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LGPL - A change on the way
Thursday, July 13 2006 @ 04:50 PM EDT

I've been watching the videos from the GPLv3 conference in Barcelona, while waiting for SCO to file its appeal or request for reconsideration or whatever it turns out they will be filing today. Yes, today is the last day, and they really have to file if they wish to preserve what they view as an "error" -- whatever that may turn out to be -- for appeal at the end of the trial. If it ever goes to trial.

Anyway, while I'm waiting, I've been watching the conference sessions -- by the way you don't want to miss Carlo Piana on his Microsoft antitrust trial activities, including his assessment of Dr. Andrew Tridgell's testimony -- and in the video of Eben Moglen's speech [transcript] and the video of Richard Stallman's [transcript], they reveal that the next draft of the LGPL will include a change.

Instead of being a separate license, the LGPL will be the GPL with additional privileges, a kind of template of what additions should be. First Stallman:

One of the nice things this has enabled us to do is: we have been able to rewrite the Lesser GPL - the GNU LGPL - so that it uses this clause. The GNU Lesser GPL will not have to restate most of the things in the GPL, it will say it's the GNU GPL plus these added permissions. One of the other benefits we get from this is that we make it clear that any time someone adds extra permissions on top of the GNU GPL, that when you modify the program you can take off those added permissions. You can release your version under the strict GPL and nothing more.

We've also made it clear that it's impossible, it's self-contradictory, to try to add any requirements that are not in our list of what's allowed. From time to time people do that. They say "This program is available under the GNU GPL except you can't use it commercially." This is a self contradiction. The result is nonsense. You can't tell, even, what that really means because it's not clear what the licence would be for modified versions.

With GPL version 3, it's going to be clear that any added restrictions that the GPL doesn't allow for can be removed.

And then Moglen:

Some comment was made this morning about the LGPL as a section 7 additional permission on top of GPL. I would have left that subject to be disclosed when we show you the drafts in a couple of weeks, but as the subject has come up, let me just say one little thing about it. That move does not change the behaviour of LGPL at all, as Richard told you this morning. We adopted a non functional change constraint in the reshaping of the licence. What it does is to allow LGPL to serve as a good example of the additional permissions structure for GPL and how powerful it is. By expressing LGPL as just an additional permission on top of GPL we simplify our licensing landscape drastically.

It's like for physics getting rid of a force, right? We just unified electro-weak, ok? The grand unified field theory still escapes us until the document licences too are just additional permissions on top of GPL. I don't know how we'll ever get there, that's gravity, it's really hard. But the physics has gotten simpler and, I think, that alone is valuable. The other thing is that the new LGPL expressed as permission will show people how to use permissions to make quite sophisticated licences very simply, and we think that also is all to the good because such licences do not proliferate, they reconvert to GPL at the instance of modifiers which is a valuable and useful property to have.

From what Moglen says, and it's too long to quote here, I gather he thinks they've found a good solution to the DMCA/DRM problem which we'll see in the next draft. He also mentions, by the way, that there have been some extremely valuable suggestions made by the public. He presents as an example the following:

Let me give you one example of an important issue unearthed in the public comment process which will have an effect on the second discussion draft of the licence.

As you all know, since the beginning of the licence it has concentrated a great deal of attention on distribution as the moment at which obligations attached to your role in the free community. The assumption has always been that distribution is a one way activity. Somebody distributes, and the user receives. If binaries are being distributed, in particular, the binary distributor has an obligation to make source code available to a receiving user.

All of this make great deal of sense in 1991 and it probably still makes great deal of sense in 2006, but. Consider the situation of an iso image of a cd containing binaries of Free Software material under GPL being distributed among persons by BitTorrent. If you think about that scenario for just a moment you will see that in the torrent are a bunch of people "distributing binaries" who don't think of themselves as distributors, who think of themselves as users receiving the binaries who have no source code and who haven't even got all the binary, yet. So that even if source code will later be part of the same torrent they're not guaranted to have it and they can't pass it along.

Under GPL2, an unaffiliated commentator said to us, this would be infringing activity, why don't you do something about that in GPL3?

We looked at it and said, "you know, you're right". That's a major problem. That is to say, it's not all that hard to fix, but it's a major problem not to have seen it, "we are glad you brought it up".

And we will make a few very narrow changes in the second discussion draft of GPL3 to allow from the fact that peer-to-peer models of distribution may involve ancillary transmission by people who would traditionally have been thought as were receivers and they shouldn't have any obligations under the licence, because they are not actually engaged, in the sense we used to mean, in 'distribution'.

That's for example an important technical issue in the changing, use and context of the licence, raised by somebody from outside the process and, as I said, there are probably two or three more of equivalently important scope that I could point to. That kind of commentary is worth its weight in gold. It is because of that kind of commentary from unaffiliated individuals that the entire process is worth to maintaining, cost-what-it-will, to maintain it, to read its output, to think about every word it says, that's exactly what we were hoping for, that's exactly what we are getting.

So if that was you, they heard you. The videos are Theora.ogg format, and if you aren't sure how to play them, VLC works on Windows and Macs, and it plays Theora. If you are interested in participating, here's where you go. As Fernanda Weiden states in the panel she moderates, even if you have only a small idea or suggestion, others can build on the idea, so don't hesitate to share it. If it stays only in your brain, no one can access it there.

I also found what Moglen says to the final questioner of interest:

It generally turns out, as I know from having spent almost a quarter of a century now as a lawyer for hackers, that when hackers pretend to be lawyers, there are certain predictable formulations that they come to; they assume a degree of consistence in legal rules that is not achievable; this is a primary problem which occurs particularly in US focused conversation, such is that in Debian Legal, where the libertarian demand for intellectual consistency, and the hacker belief that laws are form of code that are executed without errors or ambiguities, joins together to create a particular frame of analysis for legal questions.

It doesn't work very well for me as a lawyer, I think it doesn't work very well for lawyers elsewhere in the World, because the one thing which lawyers around the world all share is an awareness of the squishiness of law, it is by no means the hard arthropod carapace for internal soft organs that non-lawyers have a tendency to assume it is....

The question to be asked within the Free Software Foundation's ethics of law is not "Is this a restriction on freedom?", which is what I think I heard the Debian Legal analysis is doing, the question is: "If this is a restriction of freedom, is this the narrowest possible restriction to protect freedom in the long run, or is there a narrower way to accomplish the same protection of freedom, or is it better to allow freedom to be defeated in the long run than to impose this restriction now?".

But it is always, I think, in Free Software Foundation thought, it is certainly characteristic of Mr. Stallman's thought throughout his career, it is characteristic, I think, to be minimalist about restriction, not negative about restriction.

The position being taken is "to have a community requires some minimum restrictions to preserve community". We tend to see the other side's view of that question "there ought to be no restriction except those which are inevitable" as too libertarian to be firmly communal. If you want to keep a community in being you may have to say "clean up after your dog on the sidewalk".

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