GPLv3, Clarity and Simplicity

The first I heard about plans for a GPLv3 revision was from Bradley Kuhn early in 2005 at a meeting I organized for The Perl Foundation (a public review of the Artistic License 2.0). My first thought was “Great! We can finally clean up some of those ambiguities in the GPL, and make it easier to understand and more legally precise.” These were my primary goals in driving the Artistic 2.0 revision, so it’s understandable that I expected something similar from the GPLv3. I don’t know that clarity and simplicity was ever a goal that Richard Stallman, Eben Moglen, or any of the GPLv3 team desired to achieve. Looking at the near-finished draft, I have to say it’s unlikely that they ever considered simplicity a priority, if they considered it at all.

I can’t fault them for failing to achieve a goal they never had in the first place. But clarity and simplicity are important goals for an open source license.

The audience for an open source license is not just lawyers, it’s the whole open source community. In the same way that it’s important to have the source code broadly accessible, it’s important to have the terms of the license broadly accessible. Power should not be held by a small elite group of lawyers. Every individual should be enabled to comprehend the terms of the license, and make informed decisions about the software they use and the license they choose to release their own software. Power in the hands of individuals is one of the core tenets of freedom. The language choices of an open source license can support that freedom, can empower the users and the developers. The GPLv3 doesn’t.

On the purely practical side, the more dense the legalese, the more likely it is to have unintended side-effects. Humans, even highly trained lawyers, make mistakes. The harder it is to decode the meaning of a particular section, the more likely it is that the people drafting it will miss a glaring hole in the terms. Every hole they try to patch with bandages of additional verbiage introduces new ambiguities, more holes, and more chances for malicious misinterpretation of the language. It’s better to strip down to the simplest, clearest, most legally precise, and legally concise phrasing possible. This is closely related to the development principle of “Do the simplest thing that could possibly work.” Developers know that if you have a 2000 line program and a 200 line program that do exactly the same thing, the 200 line program will be easier to maintain and easier to debug, and generally more reliable too.

I’m sympathetic to the perspective that added verbiage in the license can act as an embedded FAQ, guiding the interpretation of the core terms. But the interpretation of the GPLv2 depends heavily on the unwritten case history of GPL enforcement. From the FSF’s conversations with Committee A, it sounds like they plan to take the same approach with the GPLv3. With so much of the interpretation external to the license text anyway, there’s really no benefit to cramming it full of FAQ information. A clear and simple license with a separate explanatory FAQ would be far more effective.

I’ll leave you with some license text I drafted during one of the Committee A conference calls last year. I extracted the essential terms of the GPL into a greatly simplified form, and polished it with Roberta Cairney (primary legal counsel for the Artistic License 2.0). I hope that someday we’ll have a Creative Commons of open source licenses as simple as this one, and simpler. For now, consider it a plain English guide to the terms of the GPLv3.

The goal of this License is to promote the freedom of all users to share and change free software.

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