Tech & Work

Linux license overhaul--don't hold your breath

On the eve of a major Linux show, a new license is under construction--but don't hold your breath.

Stay on top of the latest tech news with our free IT News Digest newsletter, delivered each weekday. Automatically sign up today!

By Stephen Shankland
Staff Writer, CNET News.com

The snowballing success of Linux has attracted involvement from all corners of the computing realm—but the breadth of that interest is expected to complicate a revision of the software's legal underpinnings.

The heart of the operating system is governed by a license called the General Public License, or GPL, last updated in 1991 but now being modernized. A key lawyer involved in that work, though, says the revamp won't be done until 2006 at the earliest.

When a draft of the new license is released, the debate will be contentious and resolving the issues will take at least one year, predicted Eben Moglen, a Columbia law professor and legal counsel for the Free Software Foundation that oversees the license.

"It has survived at present for almost 14 years. I think it is more or less inevitable it will see its 15th birthday," Moglen said in a speech at the OSDL Linux Summit this month.

Releasing a new license in 2006 or even 2007 may seem a long way off, but it's not when compared with the 100-year planning horizon of GPL creator and FSF founder Richard Stallman, Moglen said. "It is going to be a screaming match some days, but it is going to be a noble effort when it's over," Moglen said. And in the end, "Nobody, dare I say even Mr. Stallman, will get from this process everything he wants."

The license is being modernized to deal with new realities in the computing industry, such as widespread patenting of software, computers that will run only software that has been cryptographically signed and software services available over the Internet.

Scrutiny of the license is increasing as the free and open-source software projects it governs become promoted by mainstream computing companies and more widely used by conventional customers. And even though the SCO Group is having serious trouble with its $5 billion lawsuit against IBM—alleging that Big Blue violated a contract by moving proprietary Unix software to open-source Linux—the case has served to bring even more attention to open-source issues.

Licensing issues are assuming a higher profile at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo in Boston this week. While numerous corporate allies such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Red Hat, Novell and Oracle will show their Linux faith at the show, small start-ups specializing in the licensing issues will also be on hand.

One start-up, Black Duck Software, plans to announce at LinuxWorld that it's signed up one of the largest software companies, SAS Institute, as a customer for software to make sure open-source and proprietary software isn't being intermingled. And Black Duck now has competition: At the Linux show on Tuesday, a rival called Palamida will announce itself and its product.

But the legal scrutiny, while burgeoning, isn't alien to the GPL. When Stallman launched his Gnu's Not Unix, or GNU, effort to clone Unix in the 1980s, he crafted the first GPL not just to govern the software but also to try to create a legal framework that would guarantee that GNU would never be fettered by proprietary shackles.

So far the license has succeeded admirably. "It's been very successful in accelerating the acceptance and use of open-source licensed products," said Brian Kelly, an intellectual-property attorney with Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

The license has its detractors, however.

The most prominent is Microsoft. While the software giant is quick to explain that it likes the active engagement with programmers, the company considers the GPL unacceptable, said Martin Taylor, general manager of Microsoft's platform strategy.

"There are restrictions in the GPL today that prevent us from doing anything with it," Taylor said. Microsoft prefers licenses that permit software to be used in proprietary projects as well.

Sun Microsystems is another critic. In a dual-pronged competition, Sun has begun vying both with Linux and with the GPL by releasing its own version of Unix, Solaris, as open-source software under the Community Development and Distribution License.

The CDDL, like the GPL, lets anyone change software but requires that those changes be publicly released. Unlike the GPL, though, the CDDL permits a tight coupling between its open-source components and other proprietary components.

"If people want to use the GPL and integrate with it, they have to adopt the proprietary license called the GPL," said Sun President Jonathan Schwartz in an interview this month. "Basically it forces your hand. You don't have any choice anymore."

Version 3 of the GPL, when it does arrive, won't necessarily apply to Linux, however. Linux leader Linus Torvalds specifically chose version 2 of the GPL to govern Linux—but omitted a provision that would permit using a later version of the license.

Stallman recommends against that approach, in part to permit GPL software to be used in future GPL projects. "That's too bad. That's his problem," Stallman recently said of Torvalds' choice.

Among the reasons for an update is clarifying how close GPL and non-GPL code may come before a GPL provision requires the other package also be governed by the GPL.

For some years, that debate has been defined by whether one software component is linked through fixed "static" links or more spur-of-the-moment "dynamic" links. That discussion already is obsolete because of how different modules of software now interact on the Internet through Web services technologies such as SOAP, or Simple Object Access Protocol, Moglen said.

"Static and dynamic linking is no longer the fight we need to have. Instead we have to ask ourselves about SOAP and bubbles and nets and stuff moving around in grids and through intersections and heaven only knows what else," Moglen said.

Another complication will be making sure the GPL works in the dozens of countries where GPL software now is being used. And the voice of corporate powers who were absent in 1991 must be heard.

Hewlett-Packard is one of those voices. But Martin Fink, vice president of Linux at HP, is a big GPL fan. Even so, the license needs to be updated for modern computing issues, he said.

"I agree with Eben's view that a year out from a first draft is reasonable," Fink said. "I'm not sitting here in a panic waiting for GPL version 3, but it's not something we can let go forever."

Editor's Picks