Open Warfare in Open Source

Disagreements over what should be included in the free software license's next version have pitted the movement's leaders against each other

Say the letters G, P, and L in that order around most folks and you're likely to be met with a blank stare. But try dropping them around the open-source crowd, especially in proximity to San Francisco this mid-August, and you'll get a very different response: everything from fist-pumping to hand-wringing.

The letters stand for General Public License, a document originally written more than 15 years ago intended to govern the use of software that's freely available online for use and development by coders. In essence, the GPL says, if any company or individual takes GPL-protected software and adds to it, those additions must also be freely available. That's in contrast with software whose code is held close by companies, often jealously guarded by patents.

Back in the early 1990s, the notion of software that's open to input by any developer who cares to monkey with it was pretty radical—so much so that it needed a license. For the most part, the GPL has filled that bill beautifully.

But it's getting harder. These days, so-called open-source software has become big business. The open-source Linux operating system runs some 30% of the servers in Corporate America. Hardware companies such as TiVo (TIVO) bundle it into products. Startups worldwide are hoping to build booming businesses on the backs of the communities that contribute to and disseminate code.


  But the impetus to make a profit (and its associated compromises) isn't sitting well with true believers in free software. And the resulting rifts were apparent at last week's LinuxWorld conference in San Francisco. On one side is Richard Stallman and his Free Software Foundation. When Stallman says "free" he doesn't mean price, he means freedom. He believes all software should be freely available to be modified by the public. And for him, this is nothing short of a moral fight.

On the other is Linus Torvalds, the father of Linux. He and others in his open-source camp believe that freely sharing code simply produces the best software, but if other people want to hide their code, that's fine, too. Companies will just vote with their feet.

No one is trapped in the middle more than Eben Moglen, the attorney for the Free Software Foundation who has spent much of the last year drafting the new GPL, version 3—a license that would take into account how the tech and business landscape has changed and attempt to bridge the divisions between the free-software and open-source camps.

It's no mean feat. There are three drafts, and in between each one there's a comment period, where anyone with a stake in the movement can weigh in. Then Moglen takes those comments and goes back to the drawing board. At a panel at LinuxWorld, Moglen described the process as nothing short of a massive community looking deep within itself and answering the lofty question: What does freedom mean? It's a very open-source way to solve a problem; only unlike fixing bugs in a code, there's no easy answer and big divides that are hard to bridge. "It's an unusual activity," Moglen says. "It's more about the development of the society and less about the software license."


  His panel members, Christine Martino, head of Hewlett-Packard's (HPQ) Linux business, and Stuart Cohen, chief executive of the Open Source Development Labs, agreed it was an ambitious and impressive undertaking. That doesn't mean they were happy with the outcome when the second draft was released in July.

The two biggest sticking points are patents and digital rights management. HP's objection is a part of the license that says anything touched by GPL code becomes open source. In other words, if a company bundles its hardware with open-source software and ships it to customers, it surrenders rights to enforce patents. "HP had hopes that the second draft would clarify the patent provision such as to ease concern that mere distribution of a single copy of GPL-licensed software might have some adverse [intellectual property] impact on a company," HP said in a statement. "Unfortunately, the concern lingers in draft 2."

Stallman also has concerns over hardware. Increasingly popular products like TiVo use Linux, but the hardware has so-called digital rights management protections to ensure that altered or tweaked software doesn't work with the hardware. Stallman thinks that's inhibiting the freedom of people to change software as they see fit (see, 3/28/06, "Keeping Free Software Free"). Torvalds argues that software makers don't have the right to make such moral demands about the hardware it runs on. "[Stallman] sees the license as a tool to get to his end goal that all software should be open source and free," says Diane Peters, general counsel for the Open Source Development Labs, which governs and advocates for Linux. "[Torvalds] doesn't share that grandiose idea."


  Unless something changes, the sad end result for all this work could be more of the status quo: many license options and one big industry headache. The GPL is still the de facto license behind some 75% of the open-source projects out there, but many of the largest ones use different licenses—a headache for businesses or companies that want to bundle the free software into their own products.

Moglen, for his part, remains an optimist. He applauds Torvalds and others for being clear in their objections. It's when people are up front about their bottom line that "the serious negotiation begins." On the panel, he said: "I see no reason to believe these objections necessarily spell doom. Common ground can be found."

So after months of work, talking, drafts, and compromises, are the two sides back to square one? Few parties want to talk in absolutes yet. There is a third draft due in October that should take the current criticisms into account. Then concerned parties will have another 45 days for input before the Free Software Foundation comes out with the final version by March of next year.


  The biggest stakeholders in the open-source business world are watching quietly. Red Hat (RHAT), the biggest distributor of Linux, didn't want to comment until it saw a final draft. Sun Microsystems (SUNW), which is in the process of open-sourcing almost all of its software, has lawyers closely looking at the matter and is still hopeful, says Simon Phipps, chief open-source officer for Sun. Marten Mickos, chief executive of open-source up-and-comer MySQL, similarly didn't want to judge until the work was complete, saying he was optimistic that the two sides were at least inching forward. "The GPL 3 will be able to contribute to the success of society only to the degree it is widely adopted," he says.

And when it comes to widespread adoption, Torvalds has the upper hand. Many large open-source companies don't use the GPL, or use it along with other licenses, for some of the most high-profile programs. These include Mozilla, which makes the Firefox browser; the Eclipse Software Foundation, which makes tools for open-source developers; and the Apache Software Foundation, which governs several so-called middleware projects.

If Torvalds chooses not to go with version 3 for Linux, the Free Software Foundation will become even more irrelevant to the business world of open source. Of Torvalds, Peters notes, "He would move to it if he thought there was something beneficial in there, but I don't think he's seen it yet."

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