Justin Gibbs, founder and vice president of the FreeBSD Foundation, writes in the FreeBSD Foundation Newsletter about the GPLv3 issue. He points out that there’s a very unfortunate assumption in the general population (and among authors of some projects) that open source and GPL mean the same thing. He also mentions a chief concern of enterprise users and vendors that the GPL’s restrictions prevent them from using open source software (including Linux).
Gibbs writes that “the members of our community must engage on this issue, understand the importance of our licensing philosophy, and promote that philosophy to others.” That’s especially apropos given the current Atheros driver discussion I mentioned in a previous post.
On June 29th, the Free Software Foundation unveiled version 3 of the GNU General Public license (GPL). Even though the majority of software included in the FreeBSD distribution is not covered by any version of the GPL, our community cannot ignore this very popular license or its most recent incarnation. Through extremely successful evangelization, and the popularity of Linux, the misconception that OpenSource and the GPL are synonymous has become pervasive.
This misconception isn’t new, so why write about it now? Version 3 has further “refined” the GPL’s concept of “free” software. Some use models that were possible under “loopholes” in GPLv2 are now explicitly forbidden in GPLv3. Appliance vendors in particular have the most to lose if the large body of software currently licensed under GPLv2 today migrates to the new license. They will no longer have the freedom to use GPLv3 software and restrict modification of the software installed on their hardware. High support costs (“I modified the web server on my Widget 2000 and it stopped running…”) and being unable to guarantee adherence to specifications in order to gain licensing (e.g. FCC spectrum use, Cable TV and media DRM requirements) are only two of a growing list of issues for these users. In short, there is a large base of OpenSource consumers that are suddenly very interested in understanding alternatives to GPL licensed software….
A GPL proponent might argue that a license for free software must be upgraded periodically since we cannot anticipate what new use models for free software might be developed that restrict freedom. The BSD license is as permissive as possible exactly because we cannot predict the future or to what beneficial purpose (commercial or otherwise) our software will be used.
As a community, this is the perfect time to clarify these differences. Toward that end, the FreeBSD Foundation has started to engage with large current and potential users of OpenSource software to understand their use models and how the GPLv3 might impact them. What is clear from the early results of this initiative is that the GPLv3 is a critical concern for many current commercial users of OpenSource software. As these companies devise strategies for dealing with GPLv3, so must the FreeBSD community – strategies that capitalize on this opportunity to increase adoption of FreeBSD.