GPL 3.0 as an alternative policy making process

Most reports concerning the release of GPL 3.0 focus on its differences from the earlier version. This is understandable because the latest version comes just in time when the issues of DRM and Microsoft’s patent protection deals with Novell, Linspire and Xandros have preoccupied the digital world.

After I read the transcript of Eben Moglen’s speech during an event in Scotland, I was interested to learn about the actual depth and breadth of people participation in the GPL 3.0 drafting process. Searching for this information was not easy, though. All I could do was consult the fsf.org and gplv3.fsf.org sites. I also read the GPL 3.0 Process Definition guide.

From what I read in these documents, there were four types of entities that made the license possible as it is today, namely:

  • Discussion Committees, to tackle issues and submit recommendations representing various types of software users from the public and private sectors
  • FSF, particularly the drafters for the first draft and translating all issues and comments (coming from discussion committees, international events and online comments) into later drafts until the final release, as well as the leadership by Richard Stallman and his colleagues
  • Software Freedom Law Center, for the legal advice
  • The public, particularly those attending international events and the Internet-connected public (by commenting on the publicly released drafts)
  • Funders/donors, particularly Stichting NLnet for providing the major grant, those who co-organized international events, FSF associate members, and the public for buying GPLv3 souvenir stuff

I was particularly interested in the first type of stakeholders. Tasked to transform public comments into issues and discuss these issues thoroughly until they are able to come up with resolutions for submission to the drafters, the Discussion Committees were set up based on the GPL user base: large and small enterprises, vendors/redistributors, development projects, and unaffiliated developers and users.

The following table lists the five committees and their corresponding memberships:

Committee Members
Committee A Representatives from Yahoo, Red Hat, Intel, Google, Samba, Novell, Mozilla Foundation, Debian, Apache, Perl, among others. (Bruce Perens sat in this committee.)
Committee B Representatives from MySQL, Cisco, IBM, QUALCOMM, Apple Computer, Red Hat, Motoroal, Sun Microsystems, Trolltech, Novell, Hewlett Packard, AMD, NEC, Hitachi, Panasonic, Nokia, W3C, European Union, Intel, among others.
Committee C Those affiliated to DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, Wachovia, Sopinspace, The Home Depot, Black Duck Software, Securities Industry Association, State of Iowa, Fidelity Investments, University of Texas, Bank of America, University of the Balearic Islands, Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Hunton and Williams, Lerner David Littenberg, Krumholz and Mentlik, University of Texas, Accenture, Harvard Law School, Getulio Vargas Foundation, Siemens, United Parcel Service, Weil, Gotshal and Manges, AIG, among others.
Committee D Don Armstrong, Michael Atlass, James Blackwell, Mark Doliner, Steven Edwards, Jacob Fenwick, Zak Greant, Masayuki Hatta, Benjamin Mako Hill, Tomislav Medak, Louis Suarez-Potts, David Rickerby, Nenad Romic, Daniel Scales, Seth Schoen, david Sugar, Jean-Baptiste Soufron, Mark Spencer, Massimo Tisi, Jesse Vincent and Mick Weiss.
International gplv3.0 (not publicly available, which should make one wonder why)

I’m not deeply privy about the global community of the GPL but at first glance, at least, the composition of the committees was broad enough. It was only surprising to note that biggies like Mark Shuttleworth, Eric Raymond, and Linus Torvalds himself were not made part of the committees.

Moglen gave me particular insights into the GPL 3.0 process. To me, it was not only the matter of resolving the current issues hounding the software realm but also the matter of community empowerment. In any Herculean undertaking that seeks to change a seemingly immutable policy or norm, a common and constant element is a critical mass. And that critical mass will not just spring from nowhere. It is the product of the no nonsense involvement of key stakeholders to the issue at hand. Enlisting the real representatives in the initial stage is a tipping point for the desired meaningful change. The GPL process was not remiss on this.

NGOs and social movements should learn from the GPL experience, particularly on how the FSF segmented the affected communities and made use of the available and expedient tools to listen to them. The GPL 3.0 experience made optimum use of online and offline activities to attain its objectives.

As Moglen indicated in his speech, one crucial element that made the almost on-target final release (with barely three-month delay) was the leadership provided by Richard Stallman. He was the embodiment of political will. Without him, the process would have been much delayed, if not failed, much to the jubilation of the proprietary proponents.

The leadership aspect should then be part of the formula that Moglen mentioned in his speech. The four-pronged formula should then be: proof of concept, running code, presence of a community, and leadership.

The GPL 3.0 process will go down the history as a shining example of alternative structures for public policy formulation, in contrast to traditional structures wherein negotiations and decision-making are most often confined to the formal halls of political power. The GPL 3.0 and the free software movement are another actualization of the theory that with the aid of the publicly available means like the Internet, making social and political reforms through social movements is possible.

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2 comments

  1. Great analysis of the process, Dong, thanks very much for posting this.

    As to the exclusion of Linus Torvalds, I’m thinking it may be because he’s already expressed his vehement opposition to v3?

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