitons).

Currently, the discussion committees exist in some state of ambiguity and are not explicitly categorized aside from carrying an alphabetical number. But they can be divided more or less into into (A) Foundation stakeholders [Richard Fontana and Eben Moglen will switch facilitating] (B): Corporate and Patent Intrests [Eben Moglen facilitating] (C): Laywers and Commercial Users [RMS facilitaing] and finally (D): Community, which includes many hackers from various development projects [Dave Turner facilitating].

So far, the organization and purpose of these groups is loose, but one gets the sense that this is exactly what the FSF intended. Since they (and much less anyone else), has ever carried out this sort of open and global legal endeavor, I suspect they are letting the role of committees congeal more organically, cementing into something more definitive as they figure out what that should be.

I attended committee D meetings as an observer because I am interested in documenting how the process plays out, and in specific understanding the role of the Debian developers (Mako Hill, Don Armstrong, and Branden Robinson are the Debian participants thus far). And hope to say more as this all unfolds in the next year.

Here are a few pictures from the conference. I did not take many because I was actually shooting video (which I have never really done) but have yet to figure out how to get it off my video camera and onto my computer! As soon as I do, I will post some clips of the talk too.

1 Comment »

  1. Biella,

    Excellent summary and analysis. I’m going to link to this from my blog. Thanks very much.


    Comment by Samir Chopra — January 22, 2006 @ 4:36 pm

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