Expert advice: Voice your open source concerns now

The future of open source software is being debated right now -- according to columnist Paul Gillin, you should be involved in the discussion.

Last month the Free Software Foundation released the first draft of a rewrite of the GNU General Public License (GPL), which is the dominant software license in the open source world. At a shade more than 4,000 words, the draft of version 3 of the GPL is a model of brevity. But it's a significant and far-reaching document for IT organizations that so far have been reluctant to take the open source plunge.

The existing GPL is a relic of pre-Internet times. It was created in 1991 when code-sharing was cumbersome and the now-common open beta test approach to software development was unheard of.

It was meant for a pre-Red Hat world that had no business model for open source software. Today, in contrast, the Linux-based hardware and software market is estimated at $40 billion annually. And the 1991 GPL didn't anticipate the actions of vultures like SCO, which have used software patents to extract money from unwitting users.

The Free Software Foundation wants software to be free. But that utopian vision doesn't always fit with the pragmatics of today's markets. The GPL's deficiencies have spawned dozens of alternative licenses, each slightly different from the other. So it's not surprising that many businesses are choosing simply to avoid open source altogether. In fact, license issues are the No. 1 concern corporate IT managers have told me they have about open source.

Among the many revisions to the GPL there are three that I believe merit particular scrutiny by IT organizations:

Combined licenses

The current license is vague in the way it deals with software that includes modules covered by non-GPL licenses. Some people actually interpret the GPL 2 as forcing any software that touches GPL code to be subject to GPL license terms. For example, if you write a sophisticated program that happens to include the MySQL database, you might have to give all your work away because MySQL is covered by the GPL.

The proposed rewrite accommodates non-GPL code in GPL-licensed software, but could present some tricky issues around how modified GPL code is licensed. Read section 7 carefully. Give particular attention to the question of what happens in a service-oriented architecture, where all kinds of programs may touch each other. Does section 7 give you adequate protection against this kind of futuristic scenario?

Hosted services

The current GPL doesn't have language that deals with software sold on a hosted or on-demand basis because that market didn't exist in 1991. This so-called "ASP loophole" can be used to make changes to GPL software without distributing the source code. This is significant for businesses that offer software as a service, which many companies do today. In fact, if you offer any interactivity on your Web site, you may technically be considered to be ''distributing'' software.

The rewritten section 6 makes it clear that software delivered on demand is subject to the GPL but allows room for interpretation of how the source code must be delivered. It appears to tighten but doesn't necessarily close the loophole. As you read it, think of what you might do on the Web in the future. If you can be considered to be a distributor, does this section provide adequate protection?

Software patents

Finally, the new license has a patent ''retaliation'' clause to protect against the possibility that someone could patent a software program carrying GPL code and then go back and sue anyone who's already using the software. That was the tactic employed by SCO. The Free Software Foundation hates software patents, so the GPLv3 has language clarifying that users are shielded from this kind of after-the-fact protection. But this has been the trickiest section of the license to write, according to GPL author Richard Stallman. The new language is in section 11. Whether you love or hate software patents, you should be familiar with it.

The Free Software Foundation is targeting early 2007 as the date for the completion of GPLv3. It expects to get thousands of comments but also appears to be genuinely interested in hearing what people have to say. Vendors rarely give their customers input into licensing terms and this is a rare opportunity to influence the development of a major industry standard. IT managers should make their opinions known.

Paul Gillin is an independent marketing consultant and founding editor-in-chief of TechTarget. His website is www.gillin.com.

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