GPLv3 is more than a licence

The General Public License has been updated for the 21st century. The community knows what it wants, and won't give it up

If you're interested in the legal arguments concerning intellectual property in the digital age, then you'll have noticed that something unusual has happened — a new version of the General Public License has appeared. This is a rare thing, the first such for 16 years, and rarer still for being carried out in public. We could dwell on many aspects of the new GPL — its approach to patents, the relationship to DRM issues — but the unique way it has come about deserves special recognition.

The fact is, everyone who cares has been asked what they want. Software developers, huge corporations, leaders, lawyers, you and me: we had our chance. Regular meetings at the highest level were matched by constant discussion around the world. It is almost unthinkable that such a diverse set of people with so many different approaches could reach consensus, but by and large that has happened. A community realised that it had produced untold billions of dollars' worth of software in freedom, and decided that this was worth continuing.

That highlights one of the most curious aspect of the new GPL: a constant murmur of disinformation left by anonymous posters on high-profile blogs and forums. Like those who deny the moon landing, they appear to have ignored years of totally open development and public discussion, preferring instead to claim that the project does exactly the opposite of its intentions.

Why they want to do this, we cannot say. The GPL's intentions are excellent: it aims to carry on the philosophy of open software in a changing legal environment. That means freedom to join and enrich a global community of innovation, to use whatever combination of tools and techniques are best suited for a job, and to be creative without restriction but with agreement. And those intentions are realised.

GPLv3 is not the answer to every licensing question, nor does it claim to be. A lot of thought has been put into making it compatible, to a greater or lesser extent, with existing licences: it doesn't matter unduly that the Linux kernel is unlikely to switch from GPLv2 in the near future. For most business users of open software, GPLv3 software may feel a little bit safer — but GPLv2 has been a thoroughgoing legal and practical success, and will continue to be so.

What GPLv3 is, is a promise to ourselves — a promise that the many values inherent in open source will be protected and nurtured, that they won't be allowed to die, be sold off or traduced. It's a practical, legal and technical document: more than that, though, it's a moral statement. There is a better way. We won't forget.



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