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The Importance of Following Community-Oriented Principles in GPL Enforcement Work

by Bradley M. Kuhn and Karen M. Sandler on July 19, 2016

The GNU General Public License (GPL) was designed to grant clear permissions for sharing software and to defend that freedom for users. GPL'd code now appears in so many devices that it is fundamental to modern technology. While we believe that following the GPL's requirements is neither burdensome nor unreasonable, many fail to do so. GPL enforcement — the process to encourage those who fail to correct problems and join our open software development community — is difficult diplomacy.

Our community learned together over the last 20 years how to do this work well. Last year, Conservancy and the FSF published the concise but comprehensive Principles of Communited-Oriented GPL Enforcement. The Principles are endorsed by Conservancy, FSF and gpl-violations.org — the three historic community-oriented GPL enforcement organizations, as well as other non-enforcing organizations such as OSI. Recently, these principles were also endorsed by the Netfilter team, a core and essential group of Linux developers. However, despite our best efforts, we have been unable to convince all enforcers to endorse these Principles. Here, we express our concern and desire to ameliorate that situation as best we can. Furthermore, we also bring some transparency and context where enforcers seem unlikely to ever endorse the Principles.

One impetus in drafting the Principles was our discovery of ongoing enforcement efforts that did not fit with the GPL enforcement community traditions and norms established for the last two decades. Publishing the previously unwritten guidelines has quickly separated the wheat from the chaff. Specifically, we remain aware of multiple non-community-oriented GPL enforcement efforts, where none of those engaged in these efforts have endorsed our principles nor pledged to abide by them. These “GPL monetizers”, who trace their roots to nefarious business models that seek to catch users in minor violations in order to sell an alternative proprietary license, stand in stark contrast to the work that Conservancy, FSF and gpl-violations.org have done for years.

Most notably, a Linux developer named Patrick McHardy continues ongoing GPL enforcement actions but has not endorsed the community Principles. When Patrick began his efforts, Conservancy immediately reached out to him. After a promising initial discussion (even contemplating partnership and Patrick joining our coalition) in mid-2014, Patrick ceased answering our emails and text messages, and never cooperated with us. Conservancy has had no contact with Patrick nor his attorney since, other than a somewhat cryptic and off-topic response we received over a year ago. In the last two years, we've heard repeated rumors about Patrick's enforcement activity, as well as some reliable claims by GPL violators that Patrick failed to follow the Principles.

In one of the many attempts we made to contact Patrick, we urged him to join us in co-drafting the Principles, and then invited him to endorse them after their publication. Neither communication received a response. We informed him that we felt the need to make this public statement, and gave him almost three months to respond. He still has not responded.

Patrick's enforcement occurs primarily in Germany. We know well the difficulties of working transparently in that particular legal system, but both gpl-violations.org and Conservancy have done transparent enforcement in that jurisdiction and others. Yet, Patrick's actions are not transparent.

In private and semi-private communications, many have criticized Patrick for his enforcement actions. Patrick McHardy has also been suspended from work on the Netfilter core team. While the Netfilter team itself publicly endorsed these Principles of enforcement, Patrick has not. Conservancy agrees that Patrick's apparent refusal to endorse the Principles leaves suspicion and concern, since the Principles have been endorsed by so many other Linux copyright holders, including Conservancy.

Conservancy built a coalition of many copyright holders for Linux enforcement so that we as copyright holders in Linux could share with each other our analysis, strategy, plans and diplomacy. Much like Linux development itself, enforcement functions best when copyright holders collaborate as equals to achieve the desired result. In coding, Linux copyright holders seek to create together the best operating system kernel in history, and in an enforcement coalition like ours, we seek to achieve proper compliance in the best possible way for the community. (More collaboration is always better for various reasons, and we always urge copyright holders in Linux, Debian, Samba, and BusyBox to join our coalitions.)

Nevertheless, Conservancy does not object to individual copyright holders who wish to enforce alone; this is their legal prerogative, and with such limited resources for (and political opposition against) GPL enforcement on Linux, everyone who wants to help is welcome. However, Conservancy must denounce anyone who refuses to either endorse the Principles, or (at least) publicly explain why the Principles are not consistent with their efforts to advance software freedom.

There are few public facts on Patrick's enforcement actions, though there are many rumors. That his enforcement work exists is indisputable, but its true nature, intent, and practice remains somewhat veiled. The most common criticism that we hear from those who have been approached by Patrick is an accusation that he violates one specific Principle: prioritizing financial gain over compliance. Meanwhile, some who criticize Conservancy's enforcement efforts ironically believe we are “too nice” — because we don't seek to maximize financial gain, and therefore we ultimately fund some license compliance work with donations from the general public. Despite that criticism, and the simple fact that Conservancy's settlement funds from GPL enforcement usually fail to cover even the staffing costs associated with our enforcement efforts, we continue to abide by the Principle that compliance is paramount over monetary damages. While we sympathize with those who wish GPL enforcement would fund itself, we also see clear problems if an enforcer prioritizes financial gain over compliance — even if the overarching goal is more comprehensive enforcement in other areas.

Conservancy does all our enforcement specifically through a USA 501(c)(3) charity, precisely because that makes us transparently financially accountable. The IRS requires that our work benefit the general public and never bestow private inurement to anyone. Success in enforcement should never personally benefit one individual financially, and a charity structure for GPL enforcement ensures that never happens. Furthermore, the annual Form 990 filings of charities allows for public scrutiny of both enforcement revenue and expenditure1.

Conservancy, as a charity in the center of GPL enforcement, seeks to make enforcement transparent. We devised the Principles in part to clarify long-standing, community-accepted enforcement procedures in a formalized way, so that violators and GPL-compliant adopters alike can discern whether enforcement behavior is acceptable under community norms. We welcome public debate about any enforcement action's compliance with the Principles (i.e., its meta-compliance with the Principles). We encourage all those who enforce GPL to come forward to either endorse the Principles, or publicly propose updates or modifications to the Principles. (We've created the mailing list, principles-discuss, as a public place for that discussion.) We urge developers to state that they support enforcement undertaken in a principled manner, including litigating only as a necessary last resort and to never prioritize financial gain.

We chose the phrase “meta-compliance with the Principles” carefully. Applying the Principles themselves to compliance with those Principles seems apt to us. For example, we publicized the concerns about Patrick's enforcement only after two years of good-faith attempts to discuss the problems with him, and we waited for more than a year before publicizing the problem, and only after both ample warning to Patrick, and discussion and coordination with the Netfilter team. Just as we would with a GPL violator, we exhausted every path we could find before making this statement publicly.

Thus, we now call on Patrick to endorse the Principles or publicly engage in good faith with the community to discuss proper methods of enforcement. We further welcome anyone who does not currently abide by these Principles to join us anew in our coordinated community-oriented GPL enforcement work.

In conclusion, to contrast GPL enforcement with the much more common proprietary software litigation, violators should always have a simple and solid method to quickly resolve the rare legal action around the GPL: compliance. GPL enforcers should always seek compliance as the primary and paramount resolution to any enforcement matter. In this manner, where community-oriented enforcement exists and thrives, the risk for danger from lawsuits diminishes. Today's violators can then become tomorrow's contributors.

Finally, if you are in a situation where you are unsure what your obligations are under GPL, we urge you to read and study the Copyleft Guide to learn more about how to properly comply with GPL and other copyleft licenses.


1 Looking at Conservancy's Form 990s, you can see by examining Page 2 (Part III) (in FY 2011, see Page 25, Schedule O, for continuation) each year how much revenue Conservancy received from enforcement settlements, and how much Conservancy spends on license compliance activity. Most notably, Conservancy has not received a single dollar in GPL enforcement revenue since FY 2012.

Tags: conservancy, Filings, GPL

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