It's Official: GPLv3 Ready To Go

July 2, 2007
The release of version 3 of the General Public License (GPL) on June 29 will give embedded developers lots to consider.

Released on June 29, GNU GPL (General Public License) version 3 (GPLv3) is now official and ready for use. GNU is a recursive acronym for "GNU's Not Unix." Developed by the Free Software Foundation (FSF), GPLv3 is the result of years of refinement and months of review.

"Since we founded the free software movement, over 23 years ago, the free software community has developed thousands of useful programs that respect the user's freedom. The programs are in the GNU/Linux operating system, as well as personal computers, telephones, Internet servers, and more," said Richard Stallman, founder and president of the FSF. "Most of these programs use the GNU GPL to guarantee every user the freedom to run, study, adapt, improve, and redistribute the program."

So who will use it? Quite a few projects will, though most won't make the transition immediately, and some may never change. This puts GPLv3 in the same boat as other open-source and proprietary licenses: one of many.

Probably the first use of GPLv3 will be in the GNU toolset supported by the GNU Web site ( This includes the gcc compiler that is used to build Linux, properly called GNU Linux.

On the other hand, the Linux kernel controlled by Linux Torvalds is sticking with GPLv2 for now. That is subject to change, but it indicates that GPLv2 will remain the open-source license for a large majority of platforms. In fact, migration will likely occur with new releases of software versus changing the license of existing software, though that's possible as well.

Why GNU GPLv3?

According to the GNU Web site, "free software" is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, the site notes, you should think of "free" as in "free speech," not as in "free beer."

Free software is a matter of the users' freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve the software, the site says. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom for the users of the software:

o The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0)

o The freedom to study how the program works and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1); access to the source code is a precondition for this

o The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2)

o The freedom to improve the program and release your improvements to the public so the whole community benefits (freedom 3); access to the source code is a precondition for this

These ideas are embodied in all the GPL licenses, with refinements in each. In practice, GPLv2 has effectively replaced GPLv1. GPLv3 will likely replace the bulk of GPLv2 uses over time.

GPLv3 was designed to remove the confusion and loopholes of GPLv2. This includes addressing issues such as patents, tivoization, and trusted/treacherous computing. Expect a number of books about GPLv3.

Tivoization and trusted/treacherous computing essentially limit the use of software or data that may be open-source. GPLv3 addresses Tivo’s use of Linux on a platform that checks the runtime so only an unmodified version of Tivo's Linux and applications can run on the unit.

Tivo's use of Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) would conflict with GPLv3, but GPLv3 won't torpedo Tivo since the Linux kernel still uses GPLv2. Likewise, should Linux move to GPLv3, Tivo could still maintain its own platform based on the GPLv2 software it currently uses.

GNU GPLv3 And Embedded Developers

The movement of Linux kernel to GPLv3 could be a major consideration for some embedded developers if it were to occur. To most it would be a non-event, though the implications are significant. Issues like tivoization typically occur when distributing third-party content or for protecting hardware revenues.

Lost in the shuffle has been LGPLv3 (Lesser GPLv3), which may find adoption more quickly. LGPLv2 has been popular with applications like OpenOffice. It's often preferred by companies since they aren’t required to redistribute source code with a product, though many still do.

Open-source software has proven to be economically viable as well as innovative, and it would not be possible without licenses like GPLv3 and LGPLv3. The merits of its particular approach will continue to be debated, but there are many reasons for utilizing them, including keeping a level playing field. Open-source has significantly changed the embedded realm for the better with development platforms like Eclipse and Linux.

Eclipse Foundation

Free Software Foundation




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