In one of life’s surprises, placeholder text for one lawyer’s small self-improvement project may end up leading to the creation of a significant new free software license.

All Richard Fontana, open source licensing and patent counsel for Linux vendor Red Hat, wanted to do was teach himself some new technical skills: how to use the distributed version control system Git. Instead, the placeholder text he wrote for his testing has turned into copyleft.next and become a cause celebre among folks looking to improve open source licenses.

From Placeholder Text to Copyleft.next

“I’ve been surprised at the interest in my little copyleft.next project,” Fontana told ReadWriteWeb. “It was, in fact, initially just a toy project I started in my spare time (while I was on vacation) primarily to learn how to use Git. Since I’m not a developer day-to-day, I had to find something to put in Git that I knew well and GPL’s [General Public License] text seemed the right choice.”

But because of what he does for a living now, and what he once did in the past, Fontana’s choice of placeholder text has suddenly taken on a whole new meaning for the free software community. Before he joined Red Hat, Fontana worked for the Software Freedom Law Center, and while there was one of the main collaborators on the GNU General Public License (GPL) v.3, the latest edition of one of the most-used free softare licenses in the world.

Since that vacation-day decision a couple of weeks ago, Fontana has gotten a full-on lesson in how Git management works in what has become a highly trafficked project. Apparently, people saw the content that Fontana decided to use as a chance to improve upon the GPL v.3.

Community Concerns

Right off the bat, though, there were concerns about Fontana’s initial name for the project: GPL.next. Some Git participants and free software observers felt that the Free Software Foundation (FSF) had some sort of “proprietary interest in the initials ‘GPL’,” Fontana wrote in the About section of the new project.

According to project logs, Bradley Kuhn, executive director of the Software Freedom Conservancy and a committer to the new license project, came up with the new name, “Copyleft.next.”

“Copyleft” is a term coined by FSF founder and President Richard Stallman, who first envisioned the GPL as a license primarily designed to not only make software code available but also to require any changes to that code to be given back to the original holders of the code - if the software was distributed with the changes.

Then there was the matter of the website where Copyleft.next was hosted. “Based on criticisms of Github’s proprietariness from some of my friends, I’ve moved the project to Gitorious and hope people will convene there. I’m looking for a good Free Software issue tracker to use,” Fontana explained.

Fontana has taken great pains to make sure his work is disassociated with the FSF, his current employer (Red Hat), or the GPL v.3, though the new Copyleft.next license is based on the flagship restrictive license released by the FSF in 2007.

“Keep in mind that this isn’t a ‘fork’ in the traditional sense: It’s experimental text that I hope will be useful to FSF and others who maintain copyleft licenses of all sorts,” Fontana said. “It is not something affiliated in any way with Red Hat, just a personal project.”

Now that his personal project has garnered so much attention, Fontana is shifting his focus from learning how to use Git to the text of the project itself.

“As it happens, many have become interested, which I think is great. I’d like to get a little bit more serious now, and try to do something that can help the future of copyleft (even though GPLv2, GPLv3 and AGPLv3 are superb licenses),” he said.

Not So Different from the GPL v.3

For now, the meat of Copyleft.next essentially resembles the GPL v.3 - without the lengthy, politically charged Preamble and the “How to Apply” appendix. There has also been general cleanup of the wording, though the intent of each clause appears to be the same. This still leaves a pretty hefty 3,250-word license (down from 5,645 words).

More importantly, it doesn’t address the controversial language added when the GPL v.3 was created in 2007. For example, those clauses prevent anyone using GPL v.3 software from suing any other user of that software for patent infringement, while still allowing for explicit patent licensing.

Another clause of GPL v.3, the “Anti-Circumvention Law” clause, addressed the issue of “TiVo-ization”, where hardware manufacturers such as TiVo could use and modify Linux software licensed under the earlier GPL v.2 to their heart’s content, and not have to distribute those modifications as the GPL requires due to specific digital signatures that prevented the software from running on anything other than a TiVo device. The FSF abhorred that practice, so it added new language to defeat such use of GPL v.3 software.

Famously, those clauses led to Linux creator Linus Torvalds' decision to never use GPL v.3 for the best known GPLed software, the Linux kernel.

The Future of Copyleft.next?

Though the FSF does allow for making improvements to its licenses, it has not yet publicly stated any reaction to this new project. Requests for comments have thus far been unanswered by the FSF.

The removal of the political commentary seems to point to making the new software license more corporate friendly, but that has not been specifically identified as a goal. For now, Fontana seems to be a happy player-manager along for the ride, as his new copyleft.next license idea continues to gain supporters.