GPL sparks openness debate in tech sector
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A divisive philosophical battle in an arcane corner of the software business could lead to some unexpected consequences for consumer electronics makers and other technology companies, according to industry lawyers and analysts.
The fight, over a rewrite of a widely-used software licence known as the GPL, appeared to be largely resolved on Wednesday. However, it will still have wider repercussions for the growing number of companies that have come to rely on so-called open source products such as Linux, an operating system that is widely used in digital home appliances. Open source software is generally free of charge and users have can delve into and add to the software themselves.
In future, if the latest compromise over the GPL is adopted, anyone with the technical competence will have the right to crack open a television set-top box or any other gadget that employs the software and add new capabilities and features to the device themselves.
“This is serving notice on all the consumer electronics makers,” said Mark Radcliffe. “They will have to give people the alternative of replacing the software [in their devices] and tell them how to do it.”
This is one likely consequence of the first rewrite of the licence for 15 years. The battle is central to the broader question of intellectual property rights in the internet age. It concerns an approach to licensing software that, over the past decade, has come to be seen as the model for an open approach to letting people share ideas over the Web.
Devised nearly 20 years ago by Richard Stallman, a maverick programmer and activist, the GPL has been adapted to wider uses.
Software issued under the GPL, such as Linux, is freely available for anyone to use or add to, with the proviso that any amendments are made freely available. This system stands in sharp contrast to the traditional “closed” approach of the commercial software business and was once attacked as a “cancer” that could infect the entire software business by Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft.
The rewrite of the GPL, underway for the past year by Mr Stallman’s Free Software Foundation, has provoked a philosophical battle between hard-core supporters of intellectual openness and more pragmatic moderates, such as Linus Torvalds, leader of the Linux project. Mr Torvalds denounced earlier drafts, arguing that they did not meet the practical needs of technology companies that use the software.
In this week’s final draft of the new licence, Mr Stallman stepped back from some of his more radical proposals.
However, the draft still pushes for greater openness, for instance through the clause aimed at consumer electronics makers.
Another clause takes direct aim at Microsoft, which caused consternation in the open source world last year with an alliance with Novell, a Linux distributor.
The Microsoft deal “threatens the entire free software distribution chain,” and the licence has been revised to prevent it from being carried through, said Brett Smith, an official at the FSF.
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