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Conservancy's First GPL Enforcement Feedback Session

by Bradley M. Kuhn on October 27, 2016

As I mentioned in an earlier blog post, I had the privilege of attending Embedded Linux Conference Europe (ELC EU) and the OpenWrt Summit in Berlin, Germany earlier this month. I gave a talk (for which the video is available below) at the OpenWrt Summit. I also had the opportunity to host the first of many conference sessions seeking feedback and input from the Linux developer community about Conservancy's GPL Compliance Project for Linux Developers.

ELC EU has no “BoF Board” where you can post informal sessions. So, we scheduled the session by word of mouth over a lunch hour. We nevertheless got an good turnout (given that our session's main competition was eating food :) of about 15 people.

Most notably and excitingly, Harald Welte, well-known Netfilter developer and leader of gpl-violations.org, was able to attend. Harald talked about his work with gpl-violations.org enforcing his own copyrights in Linux, and explained why this was important work for users of the violating devices. He also pointed out that some of the companies that were sued during his most active period of gpl-violations.org are now regular upstream contributors.

Two people who work in the for-profit license compliance industry attended as well. Some of the discussion focused on usual debates that charities involved in compliance commonly have with the for-profit compliance industry. Specifically, one of them asked how much compliance is enough, by percentage? I responded to his question on two axes. First, I addressed the axis of how many enforcement matters does the GPL Compliance Program for Linux Developers do, by percentage of products violating the GPL? There are, at any given time, hundreds of documented GPL violating products, and our coalition works on only a tiny percentage of those per year. It's a sad fact that only that tiny percentage of the products that violate Linux are actually pursued to compliance.

On the other axis, I discussed the percentage on a per-product basis. From that point of view, the question is really: Is there a ‘close enough to compliance’ that we can as a community accept and forget about the remainder? From my point of view, we frequently compromise anyway, since the GPL doesn't require someone to prepare code properly for upstream contribution. Thus, we all often accept compliance once someone completes the bare minimum of obligations literally written in the GPL, but give us a source release that cannot easily be converted to an upstream contribution. So, from that point of view, we're often accepting a less-than-optimal outcome. The GPL by itself does not inspire upstreaming; the other collaboration techniques that are enabled in our community because of the GPL work to finish that job, and adherence to the Principles assures that process can work. Having many people who work with companies in different ways assures that as a larger community, we try all the different strategies to encourage participation, and inspire today's violators to become tomorrow upstream contributors — as Harald mention has already often happened.

That same axis does include on rare but important compliance problem: when a violator is particularly savvy, and refuses to release very specific parts of their Linux code (as VMware did), even though the license requires it. In those cases, we certainly cannot and should not accept anything less than required compliance — lest companies begin holding back all the most interesting parts of the code that GPL requires them to produce. If that happened, the GPL would cease to function correctly for Linux.

After that part of the discussion, we turned to considerations of corporate contributors, and how they responded to enforcement. Wolfram Sang, one of the developers in Conservancy's coalition, spoke up on this point. He expressed that the focus on for-profit company contributions, and the achievements of those companies, seemed unduly prioritized by some in the community. As an independent contractor and individual developer, Wolfram believes that contributions from people like him are essential to a diverse developer base, that their opinions should be taken into account, and their achievements respected.

I found Wolfram's points particularly salient. My view is that Free Software development, including for Linux, succeeds because both powerful and wealthy entities and individuals contribute and collaborate together on equal footing. While companies have typically only enforce the GPL on their own copyrights for business reasons (e.g., there is at least one example of a major Linux-contributing company using GPL enforcement merely as a counter-punch in a patent lawsuit), individual developers who join Conservancy's coalition follow community principles and enforce to defend the rights of their users.

At the end of the session, I asked two developers who hadn't spoken during the session, and who aren't members of Conservancy's coalition, their opinion on how enforcement was historically carried out by gpl-violations.org, and how it is currently carried out by Conservancy's GPL Compliance Program for Linux Developers. Both responded with a simple response (paraphrased): it seems like a good thing to do; keep doing it!

I finished up the session by inviting everyone to the join the principles-discuss list, where public discussion about GPL enforcement under the Principles has already begun. (Note: discussion about this specific feedback session can be found on the thread on the list that starts hereI also invited everyone to attend my talk, that took place an hour later at the OpenWrt Summit, which was co-located with ELC EU.

In that talk, I spoke about a specific example of community success in GPL enforcement. As explained on the OpenWrt history page, OpenWrt was initially made possible thanks to GPL enforcement done by BusyBox and Linux contributors in a coalition together. (Those who want to hear more about the connection between GPL enforcement and OpenWrt can view my talk.)

Since there weren't opportunities to promote impromptu sessions on-site, this event was a low-key (but still quite nice) start to Conservancy's planned year-long effort seeking feedback about GPL compliance and enforcement. Our next session is an official BoF session at Linux Plumbers Conference, scheduled for next Thursday 3 November at 18:00. It will be led by my colleagues Karen Sandler and Brett Smith.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, conferences

Please email any comments on this entry to info@sfconservancy.org.

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