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Linus: read-up on your GPL 3.0

When is a derivative not a derivative?

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Linus may have it wrong on digital rights management (DRM), but it's the vague wording and confusing concepts - like what is meant by a "derivative work" - that is causing the real headaches over the next General Public License (GPL).

A representative of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), leading the effort around GPL 3.0, said that Linux creator Linus Torvalds had "misread" the license's provisional terms.

He said GPL 3.0 is intended to stop developers using GPL code to build DRM products, services or protected content. That means not allowing developers to build code that requires a DRM key to be unlocked and certainly not allowing developers to prosecute others for unlocking their code without the use of specially provided DRM keys - or, in other words, "hacking".

"We want to discourage use of GPL to further DRM efforts," Freedom Software Law Centre counsel Richard Fontana said at the Open Source Business Conference (OSBC) in San Francisco on Tuesday. The Freedom Law Centre represents the FSF.

Torvalds last month ruled out putting the Linux kernel under GPL 3.0 because he believed it required contributors to make their private signing keys available. The draft GPL 3.0 states DRM is "fundamentally incompatible with the purpose of the license".

Fontana said: "Linus Torvalds has misread it... We require disclosure of the codes if it's necessary to make the software run."

So that's clear, then. All that remains are a handful of unclear definitions in other parts of the license that require clarification.

Open Source Institute (OSI) general counsel Lawrence Rosen, appearing with Fontana on an OSBC panel discussing GPL 3.0, pointed to statements in the proposed license that lack legal clout. These included the sentence: "The sole purpose of this section is protection of the integrity of the free software distribution system.

"I'm trying to identify what sections of paragraphs or words are trying to express some kind of philosophy, and which have legal effect and require or prohibit you from doing things," Rosen said.

There is still further confusion over what should happen to a piece of software that is created when GPL code is linked to non-GPL code. Does that count as a "derivative" work or a "collaborative" work? And in either case, which license will apply to the new code? "This license [GPL 3.0] doesn't resolve that," Rosen said. ®

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