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Breaking Down GPL Version 3

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If software you've written takes advantage of GPL'd code, you're probably already aware of the upcoming GPL version 3. But did you understand that GPLv3 may restrict your use of that code, providing more protections to the end user? David Chisnall examines the major changes to the letter of the wording — which don't affect its spirit one bit.
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Like it or not, the GNU General Public License (GPL) has had an enormous effect on the software world in the last decade. The GNU project of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has released an enormous amount of code under this license, including a complete UNIX-like system and desktop environment (although the kernel for their OS still is not entirely finished). Outside the FSF, the GPL has been taken up by other influential projects, including Linux, Mozilla, and MySQL.

Version 2 of the GPL was released in June 1991. It was created to promote the FSF’s ideal of software freedom based on the technical, social, and legal climate of the time. Some of these situations have changed in the fifteen years since the GPL was written, and a new version is expected soon. Drafts have been around since January 2006. So, what’s changed in GPLv3?

What’s Old?

Even a cursory glance at the new GPL shows you that it’s clearly a product of the Free Software Foundation. The four freedoms that the organization considers essential are as strongly protected as they ever were—more protected, in many cases.

The spirit of the GPLv3 draft is the same as that of the last version; the user’s freedom to use, modify, and distribute the licensed code must be preserved. In recent years, a number of enterprising individuals have come up with ways of getting around the terms of the GPL, conforming to the letter of the license but violating the spirit. If you agree with the spirit of the old GPL, then you’re unlikely to have any problems with the new one.

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