Publication Title

Houston Law Review


General Public License, open souce licenses, Simple Public License

Document Type



The General Public License (GPL) enshrines a software hacker’s freedom to use code in important ways. Hackers often refer to the GPL as the free software movement’s “constitution.” Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) wrote the most recent version of the GPL, version 2.0, back in 1991. For a constitution, a fourteen-year-old document is young, but for a license, it is quite old. The revision process is finally underway, led by Stallman and Eben Moglen, FSF’s general counsel.

The release of GPL version 3.0 will be momentous for many reasons, but one reason stands out: The GPL governs much of Linux-based software which is challenging the dominance of Microsoft’s Windows platform. Traditional computer industry players such as IBM, Hewlett-Packard, and Novell place Linux at the center of their business strategy. New companies such as Red Hat, MontaVista Software, and MySQL have arisen to capitalize on the popularity of Linux.

There are three particularly interesting aspects of the GPL revision: the process for changing it, the substance of the changes, and the form that the changes will take. I have commented previously on the revision process for open source licenses. Therefore, I will touch only briefly on the GPL revision process.

This Article explores the substantive changes that the FSF is considering for GPL 3.0 and offers some approaches that the drafters could take. It then explains that the FSF intends to make only minimal changes to the GPL’s form, and argues that failing to modify the GPL’s form ignores one of the chief complaints about the GPL—that it is too wordy and unwieldy.

Thus, the Article proposes a new form, called the Simple Public License, which could serve as a model for a simplified GPL. As background, this Article begins with a brief software tutorial, a description of the principles of “free software,” and a history of the GPL.



To view the content in your browser, please download Adobe Reader or, alternately,
you may Download the file to your hard drive.

NOTE: The latest versions of Adobe Reader do not support viewing PDF files within Firefox on Mac OS and if you are using a modern (Intel) Mac, there is no official plugin for viewing PDF files within the browser window.