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[GNU/FSF Press] GPL Version 3: Background to Adoption

From: John Sullivan
Subject: [GNU/FSF Press] GPL Version 3: Background to Adoption
Date: Thu, 09 Jun 2005 16:36:09 -0400
User-agent: Gnus/5.1006 (Gnus v5.10.6) Emacs/21.3 (gnu/linux)

Boston, MA, USA - Thursday, June 9, 2005 - The Free Software
Foundation (FSF) today released the following article by Richard
M. Stallman and Eben Moglen discussing the forthcoming GPL Version 3.

GPL Version 3: Background to Adoption

by Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen

The GNU General Public License (``the GPL'') has remained
unmodified, at version level 2, since 1991.  This is extraordinary
longevity for any widely-employed legal instrument.  The durability of
the GPL is even more surprising when one takes into account the
differences between the free software movement at the time of version
2's release and the situation prevailing in 2005.

Richard M. Stallman, founder of the free software movement and author
of the GNU GPL, released version 2 in 1991 after taking legal advice
and collecting developer opinion concerning version 1 of the license,
which had been in use since 1985.  There was no formal public comment
process and no significant interim transition period.  The Free
Software Foundation immediately relicensed the components of the GNU
Project, which comprised the largest then-existing collection of
copyleft software assets.  In Finland, Linus Torvalds adopted GPL
Version 2 for his operating system kernel, called Linux.

That was then, and this is now.  The GPL is employed by tens of
thousands of software projects around the world, of which the Free
Software Foundation's GNU system is a tiny fraction.  The GNU system,
when combined with Linus Torvalds' Linux---which has evolved into a
flexible, highly-portable, industry-leading operating system
kernel---along with Samba, MySQL, and other GPL'd programs, offers
superior reliability and adaptability to Microsoft's operating
systems, at nominal cost.  GPL'd software runs on or is embedded in
devices ranging from cellphones, PDAs and home networking appliances
to mainframes and supercomputing clusters.  Independent software
developers around the world, as well as every large corporate IT buyer
and seller, and a surprisingly large proportion of individual users,
interact with the GPL.

During the period since 1991, of course, there has developed a
profusion of free software licenses.  But not in the area covered by
the GPL.  The ``share and share alike'' or ``copyleft'' aspect of the
GPL is its most important functional characteristic, and those who
want to use a copyleft license for software overwhelmingly use the GPL
rather than inventing their own.

Updating the GPL is therefore a very different task in 2005 than it
was in 1991.  The substantive reasons for revision, and the likely
nature of those changes, are subject matter for another essay.  At
present we would like to concentrate on the institutional, procedural
aspects of changing the license.  Those are complicated by the fact
that the GPL serves four distinct purposes.

* The GPL is a Worldwide Copyright License

As a legal document, the GPL serves a purpose that most legal drafters
would do anything possible to avoid: it licenses copyrighted material
for modification and redistribution in every one of the world's
systems of copyright law.  In general, publishers don't use worldwide
copyright licenses; for each system in which their works are
distributed, licensing arrangements tailored to local legal
requirements are used.  Publishers rarely license redistribution of
modified or derivative works; when they do so, those licenses are
tailored to the specific setting, factual and legal.  But free
software requires legal arrangements that permit copyrighted works to
follow arbitrary trajectories, in both geographic and genetic terms.
Modified versions of free software works are distributed from hand to
hand across borders in a pattern that no copyright holder could
possibly trace.

GPL version 2 performed the task of globalization relatively well,
because its design was elegantly limited to a minimum set of copyright
principles that signatories to the Berne Convention must offer, in one
form or another, in their national legislation.  But GPL2 was a
license constructed by one US layman and his lawyers, largely
concerned with US law.  To the extent possible, and without any
fundamental changes, GPL3 should ease internationalization
difficulties, more fully approximating the otherwise unsought ideal of
the global copyright license.

* The GPL is the Code of Conduct for Free Software Distributors

Beyond the legal permission that the GPL extends to those who wish to
copy, modify, and share free software, the GPL also embodies a code of
industry conduct with respect to the practices by which free software
is distributed.  Section 3, which explains how to make source code
available as required under the license, affects product packaging
decisions for those who embed free software in appliances, as well as
those who distribute software collections that include both free and
unfree software.  Section 7, which concerns the effect of licenses,
judgments, and other compulsory legal interventions incompatible with
the GPL on the behavior of software distributors, affects patent
licensing arrangements in connection with industry standards.  And so
on, through a range of interactions between the requirements of the
license and evolving practices in the vending of both hardware and

The Free Software Foundation, through its maintenance and enforcement
of the GPL, has contributed to the evolution of industry behavior
patterns beyond its influence as a maker of software.  In revising the
GPL, the Foundation is inevitably engaged in altering the rules of the
road for enterprises and market participants of many different kinds,
with different fundamental interests and radically different levels of
market power.  The process of drafting and adopting changes to the
license must thus approximate standard-setting, or ``best practices''
definition, as well as copyright license drafting.

* The GPL is the Constitution of the Free Software Movement

The Free Software Foundation has never been reluctant to point out
that its goals are primarily social and political, not technical or
economic.  The Foundation believes that free software---that is,
software that can be freely studied, copied, modified, reused,
redistributed and shared by its users---is the only ethically
satisfactory form of software development, as free and open scientific
research is the only ethically satisfactory context for the conduct of
mathematics, physics, or biology.  The Foundation, and those who
support its broader work, regard free software as an essential step in
a social movement for freer access to knowledge, freer access to
facilities of communication, and a more deeply participatory culture,
open to human beings with less regard to existing distributions of
wealth and social power.  The free software movement has taken
advantage of the social conditions of its time to found its program on
the creation of vast new wealth, through new systems of cooperation,
which can in turn be shared in order to further the creation of new
wealth, in a positive feedback loop.

This program is not, of course, universally shared by all the parties
who benefit from the exploitation of the new wealth created by free
software.  The free software movement has never objected to the
indirect benefits accruing to those who differ from the movement's
goals: one of the powerful lessons the movement has learned from
previous aspects of the long-duration Western movement for freedom of
expression is the value of working with, rather than against,
conventional economic interests and concerns.  But the movement's own
goals cannot be subordinated to the economic interests of our friends
and allies in industry, let alone those who occasionally contribute
solely for reasons of their own.  Changes to the GPL, for whatever
reason they are undertaken, must not undermine the underlying movement
for freer exchange of knowledge.  To the extent that the movement has
identified technological or legal measures likely to be harmful to
freedom, such as ``trusted computing'' or a broadening of the scope of
patent law, the GPL needs to address those issues from a perspective
of political principle and the needs of the movement, not from primary
regard for the industrial or commercial consequences.

* The GPL is the Literary Work of Richard M. Stallman

Some copyright licenses are no doubt known, in the restricted circle
of one firm or law office, as the achievement of a single author's
acumen or insight.  But it is safe to say that there is no other
copyright license in the world that is so strongly identified with the
achievements, and the philosophy, of a single public figure.
Mr. Stallman remains the GPL's author, with as much right to preserve
its integrity as a work representative of his intentions as any other
author or creator.  Under his guidance, the Free Software Foundation,
which holds the copyright of the GPL, will coordinate and direct the
process of its modification.

* Conclusion

The GPL serves, and must continue to serve, multiple purposes.  Those
purposes are fundamentally diverse, and they inevitably conflict.
Development of GPL version 3 has been an ongoing process within the
Free Software Foundation; we, along with our colleagues, have never
stopped considering possible modifications.  We have consulted,
formally and informally, a very broad array of participants in the
free software community, from industry, the academy, and the garage.
Those conversations have occurred in many countries and several
languages, over almost two decades, as the technology of software
development and distribution changed around us.

When a GPLv3 discussion draft is released, the pace of that
conversation will change, as a particular proposal becomes the
centerpiece.  The Foundation will, before it emits a first discussion
draft, publicize the process by which it intends to gather opinion and
suggestions.  The Free Software Foundation recognizes that the
reversioning of the GPL is a crucial moment in the evolution of the
free software community, and the Foundation intends to meet its
responsibilities to the makers, distributors and users of free
software.  In doing so, we hope to hear all relevant points of view,
and to make decisions that reflect the many disparate purposes that
the license must serve.  Our primary concern remains, as it has been
from the beginning, the creation and protection of freedom.  We
recognize that the best protection of freedom is a growing and vital
community of the free.  We will use the process of public discussion
of GPL3 drafts to support and nurture the community of the free.
Proprietary culture imposes both technology and license terms; free
software means allowing people to understand, experiment and modify
software, as well as getting involved in the discussion of license
terms, so that everyone's ideas can contribute to the common good, and
the development of each contributes to the development of all.

Copyright Richard Stallman and Eben Moglen, 2005.  Verbatim copying of
  this article is permitted in any medium, provided this notice is

About the Free Software Foundation: The Free Software Foundation,
founded in 1985, is dedicated to promoting computer users' right to
use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer programs. The FSF
promotes the development and use of free (as in freedom) software -
particularly the GNU operating system and its GNU/Linux variants - and
free documentation for free software. The FSF also helps to spread
awareness of the ethical and political issues of freedom in the use of
software. Their Web site, located at, is an important
source of information about GNU/Linux. Donations to support their work
can be made at <>. They are headquartered in
Boston, MA, USA.

John Sullivan
Program Administrator        | Phone: (617)542-5942 x23    
51 Franklin Street, 5th Fl.  | Fax:   (617)542-2652     
Boston, MA 02110-1301 USA    | GPG:   AE8600B6

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