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New GPL licence touted as saviour of Linux, Android

Tough on lawyers, and on the causes of lawyers

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The Free Software Foundation reckons its new version of the General Public Licence removes the problems bedevilling version two, but not everyone is convinced the problem even exists.

The FSF reckons that Linux developers need to move quickly to GPLv3 if they're to avoid Android (and similar Linux-based platforms) getting tied up in legal battles, despite the fact that many are claiming such battles are no more than figments in the eyes of publicity-hungry bloggers.

At issue is the clause in version two of the GPL which states that anyone breaching the restrictions irrevocably surrenders their rights under the licence. As just about every Android licensee has, at some point, failed to provide source code (or written notice of source code provision), then (the argument goes) they are all in breach of the GPLv2 and thus open to copyright suits from every Linux developer.

This was highlighted by IP attorney Edward Naughton, expounded by Florian Mueller, and reported by us. All this attention has prompted the FSF to explain that its latest licence fixes the problem completely.

Version three of the GPL allows the rights to be reinstated when compliance is re-established: so a company failing to distribute source code could remove the threat of suit by releasing the code, so the FSF has released a statement asking Linux developers to get into GPLv3 before it is too late:

"We urge developers who are releasing projects under GPLv2 to upgrade to GPLv3," says the statement, naming Android as the platform at risk. "Companies that sell products that use Android can help out by encouraging the developers of Linux to make the switch to GPLv3."

But despite the wording of the GPLv2, which rescinds licences for violations, it is far from clear whether it does, and (equally importantly) whether any of developers involved in Linux have the money (which would be needed to make the case) or inclination to start suing people for illegally using their code.

Linux developers are generally a benign bunch, unlikely to start raising capital to fund what would be a lengthy legal case, but the FSF argues that it is the fear of being sued that prevents companies using GPL code: a fear which may have little basis in fact.

"This is just one of many reasons why GPLv3 is better than GPLv2. This change has already given some companies the reassuring nudge they needed to start distributing GPL-covered software, and we expect to see more of that in the future."

IT World reckons the FSF shouldn't be using fear of a non-existent threat to promote its new licence, but anything that puts companies off the free alternatives is a problem. The threat might never be realised, but with the GPLv3 it definitely won't be. ®

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