Free Software Foundation denies GPLv3 forking risk

Some developers are concerned that the introduction of the third version of the GNU General Public License could split the free software world - but the FSF is confident these fears are unfounded

The Free Software Foundation has denied there is a risk that free software projects could fork when the next version of the GNU General Public License (GPL) becomes available.

Over the last few weeks, free software developers from various projects have expressed concerns about the next version of the GPL. In a posting to the legal mailing list for the Debian Linux distribution, OpenOffice.org volunteer Daniel Carrera pointed out that as Linux is currently only distributed under GPL two, it could face problems when GPL three is released.

"My understanding is that Linux is distributed under the GPLv2 exclusively," said Carrera in the posting. "Given the vast number of Linux contributors, this means that Linux won't be able to migrate to the GPLv3 when it comes out, correct?"

Debian maintainer Matthew Palmer agreed that this was the case and said he was worried that when GPL 3 comes out some free software projects could split into separate branches. "I fear a lot of unpleasant forking action when the GPLv3 comes out," said Palmer.

Palmer said that some developers may decide to only license their project under either version two or three of the GPL, while others may chose to licence under multiple versions of the licence. This could result in "licence-incompatible forks", according to Palmer.

But Eben Moglen, the general counsel for Free Software Foundation, said on Thursday there shouldn't be a problem persuading Linux developers to migrate to GPL 3, as the licence will be developed with their input.

"I don't think it will be a difficulty," said Moglen. "When the FSF finishes its work to produce the first discussion draft of GPL 3 there will be an extended comment period, which will be a chance for everybody to have their say. We will take as long in listening as people need to take."

GPL 3 is likely to include changes to take into account international copyright law and a new strategy to cope with the threat of patents, according to Moglen.

It is not surprising that the next version of the GPL has attracted a lot of interest as it is the basis for a "multi-billion dollar industry", according to Moglen. "In a market that size there are a lot of participants and a lot of people with interests," said Moglen.

Moglen was unable to say when GPL 3 would be released, although he suggested that it would be available in the next year or two. He is confident that when GPL 3 is released, people will be pleased with the outcome.

"When it's all over people will say about the GPL 3, 'it's better, it's not that different, what's all the fuss about?'" said Moglen. "People have to trust that we know what we're doing." This echoes his previous statements where he said that the process was "going to be a screaming match some days, but it is going to be a noble effort when it's over."

He said that today's free software industry owed a debt of gratitude to version two of the GPL. "A very large field came into existence as a function of the correctness of Richard Stallman's ideas," said Moglen