Faculty Scholarship

Article Title

The General Public License Version 3.0: Making or Breaking the FOSS Movement

Document Type



Free and open source software (FOSS) is a big deal. FOSS has become an undeniably important element for businesses and the global economy in general, as companies increasingly use it internally and attempt to monetize it. Governments have even gotten into the act, as a recent study notes that FOSS plays a critical role in the US Department of Defense's systems. Others have pushed for the adoption of FOSS to help third-world countries develop. Given many of its technological and developmental advantages, FOSS's use, adoption, and development are only projected to grow.[...] The FSF created the most popular version of the GPL, GPL Version 2.0 (GPLv2), in 1991, but since then many technological changes have occurred that, according to the FSF, have rendered GPLv2 outdated. Consequently, the FSF recently underwent a process to revise GPLv2. Version 3 of the GPL (GPLv3), published on June 29, 2007, is the final product of that process.[...] The GNU General Public License (GPL), created by the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to govern the use of many FOSS projects, is also a big deal. Though the dispersed development of FOSS makes calculating the percentage of FOSS projects licensed under GPL difficult, some accounts suggest that the percentage is quite high. It is certainly the most well-known and most frequently used FOSS license. Like FOSS, the GPL is here to stay.[...] [T]wo camps within the FOSS world have emerged to articulate their stances on GPLv3. These two camps are the same two groups that have been at odds over FOSS development since at least 1998: the Free Software Foundation (FSF) on the one hand, and those more closely aligned with the Open Source Initiative's (OSI) approach to FOSS development on the other. The FSF maintains an almost religious adherence to certain ethical tenets of free software doctrine, while OSI adherents are more "pragmatic" about their approach to FOSS development. GPLv3, and especially the DRM and patent provisions, highlights some of these two groups' differences in philosophy. Some also fret that GPLv3 may ultimately foreshadow the dissolution of their uneasy compromise. This Article proceeds as follows. Section II details the philosophical differences between the FSF and OSI and what these differences have meant to FOSS licensing, and FOSS development in general, until now. Section III details the DRM and patent changes provided in GPLv3 and discusses both sides' reactions to those changes. It then examines what these GPLv3 changes, and the reactions from both parties, could mean for FOSS licensing and development in the future. Section IV concludes by recapping some of the main findings of this study. This Article's thesis is that the two parties' differences pale in comparison to their commonalities, and that GPLv3, despite its possible problem areas, will be an effective means for dealing with two growing problems that threaten the FOSS world. GPLv3 may add new social and legal complications to FOSS development, but, as with GPLv2, GPLv3's unifying potential is greater than its possible "balkanizing" effects. In the end, GPLv3 is a calculated risk worth taking.


14 Mich. Telecomm. & Tech. L. Rev.