The rules governing the use of most free software
programs will be revised for the first time in 15 years, in an open
process that begins today.
Free software, once regarded as a tiny
counterculture in computing, has become a mainstream technology in
recent years, led by the rising popularity of programs like the GNU
Linux operating system.
Industry analysts estimate
that the value of hardware and software that use the Linux operating
system is $40 billion. And Linux has become a competitive alternative
to Microsoft's Windows, especially in corporate data centers.
the overhaul of the General Public License, which covers Linux and many
other free software programs, is an issue of far greater significance
today than before.
"The big boys, corporations and governments,
have far more reason to be interested and concerned this time," said
Eben Moglen, general counsel to the Free Software Foundation, which
holds the license, commonly known as the G.P.L.
The process will
also be closely watched for how the new G.P.L. will take account of
software patents, which have exploded among proprietary software
developers since 1991, the last time the license was revised.
document that describes the principles and timeline for updating the
G.P.L., as well as the process for public comment and resolving issues,
was to be posted today at www.gplv3.fsf.org. A first draft will be presented at a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scheduled for Jan. 16 and 17.
second draft is expected by summer. If a third draft is required, it
should be completed by the fall of 2006. The process, Mr. Moglen said,
could involve comments from thousands of corporations and individuals,
but the Free Software Foundation will make the final judgments.
revision process promises to be intriguing because of the man behind
the G.P.L., Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software
The G.P.L., according to Mr. Stallman, is an effort
to use copyright law to protect what he calls the "four basic freedoms
of software" - the unrestricted right to use, study, copy and modify
software. The license also requires that any modifications be
redistributed with the same unrestricted rights.
is renowned as both a brilliant computer programmer and a person of
emphatic views on matters of software. At the Artificial Intelligence
Lab at M.I.T. in the 1980's, Mr. Stallman began writing a free version
of the proprietary Unix operating system, which he called GNU, and he
distributed his work free.
Mr. Stallman, working as a lone
craftsman, wrote a huge amount of code for the operating system and
software tools for building it. But he had not gotten around to
designing the "kernel" of the free operating system - the core of the
program, controlling a computer's most basic functions.
1991, Linus Torvalds, a university student in Finland, wrote a kernel
and wrapped much of the GNU code around it. The completed operating
system attracted a following of programmers, working collaboratively to
debug and improve the program. The operating system became known as
Linux, and the networked style of work was called open source.
Mr. Stallman's view, proprietary software is an unwarranted restriction
on the freedom of information. The revision of the G.P.L., he said, is
"part of something bigger - part of the long-term effort to liberate
cyberspace." Software patents, he said, are "utterly insane."
For Microsoft's part, Steven A. Ballmer, its chief executive, has called the G.P.L. a "cancer."
in his way, Mr. Stallman is also quite pragmatic. Proprietary software
applications can run on Linux without restrictions, which is important
for the survival of Linux as a viable alternative to commercial
Mr. Stallman also acknowledged that patent
rights are a sticky issue for free software, because any attempt in the
G.P.L. to counteract the spread of patented software could backfire by
making it difficult for free and proprietary software to run on the
"Patents are a serious issue we have to address,
but we have limited leverage," he said. "Sometimes, if you push too
hard, you end up pushing yourself back instead of hurting your