GPL 3.0: Does It Even Matter?

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That seemed to be our consensus question when four of us weighed in on the subject during an IT Business Edge forum a few days ago. I was actually expecting a very heated debate but, in the end, we didn't seem to find it particularly easy to disagree with each other, and trust me, I was trying.


That isn't to say I was trying to be disagreeable but I know it is vastly more interesting to explore where experts differ than where they agree because it is often through those differences that we learn the questions we should be asking ourselves before accepting any type of contract or license.


There were a few things I don't think we fully vetted, though, and I'd like to discuss them here.


Will GPL 3.0 Fork Open Source?


There are a lot of licenses surrounding open source; the GPL is just one of them and it has a number of variants that surround it. With a proprietary product, complexity associated with intellectual property that has been licensed to the supplying company and embedded in the solution is generally handled upstream so you don't have to deal with it. Granted, if there is a dispute, the company raising the dispute could come after the buyer/user, and sometimes threaten to do exactly that, but most of the time they go after the company that is distributing the product.


With open source, because the licenses like the GPL are focused on distribution and pass downstream, you have to be aware of each and every one of them. Now the complexity of multiple licenses on a single offering, some of which may have usage terms and some being focused on distribution, would seem to be a little daunting but speaks to the fact that a GPL 3.0 protected component likely can be combined with a GPL 2.0 protected component successfully. The issue, if challenged, would be: Which license is the governing license?


As we ended, there was a firm belief that FOSS would give in to the Linux Foundation and assure that the GPL didn't fork Linux. But I'm questioning if it even can. Open source appears to propagate license complexity and this GPL version not only doesn't address that, it appears to make it worse. Still, as I write this, there are last minute changes that may mitigate this problem still. We'll see what the final license language says.


In the end, it may simply become another minor license type among many whose only claim to fame is sounding like it is meaningful. Slow Adoption: Test Will Be Novell


Nobody is clearly not accurate because FOSS will certainly jump on this thing as quickly as possible. But the consensus of the panel appeared to be that all of the important stuff was either removed already or soon will be eclipsing any remaining benefits. With the latest last-minute changes exempting all of the Microsoft deals pre-GPL 3.0, Novell, if they find it attractive, may be free to adopt it. But just not being a negative does not a positive make. If Novell does it, this will mean the benefits, for them anyway, clearly exceed the negatives and (given they were targeted in the first place) there may actually be some solid reasons to use it.


In the spirit of "What if you threw a war and no one came," the reality is that this is a brand new and largely untested license. IT doesn't like new, and if most developers don't see any value, they won't switch to something new because it will reduce their available market.


This is because new represents risk and IT shops go way out of their way to avoid risk, any type of risk. In addition, if a developer wants to sell an open source product, he or she has to sell into an environment that doesn't like new licenses and will see little value in this one (it really isn't designed to benefit the user or buyer of the product).


Consensus seemed to be that adoption would be glacial after an initial spurt (but this was before the latest changes) and, if this is correct, many may begin asking if GPL 3.0 or FOSS has any real relevance. Some are already questioning whether open source is going into decline due to the infighting.


GPL 4.0


Clearly, the trend is to close all of the loopholes eventually and this means companies like Google, IBM and Salesforce.com would be affected adversely by a future license from FOSS if that organization remains relevant and can drive such a thing. But, if we believe that GPL 3.0 isn't relevant and by proxy FOSS isn't either, or FOSS simply becomes more business friendly as the latest GPL changes might indicate, then these organizations have very little to fear from the future. Given IBM's power in open source and who they fund, I kind of wonder if that company will ever be at risk, and Google, largely due to its stature and mammoth open source developer base of employees, likely can assure nothing FOSS dreams of doing will affect it either.


This certainly suggests that, even for FOSS, money and influence talk and we will likely increasingly wonder just how much it costs to get a provision in this license that benefits any one vendor. Much like it is in government (and FOSS appears to mirror government), well-financed lobbyists will likely continue to get exclusions. But if you aren't well funded, at some point the GPL in its future versions will likely become unpalatable. But, if we think strategically, and we should, it only follows that we should anticipate GPL 4.0 and try to make sure it is written so it, at the very least, doesn't harm us.


It may be wise to anticipate that and develop a contingency plan to move to another license or provider should that be the case. By the way, this can happen with any vendor or license so it remains wise to have a contingency plan to move vendors in any case. At the very least, it helps with negotiations.


Wrapping Up: Tempest in a Teapot


With the latest changes and the questions surrounding adoption and special exclusions, coupled with what will likely be a nightmare scenario if anyone ever has to litigate to enforce this thing, the risks appear manageable. Still, it remains advised that, consistent with any license or contract, you have your own legal counsel review, approve and recommend policies surrounding this license before it is put into service or you are bound by it.