GPLv3, freedom at what price?

I’ve got my fresh copy of the GPLv3 Third Discussion Draft Rationale and started to try to dissect it. It’s a pretty intense legal document as it tries to build up a GPL that has no holes. I’ll have to read it on the plane down to San Jose for next week’s ESC to help me fall asleep.

But one thing that has struck me as I dig into it and read others’ comments on it, is that the view of freedom put forth by Richard Stallman and the FSF may actually turn detrimental to the community instead of helping it.

There is no doubt that open source is successful today because of the GPL. The freedom for users to be able to download, possibly modify, build, and run their code is really what got a lot of developers involved in open source to begin with. And that momentum has grown and the qualify of the open source code has grown to become a serious force in the industry. But that all started in the day when most open source users were developers.

The issue I have is that the FSF does not differentiate between user and developer. But when it comes to critical systems, especially in the embedded space, I’m not sure users even want that freedom. While having GPL code in my TV is cool and I’m glad the manufacturer was able to take advantage of it, and theoretically ended up with good code cheaper than if they would have licensed something. And hopefully the developers contributed back to those open source projects to make them even better. But the last thing I want to do as a user is change that code, even though I know I could.

So while the GPLv3 tries everything in its power to ensure that the user can modify the code, my fear is that it will handcuff the developers working on this code. It’s not free to them to make sure the user gets everything they need to do the modification. The manufactures can’t charge for the code, but you can be sure device prices will go up if they need to ship an SDK and hardware with it.

GPL in embedded devices has always been a tricky subject, and GPLv3 seems to make it even trickier. I’m not sure the FSF is willing to listen to the concerns of embedded manufacturers, but I sure hope someone is making noise.