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September 11, 2014 by Bradley M. Kuhn

Understanding Conservancy Through the GSoC Lens

[ A version of this post originally appeared on the Google Open Source Blog. ]

Software Freedom Conservancy, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity that serves as a home to Open Source and Free Software projects. Such is easily said, but in this post I'd like to discuss what that means in practice for an Open Source and Free Software project and why such projects need a non-profit home. In short, a non-profit home makes the lives of Free Software developers easier, because they have less work to do outside of their area of focus (i.e., software development and documentation).

As the summer of 2014 ends, Google Summer of Code (GSoC) coordination work exemplifies the value a non-profit home brings its Free Software projects. GSoC is likely the largest philanthropic program in the Open Source and Free Software community today. However, one of the most difficult things for organizations that seek to take advantage of such programs is the administrative overhead necessary to take full advantage of the program. Google invests heavily in making it easy for organizations to participate in the program — such as by handling the details of stipend payments to students directly. However, to take full advantage of any philanthropic program, the benefiting organization has some work to do. For its member projects, Conservancy is the organization that gets that logistical work done.

For example, Google kindly donates $500 to the mentoring organization for every student it mentors. However, these funds need to go “somewhere”. If the funds go to an individual, there are two inherent problems. First, that individual is responsible for taxes on that income. Second, funds that belong to an organization as a whole are now in the bank account of a single project leader. Conservancy solves both those problems: as a tax-exempt charity, the mentor payments are available for organizational use under its tax exemption. Furthermore, Conservancy maintains earmarked funds for each of its projects. Thus, Conservancy keeps the mentor funds for the Free Software project, and the project leaders can later vote to make use of the funds in a manner that helps the project and Conservancy's charitable mission. Often, projects in Conservancy use their mentor funds to send developers to important conferences to speak about the project and recruit new developers and users.

Meanwhile, Google also offers to pay travel expenses for two mentors from each mentoring organization to attend the annual GSoC Mentor Summit (and, this year, it's an even bigger Reunion conference!). Conservancy handles this work on behalf of its member projects in two directions. First, for developers who don't have a credit card or otherwise are unable to pay for their own flight and receive reimbursement later, Conservancy staff book the flights on Conservancy's credit card. For the other travelers, Conservancy handles the reimbursement details. On the back end of all of this, Conservancy handles all the overhead annoyances and issues in requesting the POs from Google, invoicing for the funds, and tracking to ensure payment is made. While the Google staff is incredibly responsive and helpful on these issues, the Googlers need someone on the project's side to take care of the details. That's what Conservancy does.

GSoC coordination is just one of the many things that Conservancy does every day for its member projects. If there's anything other than software development and documentation that you can imagine a project needs, Conservancy does that job for its member projects. This includes not only mundane items such as travel coordination, but also issues as complex as trademark filings and defense, copyright licensing advice and enforcement, governance coordination and mentoring, and fundraising for the projects. Some of Conservancy's member projects have been so successful in Conservancy that they've been able to fund developer salaries — often part-time but occasionally full-time — for years on end to allow them to focus on improving the project's software for the public benefit.

Finally, if your project seeks help with regard to handling its GSoC funds and travel, or anything else mentioned on Conservancy's list of services to member projects, Conservancy is welcoming new applications for membership. Your project could join Conservancy's more than thirty other member projects and receive these wonderful services to help your community grow and focus on its core mission of building software for the public good.


Posted by Bradley M. Kuhn on September 11, 2014

Tags: conservancy, Google Summer of Code

July 15, 2014 by Bradley M. Kuhn

Why Conservancy's Kallithea Project Exists

Eleven days ago, Conservancy announced Kallithea. Kallithea is a GPLv3'd system for hosting and managing Mercurial and Git repositories on one's own servers. As Conservancy mentioned in its announcement, Kallithea is indeed based on code released under GPLv3 by RhodeCode GmbH. Below, I describe why Conservancy chose to serve as non-profit home to an obvious fork (as this is the first time Conservancy ever welcomed a fork as a member project).

The primary impetus for Kallithea is that more recent versions of RhodeCode GmbH's codebase contain a very unorthodox and ambiguous license statement, which states:

(1) The Python code and integrated HTML are licensed under the GPLv3 license as is RhodeCode itself.
(2) All other parts of the RhodeCode including, but not limited to the CSS code, images, and design are licensed according to the license purchased.

Simply put, this licensing scheme is — either (a) a GPL violation, (b) an unclear license permission statement under the GPL which leaves the redistributor feeling unclear about their rights, or (c) both.

When members of the Mercurial community first brought this license to Conservancy's attention about ten months ago, the first focus was to form a formal opinion regarding (a). Of course, Conservancy did form such an opinion, and you can probably guess what that is. However, I realized a few weeks later that this analysis really didn't matter in this case; the situation called for a more innovative solution.

Indeed, I recalled at that time the disputes between AT&T and University of California at Berkeley over BSD. In that case, while nearly all of the BSD code was adjudicated as freely licensed, the dispute itself was painful for the BSD community. BSD's development slowed nearly to a standstill for years while the legal disagreement was resolved. Court action — even if you're in the right — isn't always the fastest nor best way to push forward an important Free Software project.

In the case of RhodeCode's releases, there was an obvious and more productive solution. Namely, the 1.7.2 release of RhodeCode's codebase, written primarily by Marcin Kuzminski was fully released under GPLv3-only, and provided an excellent starting point to begin a GPLv3'd fork. Furthermore, some of the improved code in the 2.2.5 era of RhodeCode's codebase were explicitly licensed under GPLv3 by RhodeCode GmbH itself. Finally, many volunteers produced patches for all versions of RhodeCode's codebase and released those patches under GPLv3, too. Thus, there was already a burgeoning GPLv3-friendly community yearning to begin.

Conservancy's primary contribution, therefore, was to vet and verify a completely indisputable GPLv3'd version of the codebase. This was extensive and time consuming work; I personally spent over 100 hours to reach this point, and I suspect many Kallithea volunteers have already spent that much and more. Ironically, the most complex part of the work so far was verifying and organizing the licensing situation regarding third-party Javascript (released under a myriad of various licenses). You can see the details of that work by reading the revision history of Kallithea (or, you can read an overview in Kallithea's LICENSE file).

Like with any Free Software codebase fork, acrimony and disagreement led to Kallithea's creation. However, as the person who made most of the early changesets for Kallithea, I want to thank RhodeCode GmbH for explicitly releasing some of their work under GPLv3. Even as I hereby reiterate publicly my previously private request that RhodeCode GmbH correct the parts of their licensing scheme that are (at best) problematic, and (at worst) GPL-violating, I also point out this simple fact to those who have been heavily criticizing and admonishing RhodeCode GmbH: the situation could be much worse! RhodeCode could have simply never released any of their code under the GPLv3 in the first place. After all, there are many well-known code hosting sites that refuse to release any of their code (or release only a pittance of small components). By contrast, the GPLv3'd RhodeCode software was nearly a working system that helped bootstrap the Kallithea community. We're grateful for that, and we welcome RhodeCode developers to contribute to Kallithea under GPLv3. We do note, of course, that RhodeCode developers sadly can't incorporate any of our improvements in their codebase, due to their problematic license. However, Conservancy extends again our offer (also made privately last year) to work with RhodeCode GmbH to correct its licensing problems.

Posted by Bradley M. Kuhn on July 15, 2014

Tags: conservancy, GPL, Kallithea

June 9, 2014 by Bradley M. Kuhn

Why Your Project Doesn't Need a Contributor Licensing Agreement

For nearly a decade, a battle has raged between two distinct camps regarding something called Contributor Licensing Agreements (CLAs). In my personal capacity, I've written extensively on the issue. This article below is a summary on the basics of why CLA's aren't necessary, and on Conservancy's typical recommendations to its projects regarding the issue.

In the most general sense, a CLA is a formal legal contract between a contributor to a FLOSS project and the “project” itself0. Ostensibly, this agreement seeks to assure the project, and/or its governing legal entity, has the appropriate permissions to incorporate contributed patches, changes, and/or improvements to the software and then distribute the resulting larger work.

In practice, most CLAs in use today are (at best) overkill for that purpose. CLAs simply shift legal blame for any patent infringement, copyright infringement, or other bad acts from the project (or its legal entity) back onto its contributors. Meanwhile, since vetting every contribution for copyright and/or patent infringement is time-consuming and expensive, no existing organization actually does that work. Thus, no one knows (in the general case) if the contributors' assurances in the CLA are valid. Indeed, since it's so difficult to determine if a given work of software infringes a patent, it's highly likely that any contributor submitting a patent-infringing patch did so inadvertently and without any knowledge that the patent even existed — even regarding patents controlled by their own company1.

The undeniable benefit to CLAs relates to contributions from for-profit companies who likely do hold patents that read on the software. It's useful to receive from such companies (whenever possible) a patent license for any patents exercised in making, using or selling the FLOSS containing that company's contributions. I agree that such an assurance is nice to have, and I might consider supporting CLAs if there was no other cost associated with using them. However, maintenance of CLA-assent records requires massive administrative overhead.

More importantly, CLAs require the first interaction between a FLOSS project and a new contributor to involve a complex legal negotiation and a formal legal agreement. CLAs twist the empowering, community-oriented, enjoyable experience of FLOSS contribution into an annoying exercise in pointless bureaucracy, which (if handled properly) requires a business-like, grating haggle between necessarily adverse parties. And, that's the best possible outcome. Admittedly, few contributors actually bother to negotiate about the CLA. CLAs frankly rely on our “Don't Read & Click ‘Agree’” culture — thereby tricking contributors into bearing legal risk. FLOSS project leaders shouldn't rely on “gotcha” fine print like car salespeople.

Thus, I encourage those considering a CLA to look past the “nice assurances we'd like to have — all things being equal” and focus on the “what legal assurances our FLOSS project actually needs to assure its thrives”. We at Conservancy have spent years doing that analysis; we concluded quite simply: in this regard, all a project and its legal home actually need is a clear statement and/or assent from the contributor that they offer the contribution under the project's known FLOSS license. Long ago, the now famous Open Source lawyer Richard Fontana dubbed this legal policy with the name “inbound=outbound”. It's a powerful concept that shows clearly the redundancy of CLAs.

Most importantly, “inbound=outbound” makes a strong and correct statement about the FLOSS license the project chooses. FLOSS licenses must contain all the legal terms that are necessary for a project to thrive. If the project is unwilling to accept (inbound) contribution of code under the terms of the license it chose, that's a clear indication that the project's (outbound) license has serious deficiencies that require immediate remedy. This is precisely why Conservancy advises2 that our projects select a FLOSS license with a strong patent clause, such as the GPLv3 or the Apache License, Version 2.0. With a license like those, Conservancy believes that CLAs are unnecessary.

Meanwhile, the issue of requesting the contributors' assent to the projects' license is orthogonal to the issue of CLAs. Conservancy does encourage use of clear systems (either formal or informal) for that purpose. One popular option is called the Developer Certificate of Origin (DCO). Originally designed for the Linux project and published by the OSDL under the CC-By-SA license, the DCO is a mechanism to assure contributors have confirmed their right to license their contribution under the project's license. Typically, developers indicate their agreement to the DCO with a specially-formed tag in their DVCS commit log. Conservancy's Evergreen, phpMyAdmin, and Samba projects all use modified versions of the DCO.

Conservancy's Selenium project uses a license assent mechanism somewhat closer to a formal CLA. In this method, the contributors must complete a special online form wherein they formally assent to the license of the project. The project keeps careful records of all assents separately from the code repository itself. This mechanism is a bit heavy-weight, but ultimately simply formally implements the same inbound=outbound concept.

However, most Conservancy projects use the same time-honored and successful mechanism used throughout the 35 year history of the Free Software community. Simply, they publish clearly in their developer documentation and/or other key places (such as mailing list subscription notices) that submissions using the normal means to contribute to the project — such as patches to the mailing list or pull and merge requests — indicate the contributors' assent for inclusion of that software in the canonical version under the project's license.

Ultimately, CLAs are much ado about nothing. Lawyers are trained to zealously represent their clients, and as such they often seek to an outcome that maximizes leverage of clients' legal rights, but they typically ignore the other important benefits that are outside of their profession. The most ardent supporters of CLAs have yet to experience first-hand the arduous daily work required to manage a queue of incoming FLOSS contributions. Those of us who have done the latter easily see that avoiding additional barriers to entry is paramount. While a beautifully crafted CLA — jam-packed with legalese that artfully shifts all the blame off to the contributors — may make some corporate attorneys smile, but I've never seen such bring anything but a frown and a sigh from FLOSS developers.


0Only rarely does an unincorporated, unaffiliated project request CLAs. Typically, CLAs name a corporate entity — a non-profit charity (like Conservancy), a trade association (like OpenStack Foundation), or a for-profit company, as its ultimate beneficiary. On rare occasions, the beneficiary of a CLA is a single individual developer.

1I've yet to meet any FLOSS developer who has read their own employer's entire patent portfolio.

2Conservancy doesn't mandate any specific Open Source and Free Software license for our projects. That's just not our style. Any license that appears as both an Open Source license on the OSI-approved list and as a Free Software license on FSF's license list is good enough for Conservancy.

Posted by Bradley M. Kuhn on June 9, 2014

Tags: conservancy, GPL, CLA

March 31, 2014 by Bradley M. Kuhn

The Change in My Role at Conservancy

Today, Conservancy announced the addition of Karen Sandler to our management team. This addition to Conservancy's staff will greatly improve Conservancy's ability to help Conservancy's many member projects.

This outcome is one I've been working towards for a long time. I've focused for at least a year on fundraising for Conservancy in hopes that we could hire a third full-time staffer. For the last few years, I've been doing basically two full-time jobs, since I've needed to give my personal attention to virtually everything Conservancy does. This obviously doesn't scale, so my focus has been on increasing capacity at Conservancy to serve more projects better.

I (and the entire Board of Directors of Conservancy) have often worried if I were to disappear, leave Conservancy (or otherwise just drop dead), Conservancy might not survive without me. Such heavy reliance on one person is a bug, not a feature, in an organization. That's why I worked so hard to recruit Karen Sandler as Conservancy's new Executive Director. Admittedly, she helped create Conservancy and has been involved since its inception. But, having her full-time on staff is a great step forward: there's no single point of failure anymore.

It's somewhat difficult for me to relinquish some of my personal control over Conservancy. I have been mostly responsible for building Conservancy from a small unstaffed “thin” fiscal sponsor into a “full-service” fiscal sponsor that provides virtually any work that a Free Software project requests. Much of that has been thanks to my work, and it's tough to let someone else take that over.

However, handing off the Executive Director position to Karen specifically made this transition easy. Put simply, I trust Karen, and I recruited her personally to take over (one of) my job(s). She really believes in software freedom in the way that I do, and she's taught me at least half the things I know about non-profit organizational management. We've collaborated on so many projects and have been friends and colleagues — through both rough and easy times — for nearly a decade. While I think I'm justified in saying I did a pretty good job as Conservancy's Executive Director, Karen will do an even better job than I did.

I'm not stepping aside completely from Conservancy management, though. I'm continuing in the role of President and I remain on the Board of Directors. I'll be involved with all strategic decisions for the organization, and I'll be the primary manager for a few of Conservancy's program activities: including at least the non-profit accounting project and Conservancy's license enforcement activities. My primary staff role, however, will now be under the title “Distinguished Technologist” — a title we borrowed from HP. The basic idea behind this job at Conservancy is that my day-to-day work helps the organization understand the technology of Free Software and how it relates to Conservancy's work. As an initial matter, I suspect that my focus for the next few years is going to be the non-profit accounting project, since that's the most urgent place where Free Software is inadequately providing technological solutions for Conservancy's work. (Now, more than ever, I urge you to donate to that campaign, since it will become a major component of funding my day-to-day work. :)

I'm somewhat surprised that, even in the six hours since this announcement, I've already received emails from Conservancy member project representatives worded as if they expect they won't hear from me anymore. While, indeed, I'll cease to be the front-line contact person for issues related to Conservancy's work, Conservancy and its operations will remain my focus. Karen and I plan a collaborative management style for the organization, so I suspect for many things, Karen will brief me about what's going on and will seek my input. That said, I'm looking forward to a time very soon when most Conservancy management decisions won't primarily be mine anymore. I'm grateful for Karen, as I know that the two of us running Conservancy together will make a great working environment for both of us, and I really believe that she and I as a management team are greater than the sum of our parts.

Posted by Bradley M. Kuhn on March 31, 2014

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