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July 2, 2007 / gus3

Herding Freedom

The Free Software Foundation’s new General Public License version 3 is out, and some people are already sniping at it.

The root question of the various software licenses is that of liberty. The BSD license stipulates only that the user gets neither warranty nor endorsement from the University of California. Other than that, anything goes.

The focus of the GPL, on the other hand, is focused on permission to use the program, including modifying it to make it more fit for a particular circumstance.

The BSD license grants liberty to the developer; the GPL grants liberty to the user.

To enforce this, the GPLv2 stipulates in section 4 that the freedom to distribute GPL-covered programs is revoked, if the distributor attempts to deny a user the ability to modify and use the code.

Some distributors have gotten around this by using the device itself, in some evil combination of DRM and TCP, to render itself essentially “comatose” if the user attempts to tinker with it improperly (and the distributor gets to define “improperly”). The TiVo is the example usually cited.

The GPLv3 was designed to address this concern, by adding software patents and DRM to the list of “forbidden user restrictions.” Thus, anyone using a GPLv3-covered program can use it anywhere, any time, for any purpose (including watching an episode of House, MD that you recorded three years ago). No BSD license makes this guarantee.

Jem Matzan is foolish for discounting the GPLv3 out-of-hand. It merely broadens and clarifies the intent of the General Public License, an action reserved to the Free Software Foundation in every version of the GPL. And it doesn’t indicate “GNU’s decline,” but rather the maturation and affirmation of a user’s freedom to use devices he owns, as he wants.

Addendum 2007-07-05: An excellent article by Tim B. Lee (no, not Sir Tim Berners-Lee) from the Cato Institute, defending the freedom of Free Software.


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