More on GPLv3

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As promised, I’ve been doing some more thinking on the latest version of the GPLv3, and I’m still at least moderately convinced it has some significant issues that will either be resolved or stall adoption. Looking at them in order of significance:

  1. The DRM Provision:

    Given the fact that I’ve said the following in the past:

    Let me be upfront about one thing here: I don’t like DRM, and I probably never will…Candidly, I’d say it’d be near impossible for anyone to persuade me that DRM is a positive, a good thing. With few exceptions, I think in large part DRM is an attempt to solve the wrong problem.

    I don’t think anyone could credibly build a case that I’m a fan of DRM. I’m not going as far as my colleague – there are some things on iTunes I can’t do without, and there’s always Jon – but I loathe DRM generally speaking.

    Nor could it be argued that I agree with everything that comes out of Linus Torvalds’ mouth; while I like his design philosophy vis a vis keeping it simple, as a happy GNOME user and someone who tracks that community I couldn’t disagree more with some of his comments here.

    All that said, I’m with Linus here – I think the anti-GPL provisions contained in the draft license are less than ideal. Do I want GPL software powering next generation DRM systems? No. But you know what? I enjoy my Tivo, which has never yet required a reboot – it just works. Because it employs DRM in various forms, however, it is presumably incompatible with GPLv3 – and therefore would be unable to employ the Linux kernel it does today. That outcome, to me, is but one example of how the draft license – IMO, only – is overly aggressive in its aims. I doubt this provision will be removed, but it’s nonetheless interesting to contemplate how seriously the FSF will take the objections of Linus.

  2. The ASP Question:

    Sun’s Simon Phipps and I chatted about this the other day, and he does not share my concerns about the potential for fragmentation or forking of the license that I’ve discussed previously, citing legitimate examples of cases where this already the case (Linux and the classpath). I’ll debate that point at length later, but still think allowing the GPL to be randomly extended to fit a variety of needs is a potentially serious decision.

    But a post of his makes me believe that if nothing else, the authors of the license have not been sufficiently clear on the question of hosted software and its importance relative to the GPL. Why do I believe that? Well, let’s look at a couple of quotes from the post in question:


    I notice that Stephen O’Grady at Redmonk thinks like Mike Olson that the new GPL funked out on the provision to rein in ASPs. At first I thought so too, when I saw that there was no statement extending the need for publication of source for web execution of GPLed code…But as I have looked at it more and more, I believe Eben and Richard have been far more subtle. A crude and explicit ASP clawback would have raised a riot. Instead, the seeds are sowed in section 5c… Doesn’t that latter language just yell “SOA” to you? It seems to me that there is the germ of an idea here to ensure that, if your server software is licensed under GPL v3, the client software – AJAX, plug-in or whatever – is required by this language to also use GPL v3. This is a much more subtle approach, and strikes right to the heart of the rapidly evolving “read-write web”.

    Mike Olson:

    Interesting analysis, Simon. I disagree; it seems to me that there are straightforward ways to close the ASP loophole, if that were what the FSF wanted to do. More fundamentally, I don’t believe that any back-door mechanism can possibly survive the public comment period. [additional follow up here]

    Gordon Haff:

    I *thought* I got an answer to this question when I asked Eben whether software delivered through a managed hosting service counted as distribution or propagation. (This was the afternoon of the 1st day–I don’t think you were there at the time.) He gave a fairly long answer but I understood him to say that, so long as software was being delivered as a shared service (e.g. not dedicated servers for each user), that was not distribution under copyright law. But perhaps he answered one question about SaaS, but not all of them. I agree that if there’s any ambiguity, it needs to be cleaned up.

    The point of all of the above? I know Gordon, Mike and Simon all – and know them to be very sharp, very intelligent individuals. If they cannot read the license and agree on what is and is not covered, that alone is evidence enough for me that it needs to be clarified ASAP. If the intent is to extend the license to ASPs, be obvious about it. If not, same deal. Let’s not leave this one up to the lawyers.

It will be interesting to see how these and other concerns are addressed, or not, in the weeks/months ahead. At the moment, the v3 comments page is not returning me antyhing, so I don’t have a feel for the general sentiment.


  1. I understand where GNU is going with the ASP restrictions. These issues have been batted around for at least a couple years. I can see how a lot of developers see modifications used by ASP's as a loophole in the GPL license. For instance if an ASP modified squirrelmail, I could see why some developers might want access to those changes.

    I personally don't think the DRM stuff has any place in a source license. It basically says, "I don't like this domain, so you can't use my software there." I might not support the munitions industry either, but I wouldn't put a restriction preventing them from using my code. I don't see how this is any different. Like you said, how maybe people couldn't live w/out their Tivo?

    I might be the only technologist on the other side of the DRM fence. To me it is like checking my lift ticket when I get on the ski lift. I might find that a bit annoying, but if ensures the resort can stay in business from collecting ticket money, then that is a net good thing for me. If the ski resort goes out of business I can't go skiing, and I would resent those who got on the lift w/out paying.

    IMHO if DRM isn't good business it will go away. Simple as that. No need to worry.

  2. Eek, thanks for calling my attention to this problem! The comments page should be showing you things again (in Firefox, at least).

  3. > To me it is like checking my lift ticket when I get on the ski lift.

    DRM is more than that. It's like checking the lift ticket, yes, but also the guy checks you are only wearing gear hired from the resort shop, skis with you down the slope and trips you if you try any manoeuvers that weren't taught to by the resort ski instructor and as you go down the slope pushes you away from the moguls because those are a premium feature. The problems with it aren't that it allows legitimate enforcement of rights; they are (very concisely) that:
    * it quantises and prejudges discretion,
    * reduces "fair use" to "historic use" and
    * potentially empowers a hierarcical agent to remain in the control loop

    > IMHO if DRM isn't good business it will go away. Simple as that. No need to worry.

    Except the prior market power of huge corporations is being used to project it into markets in a way that distorts market forces and conceals the lack of ethics and the erosion of the social contract behind rights law. What if it's good business but bad humanity?

  4. That last point is a doozy, Simon. I'd argue that one of the ultimate aims of corporate regulation — in fact, of all law — is to ensure that bad humanity is bad business because it's *against the law*. Which is why corporate lobbying, and the laws its pervasive use generates, is so pernicious. It's a subversion of the democratic process when it's used for anything other than the dissemination of facts.

    That said, is there a better way?

  5. I am idealistic, but I believe businesses that are bad for humanity won't last if customers can choose not to buy from them, and employees can choose not to work for them.

    If customers don't like Sony's DRM, they won't do business with Sony.

    BTW, ski resorts do offer premium services. For instance at Kirkwood it is possible to buy a beginner ticket that doesn't include the Wall lift.

    Consumers have the money and the power. Even GM (who at one time ruled the US economy) was forced conceed to market forces. I have faith that the market will choose a reasonable compromise on DRM.

  6. I wish I didn't use the word "faith" there. I have *confidence* that the market will choose wisely.

  7. christopher: i really wish i could believe that, but humanity seems plagued with things that aren't good for it. i'm a believer in market forces and capitalism, generally speaking, but these are the same forces that gave us direct mail and telemarketing – the latter of which was only stopped by governmental intervention. likewise, i can't see even DRM hating consumers such as myself depriving themselves of content they truly enjoy just to prove a point, thus i think the DRM problem is far more insidious and difficult to eradicate than hoping for the best.

    the only exception to this might be truly egregious violations such as the Sony fiasco, which among other things i think is an example of how little regard the industry has for consumer's rights.

    orion: no worries – thx for fixing it.

    Simon: better articulated than i could have. thanks.

    Fraxas: the short answer, at least from where i sit, is no – there isn't a better way. much to my chagrin.

  8. Still can't trackback, Stephen, I have written a long piece here: http://blogs.sun.com/roller/page/webmink?entry=dr

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