GPLv3 and Corporate Contrarian Hype

The latest draft of the third GPL version is provoking a lot of argument, posturing, and controversy. I’m glad its careful drafting process is taking the amount of time it is. I think it’s useful to widen the sphere of public awareness on the issues the license addresses. Some of the most controversial issues, such as digital rights/restriction management (DRM) and patents are going to impact our lives and culture in far reaching ways (they’re not isolated from technical and business issues). Yet a lot of people discussing these issues don’t seem to apply the rigourous thinking that is required.

I’d argue the FSF has a track record of considering important issues like these, with foresight and the creative will to develop strong, practical solutions, staving off potential damage to our freedoms. Damage that would otherwise be carried out by imaginary legal entities armed with human bullets, which fly toward profit so quickly they miss all other practical and ethical issues. The solutions have also enabled a huge amount of innovation and positive change.

But some of the most visible contrarians to this draft of the next GPL–opinions which are getting hyped, are mostly irrelevant in the greater scheme of things. I’m talking about the recent HP issues that were circulated around numerous web sites. To quote Christine Martino, vice president of Open Source And Linux with HP from the article linked above,

“HP had hoped that the second draft would clarify the patent provision such as to ease concern that mere distribution of a single copy of GPL-licensed software might have significant adverse IP impact on a company…”

What does that mean, “significant adverse IP impact”? It’s removed from its context so I can’t be sure, but it sounds to me like the HP folks are taking issue with something the new GPL would prevent them from doing with their patent portfolio. Furthermore, referring to HP’s commentary, the article states

“The second draft of the GPL version 3 license is not even a day old and already one of the largest Linux vendors in the world is taking issue with its content.”

So what? The FSF is interested in freedom, and its foresight in ensuring and encouraging that was the ultimate basis of practicality giving rise to the IT business shifts underway because of FOSS. Although the Open Source Initiative fairly claims the pragmatic approach under its rubric (as that is its stated goal), it doesn’t imply an either/or stance. Freedom doesn’t preclude pragmatism. Unfortunately too many articles treat these notions as mutually exclusive.

While the previous GPL versions were produced with a goal of promoting freedom in a software development basis, they also triggered important business and social developments. Why were they so successful? Because many many many individuals adopted these licenses. The freedom and collaboration they enabled for masses of individuals in free software development is key. A recent ZDNet blog post states

“But that’s not where the debate will really play out. It will really play out in the market. Will GPL companies switch to GPL v3, or explicitly demand retention of V2, which is frankly vague on the DRM question.”

Does it matter if major business entities like HP object to certain freedom promoting aspects of the license? Does their wanting to switch really signify whether the third version will be successful in getting adopted? I don’t think it matters much at all. HP is a player in the free software community, it is not the player. And that is true of everyone else. So HP commentary should be considered for what it’s worth–nothing more.

So, I’d argue against Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols’s point that the GPLv3 will be dead on arrival. As he mentions the HP issue, he also mentions Linus Torvalds’s objections. This is fair, from what I’ve read it sounds like Torvalds has some clearly thought-out opinions. From what I’ve read, some of these sound quite reasonable. As I said at the beginning, I like the debate this drafting process is raising, Torvalds and HP included. Nevertheless, from what I’ve read of Torvalds’s arguments, I have the impression he is single-mindedly focusing on technical issues and intentionally excluding debate on all else. I just don’t believe that’s ok. There are too many important, non-technical ramifications interconnected with information technology to ignore. It doesn’t mean everyone must think about these things, but how does it help to intentionally excise them from the debate?


A new story covering the feedback issue in this debate was just published at NewsForge. This is a useful balance to the different sides involved.

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