Linux and GPLv3

The Linux Foundation published a podcast interview with Linus Torvalds this week, the first in a new series. The interview covers a broad range of topics related to Linux, but towards the end spotlights the subject of licensing. As I suspected, 6 months after the release of GPLv3, Linux shows no signs of adopting the new version of the popular license. The quote that hit Slashdot was, “at this point in time, Version 2 matches what I think we want to do much, much better than Version 3″.

There are two opposing forces here, touched on briefly in the interview. On one side is the fact that over time more and more packages distributed with the Linux kernel will be distributed under GPLv3. On the other side is the fact that the Linux kernel doesn’t have a single unified holder of intellectual property who could make an executive decision that the license must change. It has, instead, a whole collection of contributors, who each hold a piece of the copyright.

It will be years before enough packages are licensed exclusively under the GPLv3 to cause a problem for the Linux kernel. Most packages distributed under the GPL are flagged with “or any later version”, so there is no urgent need to change. Compared to the speed of technology advances in open source software, the legal advances are almost glacially slow. Given a pace like that, chances are that a number of work-arounds will be developed long before we encounter a GPLv3 package so critical and so well positioned that it forces a change in the license of the kernel.

And equally, though it would be quite possible for an entity like the Linux Foundation to collect contributor agreements from all Linux kernel developers and become the copyright holder, there isn’t any urgent pressure to do so. In many ways, the distributed nature of the Linux kernel copyright is an advantage. It’s a Matrix-like strategy of dodging bullets by simply not presenting a target for the bullets to strike.

In the end, what we have is a stable system by reason of inertia. It may eventually shift, but not anytime soon.

The second half of the interview with Linus Torvalds will be posted in February on the Linux Foundation’s Open Voices blog.

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  • http://hieu-dh.livejournal.com/ Ho√†ng ƒê·ª©c Hi·∫øu

    I bet the clash will come very soon once FSF/GNU releases a glibc under GPLv3. People will have to stick to an older glibc. This business hinders progress.

    Reading back what I just wrote, GNU will be developing a GPLv3-only glibc *illegally*?

  • FUD Buster

    Allison,

    Who planted in your ear that Linux needs a “single unified holder of intellectual property who could make an executive decision”. My guess is that only a lawyer could feed you that line of crap. Nothing will happen with Linux unless Torvalds says so. Nothing, no matter who else is chomping at the bit to bust up his immense power. You don’t need a consensus of all the copyright holders to file suit. But on the same note, any suit without Linux would look ridiculous.

    I find it sickening that people are so clueless about the politics behind all this. Sickening. You have one benevolent guy, Linus Torvalds, sitting on this immense mountain of value, which he prefers to share with the world rather than the mercenaries. And all we seem to get from the bystanders is this shallow, warmed over nonsense, probably seeded by lawyers and investors who actually add almost nothing of real consequence to the equation. It’s like adding sand to the oil in a car’s engine.

  • http://wgz.org/chromatic/ chromatic

    It will be years before enough packages are licensed exclusively under the GPLv3 to cause a problem for the Linux kernel.

    What kinds of problems could this cause, and why does the number of packages licensed under GPL 3 matter?

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/allison Allison Randal

    FUD Buster: Your phrasing is a little extreme, but I tend to agree that if Linus wanted to update the kernel to GPLv3, it would happen pretty quickly. Like I said, the distributed nature of the copyright is a useful tool.

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/allison Allison Randal

    chromatic: From that interview:

    One, and in fact, one of the few reasons I see why version 3 might be useful is simply if there ends up being tons of external code that we feel is really important and worthwhile that is under the version 3 license, and then in order to avoid the license incompatibility, I suspect, I could see the kernel people saying “Okay, we’ll relicense to version 3, not because we think it’s a better license, but because it opens up code to us.”

  • http://radar.oreilly.com/allison Allison Randal

    Ho√†ng: glibc doesn’t link to the Linux kernel. Nor does it depend on GPLv3-only drivers or modules that link to the Linux kernel. So while it is a critical part of Linux (as a distribution), it’s not in a position to have licensing difficulty with the Linux kernel.

  • http://wgz.org/chromatic/ chromatic

    Allison,

    I took Linus’s comments to imply, for example, the rumored GPL 3 version of OpenSolaris, with DTrace and ZFS as the prime contenders. Certainly that’s what Sun wants people to think anyway.

    I misread yours as referring to user-space components, hence my confusion.

  • Robert

    “I bet the clash will come very soon once FSF/GNU releases a glibc under GPLv3. People will have to stick to an older glibc.”

    Even if that were the case, and it isn’t, the community could just fork the old and keep trucking.