Wednesday, July 18, 2007

The Divide Over GPLv3...

While this may not have an abundance of sex appeal to the general public, a heated dialogue has been ensuing in the computer programming world over the issue of the GNU GPL (General Public License). The latest release, GPLv3, became official on June 29th, and has since sparked a debate over how restrictive licenses should be regulating the use of free software.

To put this in plain English, when someone creates a piece of software they can license others to use it and can describe in what ways it can be used. For example, when Microsoft sells you a copy of Windows, it comes with a license stating that you cannot pirate copies and sell them on the street. Likewise, some programmers choose to make their source code available for others to build upon, and quite often they use the GPL license to state that others can change or modify the source code however they wish, so long as they agree (via accepting the terms of the license) to make that altered source code available as well.

So think of it as a legal license, just like any other legal license. However, this one affects the software world, and particularly the open source and free software communities.

So what's all the buzz about? Well, not everyone is happy with the changes to the GNU GPL from version 2 to version 3, and have pro-actively decided not to make the switch. A quick look at this comparison between the two highlights the changes in language, and to the quick observer they don't seem very substantial. GPLv3 was designed to address perceived weaknesses from v2 that have arisen over the years - including the handling of software patent issues, free software license compatibility, the definition of "source code", and tivoization. However, GPLv3 is being criticized, by Linus Torvalds and others, for being overly restrictive and preoccupied with "retaliatory" software patent issues.

It's fascinating how a deep divide has suddenly appeared within these communities of passionate advocates. It's even pitting such icons as Linus Torvalds (creator of Linux, supporting v2) and Richard Stallman (creator of the Free Software Foundation, supporting v3) and their ilk against each other. And while some may view this narrowly as a legal issue, and others more generally as affecting the entire free software and open source social movements, the bottom line is that the debate over the GPL license (of all things!) has become a microcosm of the rest of the world - one in which different perspectives exist, opinions are strongly voiced, and choices over what to use are ultimately made.

Cheers to intellectual debate, pluralism, and the idea of expanded choice.


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