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GPL version 3 evaluation committees admit Stallman is ultimate 'decider'

The committees vetting a draft of the General Public License version 3 say they have ideas about the direction of the popular open source license, but ultimately Richard Stallman controls its fate for better or worse.

Evaluation committees are hard at work on the latest draft of the General Public License (GPLv3), but members of those groups say it will ultimately be up to one person to decide what the license will look like when it's finished in early 2007.

The GNU General Public License is a widely used free software license written by Richard Stallman, the originator of the GNU Project that was launched in 1984 to develop a free Unix-like operating system. In an exclusive interview with, committee members evaluating GPL version 3.0, also called the GPLv3 draft, said that it was Stallman, the outspoken leader of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), who would make the final decisions on hot-button issues like digital rights management (DRM). However, even with Stallman as the ultimate decider in what stays and goes from the license he created in 1989, committee members were optimistic that the right issues are being addressed.

Those issues include four main changes to the GPL in the areas of software patents, compatibility with other licenses, the definition of which parts of the source code and what constitutes the source code that must be included in it and in DRM. The next revision of the GPLv3 draft is due out in July. The FSF's 12-month timetable for ratification of the draft puts the final stages sometime in late 2006 or early 2007.

Right now four committees -- A through D -- have assembled to evaluate portions of the GPLv3 draft. Each committee is made up of 18 to 22 members who were chosen from vendor, developer, hacker and open source communities.

The guidelines laid out in January by Stallman at the first International GPLv3 Conference were the right ones, said Doug Levin, the CEO of Waltham, Mass.-based Black Duck Software Inc. and a member of the vendor committee.

"GPLv3 is tackling the tough issues, and I think the FSF has done a great job in creating processes that are very open," Levin said. "There is a sense of confidence [in the committees] that at the end of the process the issues will have been resolved." Levin said that communication regarding the final language of the draft would also be vital.

When the first revision of the GPLv3 draft is delivered in July, it will be interesting to see how the FSF responds to the committee comments, said Ira Heffan, an attorney with Boston-based firm Goodwin Procter LLP.

"[The FSF] said they have made and will make a number of changes to the first draft based on the comments they have received, but we really won't know how receptive the FSF is until we see next draft," Heffan said.

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Heffan added that while the open evaluation process is democratic, it can also lead to confusion as people of different professions -- like developers and lawyers -- read passages with different perspectives. "This is the case with all open source licenses, but especially the GPL," he said.

"The committees will be able to give their thoughts, and Mr. Stallman should be persuaded that some of his ideas, however desirable, may not be practical in the real world," said Mark Radcliffe, an attorney with DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary US LLP in East Palo Alto, Calif. The open nature of the review process mirrored in open source software should allow for a constructive dialogue between the committees and the FSF, he said.

One of those ideas was that the license would require companies to provide "a kind of patent protection" to companies that adopted or integrated their code down the line, Radcliffe said. "This presents a problem for major corporations down the line," he added.

Another potential problem is finding a way to protect code that has been taken from behind a firewall. Radcliffe cited Google's practice of using open source code behind a firewall and said he was concerned that it would hinder code sharing and might even stop users from abiding by the terms of the GPL.

"This is an ongoing process," Radcliffe said. "When I worked with Sun Microsystems with its MPL license, it took six months to modify the terms before they made sense to us."

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