Openness in action: Get used to it

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There seems to have been a bit of “he said, she said” lately about the draft GPL v3 and the process by which it is being created. Here are just a few examples:

The blogosphere has been active as well. Several IBM colleagues of mine have been working on “Discussion Group B” in the FSF GPL v3 comment process since it started early this year, and I was present at the very first meeting.

IBM has not been publicly vocal about what it has seen and heard, but that’s just its choice to work in the background, at least so far. I fully applaud and appreciate anyone who wants to stand up and loudly say what they think about the drafts. In particular, I commend the Linux kernel developers who wrote a position paper on why they would like the world to stay with GPL v2. Linus Torvalds has also not been shy about addressing various aspects of what he likes about GPL v2 and dislikes about v3. Others in the industry have also spoken of what they appreciate in or what they would rather have stricken from the latest draft.

I’m not an attorney and I’m not going to use this entry to say what I like about this part or don’t like about that part of the v3 draft license. IBM has not been shy in Group B about expressing itself nor working with others to gain understanding, remove confusion, and reach compromises.

There already have been some potshots from the non-open community and their surrogates, but compare this whole GPL development process to what happens when a single proprietary provider unilaterally writes a license and then tries to “encourage” customers to accept it via a transfer of money for product. If it’s a good and acceptable license, there’s no problem but maybe some haggling over price and goods delivered. In the free and open software world, things are different since the licenses themselves may be developed by communities, and haggling may occur there as well as in what goes into the software itself. The FOSS community has a lot of stakeholders, and all deserve their say. Thus, again, I think the FSF must take very seriously what folks like the Linux kernel developers have to say.

I know that technically the FSF owns the GPL and its language. More than being owners though, in 2006 the FSF are the stewards of the GPL. They are responsible for its care and upkeep as well as what it does and can do for those who choose to use it. I think this is true for both GPL v2 and v3, now and in the future. Thus when I read in the FSF statement

The FSF has no power to force anyone to switch from GPLv2 to GPLv3 on their own code. We intentionally wrote GPLv2 (and GPLv1) so we would not have this power.

I’m pleased because this represents stewardship rather than an ownership power play. That needs to be pervasive throughout all aspects of the drafting process. Indeed, several of the the things I’ve read say that some inaccuracies in stated opinions are reportedly being fixed, though I’m sure the Linux kernel developers might want to respond to that.

So aside from any of the particular legal clauses in the GPL v3 draft, this is what I’m looking for in the license itself:

  1. Removal of inaccuracies. It should say exactly what the authors say it means without any “we didn’t intend to say that” gothchas.
  2. Similarly, removal of any underspecified or ambiguous language. If you say something is about X but it could also be applied to Y, perhaps unintentionally, the draft must be fixed to separate the issues and fully clarify them.
  3. A realistic appreciation of the needs of the huge number of people and organizations who now have a tremendous vested interest in making sure that FOSS and the GPL continue to grow in use and suceed. Like most things, licenses evolve, but they evolve because of the nature of the environment in which they live. This evolution will happen when the time is right, not when it gets forced.

IBM is actively participating in the drafting process. As each draft is released, people will be looking to see how it gets cleaned up and what stays or goes. Progress and compromise are expected. Disagreements are welcome, but being unreasonable is not, from anyone, in my opinion.

I think that the extraordinary success of the GPL to date supports my belief that things are all going to work out in the end, whether we stay with v2 or move to a v3 that is broadly acceptable. I reserve the right to follow up later with more pointed comments (though “disagreements are welcome, but being unreasonable is not”).

Let’s hear more remarks like those from the kernel developers and responses from the FSF, not fewer. We’ll live with the press headlines about disagreements, the FUD from the muckrakers, and the sincere requests for understanding what is going on. This is openness in action, so get used to it. I’m confident that we’ll get the convergence of ideas that will allow the strong growth of FOSS to continue to accelerate. That’s in everyone’s best interests.

One Comment

  1. Bob, your comments about the positive aspects of this open process, involving lots of discussions including the public airing of disagreements, reminds me of the positive aspects of democratic systems.

    If one criticizes democracies for being “messy”, one needs to keep in mind that the alternatives to messy democracies is usually an orderly authoritarian regime where few people have a voice on what should happen.

    I share your belief that things will work out in the end.

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