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Open source incest: GPL forked by its coauthor

Will licensing licentiousness rile Free Softies?

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Updated One of the principal authors of version 3 of the Gnu General Public License (GPL) has spun off his own version of the license without the participation of the Free Software Foundation (FSF), in a move that could ruffle feathers in the often-cantankerous free software community.

The new license has been dubbed GPL.next, and it's the brainchild of Richard Fontana, who along with Eben Moglen and Richard Stallman helped to draft the GPLv3, which debuted in 2007.

Fontana's free software credentials are solid. He currently serves as the open source and patent licensing counsel for Red Hat, though he says the Linux vendor is not involved or affiliated with the GPL.next effort in any way. Previously, he was legal counsel to the Software Freedom Law Center.

Fontana has launched GPL.next as a project on GitHub, a collaboration website popular with software developers, and development of the new license will be a collaborative effort. In the welcome text of the GPL.next project, Fontana writes:

Contributions of patches, ideas, and criticism are welcome. Forks in the GitHub sense are encouraged. The goal of this effort is to develop an improved strong copyleft free software license.

"Copyleft" here refers to a type of free software license that requires all modified and extended versions of the software to also be free. The Gnu GPL is the most prominent example of such a license. Non-copyleft software licenses, such as the Apache and BSD licenses, allow developers to make their modified versions of the software proprietary, if they so choose.

Fontana is quick to point out that GPL.next is not really a new version of the Gnu GPL, though it is derived from it. Although the FSF discourages modified versions of the GPL, they are permitted, provided they meet certain conditions. One condition is that they go by a different name – hence, GPL.next (and no reference to Gnu).

Still not altogether clear, however, is just what Fontana hopes to accomplish with the new license, or why he decided that an end-run around the FSF was the best way to achieve his goals. Neither Fontana nor the FSF responded to requests for comment on this story.

A presentation Fontana gave at the Fosdem free and open source developer conference in Brussels in February 2012 may offer some clues, however. In the presentation, titled, "The decline of the GPL and what do do about it," Fontana said that "strong copyleft is vitally important," but he described the GPLv3 as "a lost opportunity to stem anti-copyleft shift."

Among the problems with the Gnu GPL that Fontana identified in his presentation were the length and complexity of the license, the "collapse" of the authority of the FSF, and the shift toward cloud-based applications, which are incompatible with traditional open source licenses.

Whether a new, independent software license is the answer to these problems, however, is debatable. The Open Source Initiative currently lists 69 different free and open source licenses for developers to choose from – and when it comes to software licensing matters, more is not merrier. ®

Update

Over the weekend, the Register was able to reach Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and primary author of all previous versions of the Gnu GPL.

"Exploring ideas for a modified copyleft license can't hurt," he writes in an email. "But we studied the field thoroughly for GPLv3, so one shouldn't presume another project will come up with a better license."

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