Why GPL Compliance Tutorials Should Be Free as in Freedom
byon April 25, 2017
I am honored to be a co-author and editor-in-chief of the most comprehensive, detailed, and complete guide on matters related to compliance of copyleft software licenses such as the GPL. This book, Copyleft and the GNU General Public License: A Comprehensive Tutorial and Guide (which we often call the Copyleft Guide for short) is 155 pages filled with useful material to help everyone understand copyleft licenses for software, how they work, and how to comply with them properly. It is the only document to fully incorporate esoteric material such as the FSF's famous GPLv3 rationale documents directly alongside practical advice, such as the pristine example, which is the only freely published compliance analysis of a real product on the market. The document explains in great detail how that product manufacturer made good choices to comply with the GPL. The reader learns by both real-world example as well as abstract explanation.
However, the most important fact about the Copyleft Guide is not its useful and engaging content. More importantly, the license of this book gives freedom to its readers in the same way the license of the copylefted software does. Specifically, we chose the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 license (CC BY-SA) for this work. We believe that not just software, but any generally useful technical information that teaches people should be freely sharable and modifiable by the general public.
The reasons these freedoms are necessary seem so obvious that I'm surprised I need to state them. Companies who want to build internal training courses on copyleft compliance for their employees need to modify the materials for that purpose. They then need to be able to freely distribute them to employees and contractors for maximum effect. Furthermore, like all documents and software alike, there are always “bugs”, which (in the case of written prose) usually means there are sections that fail to communicate to maximum effect. Those who find better ways to express the ideas need the ability to propose patches and write improvements. Perhaps most importantly, everyone who teaches should avoid NIH syndrome. Education and science work best when we borrow and share (with proper license-compliant attribution, of course!) the best material that others develop, and augment our works by incorporating them.
These reasons are akin to those that led Richard M. Stallman to write his
Software Should Be Free. Indeed, if you reread that essay now
— as I just did — you'll see that much of the damage and many of
the same problems to the advancement of software that RMS documents in that
essay also occur in the world of tutorial documentation about FLOSS
licensing. As too often happens in the Open Source community, though,
folks seek ways to proprietarize, for profit, any copyrighted work that
doesn't already have a copyleft license attached. In the field of copyleft
compliance education, we see the same behavior: organizations who wish to
control the dialogue and profit from selling compliance education seek to
proprietarize the meta-material of compliance education, rather than
sharing freely like the software itself. This yields an ironic
exploitation, since the copyleft license documented therein exists as a
strategy to assure the freedom to share knowledge. These educators tell
their audiences with a straight face:
Sure, the software is
free as in freedom, but if you want to learn how its license
works, you have to license our proprietary materials! This behavior
uses legal controls to curtail the sharing of knowledge, limits the
advancement and improvement of those tutorials, and emboldens silos of
know-how that only wealthy corporations have the resources to access and
afford. The educational dystopia that these organizations create is
precisely what I sought to prevent by advocating for software freedom for
While Conservancy's primary job provides non-profit infrastructure for Free Software projects, we also do a bit of license compliance work as well. But we practice what we preach: we release all the educational materials that we produce as part of the Copyleft Guide project under CC BY-SA. Other Open Source organizations are currently hypocrites on this point; they tout the values of openness and sharing of knowledge through software, but they take their tutorial materials and lock them up under proprietary licenses. I hereby publicly call on such organizations (including but not limited to the Linux Foundation) to license materials such as those under CC BY-SA.
I did not make this public call for liberation of such materials without first trying friendly diplomacy first. Conservancy has been in talks with individuals and staff who produce these materials for some time. We urged them to join the Free Software community and share their materials under free licenses. We even offered volunteer time to help them improve those materials if they would simply license them freely. After two years of that effort, it's now abundantly clear that public pressure is the only force that might work0. Ultimately, like all proprietary businesses, the training divisions of Linux Foundation and other entities in the compliance industrial complex (such as Black Duck) realize they can make much more revenue by making materials proprietary and choosing legal restrictions that forbid their students from sharing and improving the materials after they complete the course. While the reality of this impasse regarding freely licensing these materials is probably an obvious outcome, multiple sources inside these organizations have also confirmed for me that liberation of the materials for the good of general public won't happen without a major paradigm shift — specifically because such educational freedom will reduce the revenue stream around those materials.
Of course, I can attest first-hand that freely liberating tutorial materials curtails revenue. Karen Sandler and I have regularly taught courses on copyleft licensing based on the freely available materials for a few years — most recently in January 2017 at LinuxConf Australia and at at OSCON in a few weeks. These conferences do kindly cover our travel expenses to attend and teach the tutorial, but compliance education is not a revenue stream for Conservancy. While, in an ideal world, we'd get revenue from education to fund our other important activities, we believe that there is value in doing this education as currently funded by our individual Supporters; these education efforts fit withour charitable mission to promote the public good. We furthermore don't believe that locking up the materials and refusing to share them with others fits a mission of software freedom, so we never considered such as a viable option. Finally, given the institutionally-backed FUD that we continue to witness, we seek to draw specific attention to the fundamental difference in approach that Conservancy (as a charity) take toward this compliance education work. (My recent talk on compliance covered on LWN includes some points on that matter, if you'd like further reading).
0One notable exception to these efforts was the success of my colleague, Karen Sandler's (and others) in convincing the OpenChain project to choose CC-0 licensing. However, OpenChain is not officially part of the LF training curriculum to my knowledge, and if it is, it can of course be proprietarized therein, since CC-0 is not a copyleft license.
Cyborg Lawyer 2.0, "Hack Proof"
byon April 6, 2017
It's been quite a number of years since I got my first defibrillator/pacemaker and, a little bit earlier than expected, the battery is now starting to run out. While the alarm hasn't started going off yet (it's set to go off every day a little after noon once the power gets below the 30 day replacement threshold), it's down to the point that this can happen at any moment. There's no way to recharge the battery, though device manufacturers are working on that for future models, so it's surgery to take out the old one and implant a new one. Of course, I've known this was coming for a while, but for various reasons I wasn't that worried about it. I mean, after all, I still don't have access to the source code in my current defibrillator. I was expecting status quo, with the inconvenience of surgery and recovery but instead was faced with the possibility of something much worse.
Karen getting her device interrogated via magnet
Back in 2007 when I first looked into getting my device, it was just before major research was published showing these devices to be vulnerable. I tried to convince my cardiologists and electrophysiologists that the issues around device security were critical, and that these device manufacturers got it backwards: no actual security but with proprietary software that cannot be reviewed or tested for safety. I explained that security through obscurity simply doesn't work. Initially, this did not go well at all but I finally found an electrophysiologist, Dr. Anthony Aizer, who got what I was saying . He convinced me that I couldn't wait any longer to get the device and called around all of the local hospitals until he found one that had an old device that was still sterile. The older device had no wireless component, and could only be communicated with via a magnetic interface. This device was probably the very last one available in my geographic area. The whole experience caused me to research the safety of software on medical devices generally.
And ever since then I've been grateful to have that device. As exploit after exploit were published I was sound in the knowledge that at the very least, my device would be safe from remote attack. This became less hypothetical as I (like many other women on the Internet as I have come to understand) have received actual threats to my safety and well being.
I was a little worried about getting a new device, but had relaxed after I spoke to a nurse practitioner a couple of years ago. He said that anyone could ask for their device's radio telemetry to be disabled after it was publicized that Dick Cheney had the wireless functionality disabled in his device. Apparently, if this was true at the time, it is no longer true, and with only a few months of power left on my current device, I was faced with the prospect of not only having a device to which I couldn't see the source code, but also one that would be wirelessly accessible with little or no security on it.
I went to the Heart Rhythm Center to begin the process of planning for the replacement and met with Abigail Silver, a nurse practitioner. She was kind enough to involve me in the process of contacting the manufacturers to ask them if they had any devices either without radio telemetry or with radio telemetry that could be disabled. On speaker phone, Abigail called the major manufacturers. One by one the representatives we spoke to all told me that my request was not possible. Some of the representatives were cagey. One manufacturer suspiciously asked Abigail to take the phone of speaker in order to tell her that the company did have a device without radio telemetry, though it turned out that the device was just a pacemaker and not a defibrillator. Some of the representatives were defensive. When I explained how vulnerable medical devices are, the Biotronik representative bragged "Our devices are hack proof." When I explained that this was probably not the case, he boasted that Biotronik's devices had never been shown to be vulnerable, and did not listen to my reasons why that would not necessarily indicate the devices to be truly secure from any attack.
At the end of these calls, I was in total despair. How is it possible that none of the major device manufacturers recognize the danger in having these devices enabled with wireless access? Some of the representatives we spoke to had no knowledge of the exploits that were widely publicized. I thought the biggest challenge I was going to face was once again seeking the source code to my body, but this was a direct and immediate threat to my safety and well being.
Fortunately, at the last minute of my time at the Center, Dr. Aizer remembered a small manufacturer making inroads in the United States. Abigail called them and happily, they do have a device I'll likely be able to use. It is with great relief that I'm writing this blog post. I continue to learn so much about the medical system and our fragile relationship with software, I hope I can make the time to explore each relevant part of this experience and research in future posts.
 My battery ran out a bit faster that it would ordinarily have because I got three unnecessary shocks. One shock was because the device was callibrated too sensitively (I was working out at the gym, and my device thought my heart was beating twice as fast as it was). Two shocks were while I was pregnant, and I was having some palpitations, as pregnant women often do.
 I also found a great HCM specialist, Dr. Harry Lever, who understands how important ethics are in technology and medicine (and how we need to safeguard against corporate interests), and more general cardiologist Dr. Olivier Frankenberger who have been great resources in my healthcare journey.
Getting Started with Linux Development and Compliance: An Interview with Christoph Hellwig
byon February 22, 2017
Christoph Hellwig is a Linux developer, responsible for the code for several filesystems and the NVM Express drive. He’s a member of Conservancy’s GPL Compliance Project for Linux Developers and the plaintiff in the case against VMWare, which still awaits appeal. We recently had a chance to catch up with him to hear how he got started working on Linux, what advice he would give newcomers, and why he supports Conservancy’s work.
Q: How did you become interested in Linux? Is there a contribution you are most proud of?
CH: When I was a kid in Germany I started using Usenet and got myself into programming more or less by accident. That lead to learning about Linux and installing it at home. Soon after I started hacking kernel to make the sound card in my computer work under Linux.
Q: Why did you join Conservancy’s GPL Compliance Project For Linux Developers?
CH: I decided that fighting copyright violations on my Linux code wasn’t a task I could take on alone. Based on that I decided to join the Conservancy’s GPL Compliance Project for Linux Developers, which is a very open project and also includes other kernel developers I respect a lot.
Q: What advice would you give to someone who is starting out in the Linux kernel today?
CH: Try to scratch an itch instead of just looking for an easy task that looks good on a resume. For example fix something that annoys you or a friend. Or try to upstream support for an embedded device you use. Don’t send cleanup patches for random code—that’s a good way to be seen as someone who is only interested in polishing his or her resume with kernel commits.
Q: Why do you choose to support Conservancy, in addition to volunteering your time to promote free software and compliance?
CH: I am very impressed with Conservancy’s work. Not only in the compliance program where I work closely with the Conservancy, but also how it helps a lot of free software projects to manage their affairs.
Join Christoph and support Conservancy today! Supporters sustain all of this work we do, from fiscal sponsorship for projects, to compliance work on their behalf.
Git Merge and FOSDEM 2017!
byon February 17, 2017
For me, FOSDEM this year started two days early with Git Merge, the annual Git conference. Git Merge is organized by GitHub, and so far in all three years of its organization the conference has donated the proceeds from ticket sales to Conservancy! I’d been hoping to get to Git Merge one of these years, so I was very excited with the organizing team asked me to do an talk introducing Conservancy.
I got to kick off the conference, and introduced myself by explaining how investigating my heart condition and defibrillator caused me to become passionate about software freedom. I then delved into what Conservancy does and in particular talked about some of the work we’ve done with Git. The talk had a good impact, and all day long I was able to speak with people who were excited about Conservancy and thinking about the ethics of all of our software. It’s always especially thrilling to speak at our member projects’ conferences. I love meeting up with leadership committee members and also putting faces to the names that we see go by while monitoring the activities of our projects.
Photo by Neil McGovern
FOSDEM is an extraordinary conference. A two-day whirlwind of activity, there are many more worthwhile things there than any one person can get to. The whole conference is completely community run and organized. Companies can buy neither stands nor talks in any of the devrooms, which keeps the quality really high. Thousands of people attend FOSDEM and there are great conversations happing everywhere. I find it incredibly difficult to balance seeing people, attending talks (even in my own devroom) and keeping the Conservancy stand running.
Fortunately for us, the FOSDEM organizers were very thoughtful and placed the Conservancy stand just across the hallway from the Legal & Policy devroom, which Bradley and I help organize. I spent most of the time running between the short distance between the two.
One of the major highlights for me was being at the stand with volunteers. Mike McQuaid (of Homebrew, another member project) and Spencer Krum both spent significant time at the booth loudly heckling people into becoming Conservancy Supporters. Stefan Hajnoczi (of QEMU, also a member project) took a quieter but no less dedicated approach. Michal Čihař spent a huge portion of his conference in our booth helping to promote phpMyAdmin and Conservancy. Having people who are giving of their time already so eloquently advocating for our organization was powerful, and helped me feel so energized about Conservancy. We’d launched our match donation that day, and I think it generated a lot of excitement at the booth. We also were lucky to be right next to the stand for one of Conservancy’s newer projects, the Godot Game Engine, which was very fun and convenient.
The Legal & Policy devroom is always fantastic, and while I wound up at the stand and in meetings for much of my time at FOSDEM, I still participated enough to really get a lot out of it. I spoke on a panel about permissive/dismissive licenses and another about fiscal sponsorship entities in Europe. FOSDEM video volunteers have been great, and video is already up for most of the sessions. A huge shout out to Tom Marble who does most of the heavy lifting in organizing the room. There are a lot of great places to discuss imporant legal issues but the FOSDEM devroom is one of my favorites. The talks this year were particularly interesting. I’m looking forward to catching up on the videos of the ones I missed.
I also really enjoyed Bradley’s keynote (we closed the stand down a little early so that we could all attend). Bradley is such an inspiring speaker, and I think he distilled a lot of the major issues facing copyleft and copyleft compliance.
I think part of the magic of FOSDEM is that it’s contained in a single weekend. While it’s inevitable to feel like you wished there were more time to catch up with all of the exceptional people who attend, and it’s exhausting to have no downtime over two days (I even missed the GNOME beers!) it’s just the right amount of time to fully immerse yourself in all things free software.