Your Gnu needs you

For a document shorter than a lawyer's note to the milkman, the GPL has had profound effects on the industry. Now's your chance to influence the first revision in 15 years - use it or lose it

No government has approved it, it doesn't have a mighty corporation behind it, and it doesn't want your money — yet it's changed the world. A simple statement of rights and obligations, the General Public License sets out with astonishing brevity and unmatched clarity one particular concept of community fairness. Among those who agree: take freely what you want, do with it what you wish, give freely to those who ask.

For those who see software as property, where duplication without payment is equivalent to theft, this is close to blasphemy. Others agree with free software but not the perceived inflexibility of the GPL approach — and it is uncompromising in its requirements for those who adopt it. Certainly, the GPL has never set out to be compulsory. It's just an option, albeit one with consequences, and plenty of people have decided it's not for them.

Yet for a document that merely sets out one way of working within the existing legal framework, the GPL has been exceptionally influential. Even those who prefer a different open licence agree that the GPL has been instrumental in creating an environment where open source software is seen as intellectually and commercially viable.

Things have changed dramatically since Richard Stallman created the first version in 1989. Then, fear of unfair exploitation kept a lot of software closed: now, fear of patents is chilling innovation. Then, there were few other open licences available: now, there's a profusion and it's not always clear how they can be mixed. Then, there was an assumption that inspection of software was OK regardless of the licence: now, DRM and the law seeks to blind us. These are the areas where GPL 3 sets out to maintain rigorous standards of freedom and openness — in keeping with its original remit.

It may have grown from 3000 words to 4500 and there are still areas where the wording could be clearer, but it remains an example of that which most terrifies lawyers — a readable legal document. There is no excuse for anyone with an interest not to read it and form their own opinion: it is not designed to be difficult to understand, nor does it try to disguise its true intention.

Whatever your take on open source and free software, it is undeniable that the Free Software Foundation is completely honest in its motivation and straightforward in its behaviour. The GPL is now up for debate for a year, a debate in which all may be heard equally. If you don't like it, speak up — and if you don't speak up, don't complain afterwards. Freedom only lives if you exercise it.