Will a new GPL cause project forks?

Will a new GPL cause project forks?

Summary: ZDNet UK has a piece about concerns over the next version of the GNU General Public License. The article points to a thread on the Debian Legal mailing list, discussing the fact that the Linux kernel is distributed exclusively under the GPL version 2.

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TOPICS: Open Source
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ZDNet UK has a piece about concerns over the next version of the GNU General Public License. The article points to a thread on the Debian Legal mailing list, discussing the fact that the Linux kernel is distributed exclusively under the GPL version 2. Most GPL'ed software is distributed under the GPL version 2, or later which allows future developers to distribute software under newer versions of the GPL.

A couple of thoughts on this. First, any speculation about "forking" is just that -- speculation. The next version of the GPL isn't even available in draft form just yet, so it's not possible to have an informed debate over the relative merits of the GPLv3 vs the GPLv2 or the relative compatibility of the two licenses. Perhaps the Free Software Foundation will be so kind as to include a backwards compatibility clause so that anyone can distribute software licensed under the GPLv3 with software licensed exclusively under the GPLv2, or something.

Second, I don't really blame anyone for distributing software under the GPLv2 without the "or later" clause. While I think very highly of the Free Software Foundation, I like to see a license before I agree to it. I don't like the clause in proprietary End User License Agreements (EULA) that requires a user to be bound by any future version of a license (see the Electronic Frontier Foundation's A User's Guide To EULAs, point 5.) and I wouldn't care to distribute software under a license that allows it to be distributed under any future version of the license.

Finally, the threat of forks for free software and open source projects is far overblown. Yes, projects do occasionally fork, but it's usually for the best. The majority of the open source community typically settles down behind one version of the project, and carries on. We've already seen this in very recent history with the XFree86 and X.org projects. A few of the XFree86 leaders decided to make a very unpopular license change, which many found unacceptable. Given that change, and previous friction about the XFree86 development process, a large chunk of the community settled on X.org and life goes on.

When the GPLv3 comes out, the odds are that there will be much wailing and gnashing of teeth on developer lists. Every facet of the new license will be debated in detail, and tempers will flare. In short, it will be much like any corporate meeting that entails a significant change, but it will take place in public as opposed to behind closed doors. That's one of the interesting things about open source development -- it's mostly transparent.

There will likely be several drafts of the license, and we'll either see a GPLv3 that the majority of the community settles behind, or there will be very limited uptake of the new license and people will carry on with the license that they're already comfortable with.

What do you think? Is the new license a road to destruction, or is the debate much ado about nothing? Tell me what you think in TalkBack.

Topic: Open Source

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