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This article is reprinted with permission from the June/July 2006 issue of TEQ magazine.

Open Source is everywhere. Apple uses open source components in its OS X operating system and Safari browser. Linux, the best known and most successful Open Source operating system, continues to be the fastest-growing operating system, according to a recent IDC study. It has been estimated that some form of Linux is deployed in 70 to 80 percent of enterprise computing environments. The leading Web server worldwide is the open source Apache server.

In addition to being pervasive, open source software also generally embodies a concept, which is a deliberate alternative to the traditional "copyright" intellectual property protections. Because of that, the method for protecting Open Source is sometimes called "copyleft." The essential feature of open source software is the attempt to promote the legal and free distribution of the software, along with broad rights to copy, distribute and modify the code.

But you’ve probably heard all that before (even right here in TEQ magazine; see "Open Source Software: Free But Not Without Cost" by David Gould and David Gurwin Jan/Feb 2004). What makes 2006 the year of the GNU Public License (GPL)? Simply put, this year is the year that the GPL finally moves from version 2 to version 3 (and truth be told, that actually involves a little bit of early 2007). And in true open source collaborative fashion, everyone gets a chance to comment on it as it does so.

A brief summary of the story so far: the Free Software Foundation (FSF), established in 1985, is dedicated to promoting computer users' rights to use, study, copy, modify and redistribute computer programs. The FSF promotes the development of free software, particularly the GNU operating system (GNU's Not Unix), used widely in its GNU/Linux variant. FSF provides development systems for GNU software maintainers, including full e-mail and shell services, and remains the primary sponsor of the GNU Project.

In order to promote the idea of "copyleft," the commencement of the GNU project in 1984 required the establishment of new distribution terms that would prevent the project from being turned into proprietary software. The GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) was the result and the GPL is the most widely used open source license.

The GPL is designed to make sure users have the freedom to distribute copies of free software (free as in "without restrictions," users are allowed to charge for the act of distribution); receive source code; change the software; or use pieces of the code in
new free programs. Developers that use the GNU GPL protect their rights with two steps: (1) by asserting copyright protection on the software, and (2) by offering the GPL, which grants legal permission to copy, distribute and/or modify the software. These restrictions create certain responsibilities for the user if copies of the software are distributed or modified.

In 1991, the FSF released GPLv2 to apply it to their own FSF software in hopes that other developers might wish to apply it to theirs. By that measure, the GPLv2 was wildly successful, as it is used to license a wide range of software applications, and has even gone beyond into other intellectual property. However, the GPLv2 has also had its share of controversy. Unlike many other Open Source licenses, the GPL seeks to aggressively promote "copyleft" via "replicating" provisions, which state that any modifications or redistribution to the code also must be done under the GPL license. Critics of the GPL have called this concept the "Open Source virus," arguing that the intent seems to be that when GPL code is modified and distributed with non-GPL code, the terms of the GPL license seek to "infect" the non-GPL code; thus purporting to convert all the distributed code to open source status. Defenders of the GPL have countered that no one is forced to accept the GPL license terms (you can always choose not to use the software) and that the GPL license terms are frequently much less onerous when compared to the provisions of a commercial off-the-shelf end user license agreement.

In any event, 15 years is a long, long time for a software license - think of what hardware and software you were using in 1991! According to the FSF, changes in intellectual property law, not computer technology, have created the impetus for FSF's  revisions to the current version of the GNU GPL. The FSF Web site cites the catalyst for these changes in primary part was the application of patent law to software. The Web site states, "Any program can be destroyed or crippled by a software patent belonging to someone who has no other connection to the program."

Which brings us back to 2006 and the process for version 3 of the GPL (GPLv3). The FSF released the first Discussion Draft of  GPLv3 in January 2006. It is expected that at least two more discussion drafts of the GPLv3 will be released for public comment  this year. Publication of the second discussion draft will occur after four or five months of discussion, issue identification and  resolution. A third discussion draft may be produced in approximately October 2006, after a second or subsequent iterative  process of comment, issue identification, etc. The last call draft will be concluded no later than January 15, 2007. Finally, in March 2007, the FSF expects to formally adopt version 3 of the GNU General Public License. At that time, the Free Software Foundation will relicense under GPLv3 or later all parts of the GNU Project for which the Free Software Foundation is the  copyright holder. All parties with authority to relicense programs whose current license terms are "GPLv2 only" will then be in a position to decide whether or not to relicense their code.