A new version of a license for open-source Linux has caused a storm among the community of open-source developers. Known as GNU General Public License, or simply GPL, it is the most widely used license for distributing free software.


The current version of the license, GNU GPLv2, was released in 1991. The first version of the license was written by open-source proponent Richard Stallman, who founded the Free Software Foundation that administers the license. The GPL license also covers the Linux kernel whose creation was led by Linus Torvalds.


Now 10 kernel developers have rallied against the Free Software Foundation’s efforts to update the license. They have signed a “position paper” against the new version known as GPLv3.


The kernel developers contend that the Free Software Foundation’s plan to promote GPLv3 has “the potential to inflict massive collateral damage upon our entire ecosystem and jeopardize the very utility and survival of open source.”


Though Mr. Torvalds supports them, his name has been absent from that position paper.


Now, in an email interview with Red Herring, he puts his thoughts on the record. Mr. Torvalds says this is not as much a “debate” between the kernel developers and the Free Software Foundation “as it is a declaration of different positions.”


Q: Ten key kernel developers have signed a "position paper" on the new draft of the GNU GPL license. Why did you not join them in signing the paper?

A: I wrote a separate email to the kernel mailing list about that. It’s easiest to just point you at it: http://lkml.org/lkml/2006/9/24/246. It wasn’t the only reason. The actual letter was mostly penned by James Bottomley, and I just don’t much like the “open letter” kind of things, so if I didn’t write it or add to it, I generally try to keep my name off it.


Finally, I actually wanted to make clear that I wasn’t the only one who felt that way, so I didn’t feel like my name needed to be on everything.


Q: Do you even believe there is a need to update the GPL license and have a version 3 put out? Do you think that GPLv2 is not serving the purpose adequately?

A: I think the GPLv2 is stronger today than it was 15 years ago. It’s been upheld in court both in the U.S. and abroad, and obviously it’s gathered a much larger community around it. So no, I don’t see the need.


Q: What is your position on the draft version of the GNU General Public License Version 3?

A: One of my major gripes with it is that it extends the GPLv2 so much that it’s not at all the same license. If it had been developed as a totally new license, that would be fine, but since the FSF [Free Software Foundation] has been asking people to release their code compatible with “any future versions,” I think it’s a bit inappropriate to add totally new issues to the license.


FSF promised that any such future versions would be “similar in spirit,” but it’s apparently their stance on the spirit that matters, not the stance of the people who they tried to actually reassure with the language—which makes the whole thing rather pointless.


Q: If the GNU GPLv3 proceeds in its current form, what do you fear?

A: Well, “fear” may be too strong a word. What I think the GPLv2 has been good at is that it was so widely acceptable that it acted as a common thing for people to get together around. The GPLv3 imposes a number of new rules that aren’t really acceptable to many people, and as such it just means that rather than have one common license, we’ll have two.


Now, multiple licenses isn’t really necessarily a huge deal in practice, since even before, we’ve had lots of different non-GPL open-source licenses that have had reasonably wide use. But I happen to think it’s a loss, and also confusing to have different versions of the “same” license basically say different things.


Q: The Free Software Foundation has issued a clarification on its web site that developers will have the right to use GPLv2 even after GPLv3 is published. In light of that, do you think that the GPLv3 in its current form is not as dangerous?

A: That’s just silly. Of course people have the “right” to continue to use the GPLv2. That’s like clarifying that the Earth will still retain its gravity and we won’t all fly out into space when the GPLv3 is released. That was never a worry. The FSF can release new versions of the GPL, but they can’t force people to use them.


Q: How do you think that the current impasse around GPLv3 can be solved? What are your recommendations to move ahead?

A: Personally, I think the FSF should either just really try to keep to the same rules as the GPLv2, or just rename the new license, so that there is no confusion. People are used to just saying “GPL,” without the ambiguity of which GPL we’re talking abut.


Q: Who do you think needs to negotiate with the Free Software Foundation to make the changes happen?

A: They’ve been at it for a year and a half now. I’m not sure this is about negotiation anymore. They certainly knew that they were the radical fringes of the bigger community, and they certainly knew my standpoint on the things they added to the GPL. I think the thing they didn’t expect was just that while I’m a moderate, I’m passionate about being moderate.