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What The New GPL Means For Enterprise IT

GPLv3 looks good for customers: It increases user protection from patents and lock-in, while clauses that could have affected Web services have been dropped.

After two years of consultation, the Free Software Foundation has published version 3 of the GPL (GNU General Public License GPL), its first update in 16 years. Since then, GPL-licensed software has become a part of most enterprise IT installations (and a lot more besides), so its revision could have a major impact.

The Linux kernel itself is unlikely to adopt GPLv3, as copyright on it is held by many different contributors and all would have to agree to any licensing change. However, all major Linux distributions also require the FSF's GNU code, so in practice the license will eventually apply to most enterprise Linux users.

The new GPL looks like a win-win for IT. It adds a few restrictions to software vendors, all of these which will benefit customers. The one proposed change that could potentially have hurt enterprise users has been dropped entirely. The main changes from version 2 and previous drafts are:

Patent Protection For Users
The most important feature of the new GPL is an explicit patent grant: Anyone who distributes GPLv3 software must automatically grant every user of the software a license to use any relevant patents. In theory, this will protect all users of GPL patent lawsuits, while preventing Linux vendors from striking exclusive deals with patent-holders such as Microsoft.

According to the FSF, the new GPL means that Microsoft's patent licensing deals with Novell, Xandros, LG Electronics, and Linspire mean that all users -- not just customers of those four vendors -- are immune from any Microsoft lawsuits covering GPLv3 software. Microsoft disagrees, but the dispute will not actually be settled unless it actually tries to sue a Linux vendor or user for patent infringement, which is extremely unlikely.

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