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Rules for free software face overhaul

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The rules governing the use of most free software programs will be revised for the first time in 15 years, in an open process that began last week.

Free software, once regarded as a tiny counterculture in computing, has become a mainstream technology in recent years, led by the rising popularity of programs like the GNU Linux operating system.

Industry analysts estimate that the value of hardware and software that use the Linux operating system is $40 billion. And Linux has become a competitive alternative to Microsoft's Windows, especially in corporate data centers.

So the overhaul of the General Public License, which covers Linux and many other free software programs, is an issue of far greater significance today than before.

“The big boys, corporations and governments, have far more reason to be interested and concerned this time,” said Eben Moglen, general counsel to the Free Software Foundation, which holds the license, commonly known as the GPL

The process will also be closely watched for how the new GPL will take account of software patents, which have exploded among commercial software developers since 1991, the last time the GPL was revised.

A document that describes the principles and timeline for updating the GPL, as well as the process for public comment and resolving issues, was to be posted last week at
. A first draft will be presented at a conference at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, scheduled for Jan. 16 and 17.

A second draft is expected by summer. If a third draft is required, it should be completed by the fall of 2006. The process, Moglen said, could involve comments from thousands of corporations and individuals, but the Free Software Foundation will make the final judgments.

The revision process promises to be intriguing because of the man behind the GPL, Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free Software Foundation.

The GPL, according to Stallman, is an effort to use copyright law to protect what he calls the “four basic freedoms of software” — the unrestricted right to use, study, copy and modify software. The license also requires that any modifications be redistributed with the same unrestricted rights.

Stallman is renowned as both a brilliant computer programmer and a person of emphatic views on matters of software. At the Artificial Intelligence Lab at MIT in the 1980s, Stallman began writing a free version of the proprietary Unix operating system, which he called GNU, and he distributed his work free.

Stallman, working as a lone craftsman, wrote a huge amount of code for the operating system and software tools for building it. But he had not gotten around to designing the ‘kernel’ of the free operating system — the core of the program, controlling a computer's most basic functions.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a university student in Finland, wrote a kernel and wrapped much of the GNU code around it. The completed operating system attracted a following of programmers, working collaboratively to debug and improve the program. Torvalds was the arbiter of changes and refinements to the software. The operating system became known as Linux, and the networked style of work was called open source.

Stallman insists that the operating system should be called GNU Linux, in recognition of some of its code and its heritage. To Stallman, software is partly a matter of bits and engineering; there is also an ethical side to it.

In Stallman's view, proprietary software is an unwarranted restriction on the freedom of information. The revision of the GPL, he said, is “part of something bigger —part of the long-term effort to liberate cyberspace.” Software patents, he said, are “utterly insane.”

For Microsoft's part, Steven A. Ballmer, its chief executive, has called the GPL a ‘cancer.’

Yet in his way, Stallman is also quite pragmatic. Proprietary software applications can run on Linux without restrictions, which is important for the survival of Linux as a viable alternative to commercial operating systems.

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