Torvalds' battle with GPLv3

By all accounts, Torvalds is very annoyed with the GPLv3 process. The reasons aren't hard to understand, however, particularly given that he probably doesn't have much choice as to whether to use the new license.

By all accounts, Linus Torvalds, father of Linux, is mad as hell.  I do find it funny that people on the groklaw web site felt it necessary to clean up Torvald's language. We Americans are oddly prudish that way. It's a sharp contrast to my life in Ireland, where profanity in all its forms could be found in the city newspaper, and if a supposed Irish person wasn't swearing with careless abandon around courtyards full of children, Torvalds clearly wants to see his software grow to become the foundation of an entire software ecosystem. people started to suspect he was an English spy.

Basically, Torvalds does not like - at all - the anti-DRM provisions included in version 3 of the GPL license. I don't, either, but you probably would expect that from me, and less so from Torvalds. In my opinion, though, his annoyance is pretty easy to understand.

First, no one likes to be forced to do something, and Torvalds has little choice as to whether or not to use the GPLv3 in Linux. Yes, he may try to stick to his guns and resist attempts to use the license.

Unfortunately, Linux is not an island unto itself. It is a part of an "open source ecosystem" that is dependent on a wide array of third-party open source products. It is highly doubtful that Torvalds will manage to convince all of them not to release future versions of those products under GPLv3. Using those components from GPLv2 code is perfectly legal, but it does mean that the entire package can't be used in a way that is incompatible with the version 3 license.

Torvalds could fork those products into a GPLv2 tree (also legal under the GPL), but then he misses the improvements made to the core product by the original copyright holders.  Worse, if he wants to make similar improvements to his branch, he must walk the legally hazardous path of fixing bugs in the new branch WITHOUT looking at the source code for the other branch.

Of course, the momentum towards GPLv3 may partly be driven by a similar dependency on the part of third-party libraries on other products voluntarily moved to GPLv3...or more insidious, because they used the optional "or any later version" verbiage in the license attached to their software (something Mr. Torvalds was careful not to do). If they did that, then voila, those products are automatically bound by the terms of GPLv3. Sorry, I don't think every person that rushed into the warm embrace of the FSF fully grokked what exactly it meant to leave Stallman and company the option to add arbitrary  terms to future versions of the license that would automatically propagate down to the original software. That's one hell of a back door, and if Microsoft did something like that, everyone in ZDNet's Talkbacks would be frothing at the mouth.

Second, Torvalds clearly wants to see his software grow to become the foundation of an entire software ecosystem. That means it needs to be used in as many places - and devices - as possible, and not be arbitrarily shut out from new software markets. Unfortunately, shutting itself out from new markets is EXACTLY what GPLv3 does. It's like a general announcing to his opponent that they will attack everywhere they see the enemy, except for a strategic set of hills at the center of the battlefield which will grow in size as the battle proceeds. The opponent thanks the general for this useful information, and promptly moves his troops to that location.

Okay, software competition is not exactly warfare, but DRM IS a strategic market of the future, particularly as it's all but certain that content creators - or just people with an interest in controlling access to certain types of information for security reasons - will want DRM. DRM REQUIRES control over what software is running, because that's the only way to ensure that it isn't doing something it's not supposed to be doing, such as piping off the fully decrypted version of that new Keanu Reeves movie into a local file which can then be distributed to all and sundry.

Being able to control the software that hardware runs is essential to DRM. Since that's for all intents and purposes banned under GPLv3 (as such controls destroy customizability by end-users), then GPL software can't play in DRM-land...and unless something changes, there is likely to be a LOT of DRM-protected content in the near future.

Consumers aren't going to accept not being able to use this content. GPLv3-licensed software, therefore, will not even be an option for systems that play such content, leaving the field open to companies like Apple and Microsoft.

That's probably fine by Stallman, as he never struck me as someone who particularly cared whether businesses and non-technical consumers could use the software to which his license is applied. That probably matters a LOT to Linus Torvalds, so much so that it led him to say profane things on public chat sites.


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