GPL getting tougher on patent deals

Version 3 to block next Microsoft-Novell handshake? Latest draft aims to "prevent such deals from making a mockery of free software."
Written by Martin LaMonica, Contributor
The third draft of General Public License version 3 includes provisions to toughen the license's stance on patent deals between software providers.

The Free Software Foundation posted draft 3 of GPL 3 on its Web site, as expected, Wednesday.

Modifications were made since the second draft, which came out in July 2006, to address a patent deal between Microsoft and Linux seller Novell, under which Microsoft agreed not to sue Suse Linux customers for patent infringement.

"The recent patent agreement between Microsoft and Novell aims to undermine (software users') freedoms. In (the third) draft, we have worked hard to prevent such deals from making a mockery of free software," Richard Stallman, president of the FSF and principal author of the GPL, said in a statement Wednesday.

Novell and Microsoft on Wednesday said that the added patent provisions of the third GPL 3 draft will not derail their partnership.

"It is unfortunate...that the FSF is attempting to use the GPL 3 to prevent future collaboration among industry leaders to benefit customers," Horacio Gutierrez, Microsoft's vice president of intellectual property and licensing, said in a statement.

Novell said it will continue to participate in open-source software projects and remains committed to its partnership with Microsoft.

"If the final version of the GPL 3 does potentially impact the agreement we have with Microsoft, we'll address that with Microsoft," Novell spokesman Bruce Lowry said.

In supporting documents to the new draft, the FSF said it has not yet decided whether the patent addition will apply to all such commercial arrangements or only to those signed in the future. The latter option would let the existing Novell-Microsoft agreement stand.

The basic idea of the GPL is unchanged: Anyone may use, modify and redistribute GPL software, but a party that redistributes GPL software must publish any changes that are made.

One change in GPL 3 governs patents. An earlier draft required an organization that distributed GPL software to grant rights to its patents related to the software. But the new draft is narrower, requiring only that it grant rights to patents relating to any contributions it makes to that software.

Another change is a narrower scope for a section that had concerned digital rights management (DRM), technology that can be used to restrict users' access to software or content. The new version avoids reference to the DRM concept and requires that installation instructions be provided to permit users to install modified software. However, a company doesn't have to supply support, warranty and updates if the user modifies the software, and the instructions don't need to be supplied

Also new in the third draft are simplified terms to make GPL 3 more compatible with GPL 2, which is used for thousands of open-source software products, including the Linux kernel, Java and MySQL.

Previous drafts of GPL 3 have drawn mixed reviews, including major reservations from Linux founder Linus Torvalds and a majority of the Linux kernel developers.

Earlier this year, Torvalds panned GPL 3, saying the new version seeks to promote the Free Software Foundation's philosophy rather than produce a pragmatic legal foundation.

"The GPL was designed to ensure that all users of a program receive the four essential freedoms which define free software," Stallman said of the philosophy behind the open-source license. "These freedoms allow you to run the program as you see fit, study and adapt it for your own purposes, redistribute copies to help your neighbor and release your improvements to the public."

Version 3 has been more than a year in the making, with its first public presentation in January 2006.

The next step to completing GPL 3 is a 60-day comment period, followed by a "last call" draft. The final GPL 3 will arrive 30 days after that, according to the FSF.

The timing pushes back by about three months the original deadline of March for a new version of the license.

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