LJ Archive


The GPLv2 vs. GPLv3 Debate

Nicholas Petreley

Issue #153, January 2007

The question of whose freedom is more important.

As of this writing, the GPLv2 vs. GPLv3 debate is still raging. For the record, GPLv3 doesn't bother me in the least as long as nobody is forced to use it. As for the debate itself, I'd love to say the debate boils down to one thing. But it doesn't. There's not enough room in this column to address all the issues involved; however, a few central issues deserve attention.

First, the debate presents a conflict between two different views of freedom. Linus Torvalds and other kernel developers want people to have the freedom to do whatever they want with Linux, hence their rejection of the current draft of GPLv3. This includes the freedom to produce a Linux-based device that implements some form of DRM, such as TiVo. I feel compelled to mention that Torvalds had made a good case that not all DRM is bad, but as you'll soon see, the argument surrounding DRM can be peripheral to the debate.

The FSF wants users to have the freedom to take the source code that was used to create the binary that runs in any device, modify the code and run a binary of the modified version on the same device. Once again, the argument usually revolves around TiVo.

Forget TiVo for a moment. I would like to pose a different hypothetical scenario. I have two ulterior motives for doing so. The following example fits nicely with this issue's emphasis on embedded systems, and it circumvents the tendency to focus the controversy on DRM.

Think of a gadget manufacturer that wants to ship its gadgets with an operating system on ROM. The end user's freedom is not restricted by DRM. It is simply impossible to flash a ROM with the binary of a modified version of the source code.

One could argue that consumers are potentially harmed because they are stuck with any bugs in the software on ROM. Neither you nor the gadget provider has an easy way to update the software. Fair enough, but is that potential problem a good enough argument to draft a license to prevent this company from using free software?

It depends. The Volkswagen was originally designed with every conceivable cost-cutting measure to make it affordable to the working man. Some models lacked a gas gauge as late as 1959 or 1960 (I can't recall the exact date when the gauge was added). When you ran out of gas, you switched to a spare tank. If you weren't paying attention or overestimated how far you could go on that spare tank, you could run out of gas. That was quite a big inconvenience, but many consumers were happy with that trade-off because it was one reason they could afford to own a car.

Let's go back to that gadget with the software on ROM. Even if there is a bug in the software that is as annoying as running out of gas, many consumers may see it as an acceptable trade-off for being able to own a device that was formerly out of their reach. The only people who are truly harmed by having the software on ROM are the tiny minority of hackers who want to run a modified version of the software on the gadget.

Someone will no doubt point out that not all users have to be hackers to get their gadgets modified. They may have hacker friends. But look around you. Of all the cell-phone users you see daily, how many do you think have ever had the thought enter their minds that they could get someone to modify the software on their phones? How many are brave enough to let them do it? What about people who use GPS navigation systems, DVD players, televisions, microwaves or other devices? What about devices that use Flash ROM, but do not provide a way for end users to update it?

So, you see, although the GPLv3 protects some end users, it is intellectually dishonest to say that, in all cases, the GPLv3 necessarily protects the freedoms of the vast majority of end users. It protects only a minority of hackers or brave, savvy users with hacker friends, and applies only to devices that provide ways to apply updates.

I'm sure this analogy has holes. No example or analogy is perfect. But I hope you can see that, regardless of which side gets your vote, both the GPLv2 and the GPLv3 can stomp on someone's freedom. So this debate is not simply about freedom. It is about whose freedom is more important.

Now let's get to the grand ulterior motive for this column. Do you see how much the debate can change once we stop focusing on DRM and fair use restrictions? I know what that tells me, but what does that tell you?

Nicholas Petreley is Editor in Chief of Linux Journal and a former programmer, teacher, analyst and consultant who has been working with and writing about Linux for more than ten years.

LJ Archive