Wednesday, January 16, 2008

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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