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Displaying posts by Bradley M. Kuhn

Toward Community-Oriented, Public & Transparent Copyleft Policy Planning

by Bradley M. Kuhn on October 16, 2018

More than 15 years ago, Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community activists successfully argued that licensing proliferation was a serious threat to the viability of FOSS. We convinced companies to end the era of “vanity” licenses. Different charities — from the Open Source Initiative (OSI) to the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to the Apache Software Foundation — all agreed we were better off with fewer FOSS licenses. We de-facto instituted what my colleague Richard Fontana once called the “Rule of Three” — assuring that any potential FOSS license should be met with suspicion unless (a) the OSI declares that it meets their Open Source Definition, (b) the FSF declares that it meets their Free Software Definition, and (c) the Debian Project declares that it meets their Debian Free Software Guidelines. The work for those organizations quelled license proliferation from radioactive threat to safe background noise. Everyone thought the problem was solved. Pointless license drafting had become a rare practice, and updated versions of established licenses were handled with public engagement and close discussion with the OSI and other license evaluation experts.

Sadly, the age of license proliferation has returned. It's harder to stop this time, because this isn't merely about corporate vanity licenses. Companies now have complex FOSS policy agendas, and those agendas are not to guarantee software freedom for all. While it is annoying that our community must again confront an old threat, we are fortunate the problem is not hidden: companies proposing their own licenses are now straightforward about their new FOSS licenses' purposes: to maximize profits.

Open-in-name-only licenses are now common, but seem like FOSS licenses only to the most casual of readers. We've succeeded in convincing everyone to “check the OSI license list before you buy”. We can therefore easily dismiss licenses like Common Clause merely by stating they are non-free/non-open-source and urging the community to avoid them. But, the next stage of tactics have begun, and they are harder to combat. What happens when for-profit companies promulgate their own hyper-aggressive (quasi-)copyleft licenses that seek to pursue the key policy goal of “selling proprietary licenses” over “defending software freedom”? We're about to find out, because, yesterday, MongoDB declared themselves the arbiter of what “strong copyleft” means.

Understanding MongoDB's Business Model

To understand the policy threat inherent in MongoDB's so-called “Server Side Public License, Version 1”, one must first understand the fundamental business model for MongoDB and companies like them. These companies use copyleft for profit-making rather than freedom-protecting. First, they require full control (either via ©AA or CLA) of all copyrights in the work, and second, they offer two independent lines of licensing. Publicly, they provide the software under the strongest copyleft license available. Privately, the same (or secretly improved) versions of the software are available under fully proprietary terms. In theory, this could be merely selling exceptions: a benign manner of funding more Free Software code — giving the proprietary option only to those who request it. In practice — in all examples that have been even mildly successful (such as MongoDB and MySQL) — this mechanism serves as a warped proprietary licensing shake-down: “Gee, it looks like you're violating the copyleft license. That's a shame. I guess you just need to abandon the copyleft version and buy a proprietary license from us to get yourself out of this jam, since we don't plan to reinstate any lost rights and permissions under the copyleft license.” In other words, this structure grants exclusive and dictatorial power to a for-profit company as the arbiter of copyleft compliance. Indeed, we have never seen any of these companies follow or endorse the Principles of Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement. While it has made me unpopular with some, I still make no apologies that I have since 2004 consistently criticized this “proprietary relicensing” business model as “nefarious”, once I started hearing regular reports that MySQL AB (now Oracle) asserts GPL violations against compliant uses merely to scare users into becoming “customers”. Other companies, including MongoDB, have since emulated this activity.

Why Seek Even Stronger Copyleft?

The GNU Affero General Public License (AGPL) has done a wonderful job defending the software freedom of community-developed projects like Mastodon and Mediagoblin. So, we should answer with skepticism a solitary for-profit company coming forward to claim that “Affero GPL has not resulted in sufficient legal incentives for some of the largest users of infrastructure software … to participate in the community. Many open source developers are struggling with a similar reality”. If the last sentence were on Wikipedia, I'd edit it to add a Citation Needed tag, as I know of nomulti-copyright-held or charity-based AGPL'd project that has “struggled with this reality”. In fact, it's only a “reality” for those that engage in proprietary relicensing. Eliot Horowitz, co-founder of MongoDB and promulgator of their new license, neglects to mention that.

The most glaring problem with this license, which Horowitz admits in his OSI license-review list post, is that there was no community drafting process. Instead, a for-profit company, whose primary goal is to use copyleft as a weapon against the software-sharing community for the purpose of converting that “community” into paying customers, published this license as a fait accompli without prior public discussion of the license text.

If this action were an isolated incident by one company, ignoring it is surely the best response. Indeed, I urged everyone to simply ignore the Commons Clause. Now, we see a repackaging of the Commons Clause into a copyleft-like box (with reuse of Commons Clause's text such as “whose value derives, entirely or substantially, from the functionality of the Software”). Since both licenses were drafted in secret, we cannot know if the reuse of text was simply because the same lawyer was employed to write both, or if MongoDB has joined a broader and more significant industry-wide strategy to replace existing FOSS licensing with alternatives that favor businesses over individuals.

The Community Creation Process Matters

Admittedly, the history of copyleft has been one of slowly evolving community-orientation. GPLv1 and GPLv2 were drafted in private, too, by Richard Stallman and FSF's (then) law firm lawyer, Jerry Cohen. However, from the start, the license steward was not Stallman himself, nor the law firm, but the FSF, a 501(c)(3) charity dedicated to serve the public good. As such, the FSF made substantial efforts in the GPLv3 process to reorient the drafting of copyleft licenses as a public policy and legislative process. Like all legislative processes, GPLv3 was not ideal — and I was even personally miffed to be relegated to the oft-ignored “GPLv3 Discussion Committee D” — but the GPLv3 process was undoubtedly a step forward in FOSS community license drafting. Mozilla Corporation made efforts for community collaboration in redrafting the MPL, and specifically included the OSI and the FSF (arbiters of the Open Source Definition and Free Software Definition (respectively)) in MPL's drafting deliberations. The modern acceptable standard is a leap rather than a step forward: a fully public, transparent drafting process with a fully public draft repository, as the copyleft-next project has done. I think we should now meet with utmost suspicion any license that does not use copyleft-next's approach of “running licensing drafting as a Free Software project”.

I was admittedly skeptical of that approach at first. What I have seen six years since Richard Fontana started copyleft-next is that, simply put, the key people who are impacted most fundamentally by a software license are mostly likely to be aware of, and engage in, a process if it is fully public, community-oriented, and uses community tools, like Git.

Like legislation, the policies outlined in copyleft licenses impact the general public, so the general public should be welcomed to the drafting. At Conservancy, we don't draft our own licenses0, so our contracts with software developers and agreements with member projects state that the licenses be both “OSI-approved Open Source” and “FSF-approved GPL-compatible Free Software”. However, you can imagine that Conservancy has a serious vested interest in what licenses are ultimately approved by the OSI and the FSF. Indeed, with so much money flowing to software developers bound by those licenses, our very charitable mission could be at stake if OSI and the FSF began approving proprietary licenses as Open, Free, and/or GPL-compatible. I want to therefore see license stewards work, as Mozilla did, to make the vetting process easier, not harder, for these organizations.

A community drafting process allows everyone to vet the license text early and often, to investigate the community and industry impact of the license, and to probe the license drafter's intent through the acceptance and rejection of proposed modified text (ideally through a DVCS). With for-profit actors seeking to gain policy control of fundamental questions such as “what is strong copyleft?”, we must demand full drafting transparency and frank public discourse.

The Challenge Licensing Arbiters Face

OSI, FSF, and Debian have a huge challenge before them. Historically, the FSF was the only organization who sought to push the boundary of strong copyleft. (Full disclosure: I created the Affero clause while working for the FSF in 2002, inspired by Henry Poole's useful and timely demands for a true network services copyleft.) Yet, the Affero clause was itself controversial. Many complained that it changed the fundamental rules of copyleft. While “triggered only on distribution, not modification” was a fundamental rule of the regular GPL, we as a community — over time and much public debate — decided the Affero clause is a legitimate copyleft, and AGPL was declared Open Source by OSI and DFSG-free by Debian.

That debate was obviously framed by the FSF. The FSF, due to public pressure, compromised by leaving the AGPL as an indefinite fork of the GPL (i.e., the FSF did not include the Affero clause in plain GPL. While I personally lobbied (from GPLv3 Discussion Committee D and elsewhere) for the merger of AGPL and GPL during the GPLv3 drafting process, I respect the decision of the FSF, which was informed not by my one voice, but the voices of the entire community.

Furthermore, the FSF is a charity, chartered to serve the public good and the advancement of software freedom for users and developers. MongoDB is a for-profit company, chartered to serve the wallets of its owners. While MongoDB employees1 (like those of any other company) should be welcomed on equal footing to the other unaffiliated individuals, and representatives of companies, charities, and trade-associations to the debate about the future of copyleft, we should not accept their active framing of that debate. By submitting this license to OSI for approval without any public community discussion, and without any discussion whatsoever with the key charities in the community, is unacceptable. The OSI should now adopt a new requirement for license approval — namely, that licenses without a community-oriented drafting process should be rejected for the meta-reason of “non-transparent drafting”, regardless of their actual text. This will have the added benefit of forcing future license drafters to come to OSI, on their public mailing lists, before the license is finalized. That will save OSI the painstaking work of walking back bad license drafts, which has in recent years consumed much expert time by OSI's volunteers.

Welcoming All To Public Discussion

Earlier this year, Conservancy announced our plans to host and organize the first annual CopyleftConf. We decided to do this because we seek to create a truly neutral, open, friendly, and welcoming forum for discussion about the past and future of copyleft as a strategy for defending software freedom. We had no idea when we first mentioned the possibility of running CopyleftConf (during the Organizers' Panel at the end of the Legal and Policy DevRoom at FOSDEM 2018 in February 2018) that multiple companies would come forward and seek to control the microphone on the future of copyleft. Now that MongoDB has done so, I'm very glad that the conference is already organized and on the calendar before they did so.

Despite my criticisms of MongoDB, I welcome Eliot Horowitz, Heather Meeker (the law firm lawyer who drafted MongoDB's new license and the Commons Clause), or anyone else who was involved in the creation of MongoDB's new license to submit a talk. Conservancy will be announcing soon the independent group of copyleft experts (and critics!) who will make up the Program Committee and will independently evaluate the submissions. Even if a talk is rejected, I welcome rejected proposers to attend and speak about their views in the hallway track and the breakout sessions.

One of the most important principles in copyleft policy that our community has learned is that commercial, non-commercial, and hobbyist activity3 should have equal footing with regard to rights assured by the copyleft licenses themselves. There is no debate about that; we all agree that copyleft codebases become meeting places for hobbyists, companies, charities, and trade associations to work together toward common goals and in harmony and software freedom. With this blog post, I call on everyone to continue on the long road to applying that same principle to the meta-level of how these licenses are drafted and how they are enforced. While we have done some work recently on the latter, not enough has been done on the former. MongoDB's actions today give us an opportunity to begin that work anew.


0 While Conservancy does not draft any main FOSS license texts, Conservancy does help with the drafting of additional permissions upon the request of our member projects. Note that additional permissions (sometimes called license exceptions) grant permission to engage in activities that the main license would otherwise prohibit. As such, by default, additional permissions can only make a copyleft license weaker, never stronger.

1, 3 I originally had “individual actors” here instead of “hobbyist activity”, and additionally had expressed poorly the idea of welcoming individuals representing all types of entities to the discussion. The miscommunication in my earlier text gave one person the wrong impression that I believe the rights of companies should be equal to the rights of individuals. I fundamentally believe that companies and organizations should not have rights of personhood and I've updated the text in an effort to avoid such confusions.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, CLA, conferences, law, licensing, Copyleft Conf

Thoughts on Microsoft Joining OIN's Patent Non-Aggression Pact

by Bradley M. Kuhn on October 10, 2018

Folks lauded today that Microsoft has joined the Open Invention Network (OIN)'s limited patent non-aggression pact, suggesting that perhaps it will bring peace in our time regarding Microsoft's historical patent aggression. While today's announcement is a step forward, we call on Microsoft to make this just the beginning of their efforts to stop their patent aggression efforts against the software freedom community.

The OIN patent non-aggression pact is governed by something called the Linux System Definition. This is the most important component of the OIN non-aggression pact, because it's often surprising what is not included in that Definition especially when compared with Microsoft's patent aggression activities. Most importantly, the non-aggression pact only applies to the upstream versions of software, including Linux itself.

We know that Microsoft has done patent troll shakedowns in the past on Linux products related to the exfat filesystem. While we at Conservancy were successful in getting the code that implements exfat for Linux released under GPL (by Samsung), that code has not been upstreamed into Linux. So, Microsoft has not included any patents they might hold on exfat into the patent non-aggression pact.

We now ask Microsoft, as a sign of good faith and to confirm its intention to end all patent aggression against Linux and its users, to now submit to upstream the exfat code themselves under GPLv2-or-later. This would provide two important protections to Linux users regarding exfat: (a) it would include any patents that read on exfat as part of OIN's non-aggression pact while Microsoft participates in OIN, and (b) it would provide the various benefits that GPLv2-or-later provides regarding patents, including an implied patent license and those protections provided by GPLv2§7 (and possibly other GPL protections and assurances as well)

Tags: conservancy, patent, licensing

Challenges in Maintaining A Big Tent for Software Freedom

by Bradley M. Kuhn on August 30, 2018

In recent weeks, I've been involved with a complex internal discussion by a major software freedom project about a desire to take a stance on social justice issues other than software freedom. In the discussion, many different people came forward with various issues that matter to them, including vegetarianism, diversity, and speech censorship, wondering how that software freedom project should handle other social justices causes that are not software freedom. This week, (separate and fully unrelated) another project, called Lerna, publicly had a similar debate. The issues involved are challenging, and it deserves careful consideration regardless of how the issue is raised.

One of the first licensing discussions that I was ever involved in the mid 1990s was with a developer, who was a lifelong global peace activist, objecting to the GPL because it allowed the USA Department of Defense and the wider military industrial complex to incorporate software into their destructive killing machines. As a lifelong pacifist myself, I sympathized with his objection, and since then, I have regularly considered the question of “do those who perpetrate other social injustices deserve software freedom?”

I ultimately drew much of my conclusion about this from activists for free speech, who have a longer history and have therefore had longer time to consider the philosophical question. I remember in the late 1980s when I first learned of the ACLU, and hearing that they assisted the Klu-Klux Klan in their right to march. I was flabbergasted; the Klan is historically well-documented as an organization that was party to horrific murder. Why would the ACLU defend their free speech rights? Recently, many people had a similar reaction when, in defense of the freedom of association and free speech of the National Rifle Association (NRA), the ACLU filed an amicus brief in a case involving the NRA, an organization that I and many others oppose politically. Again, we're left wondering: why should we act to defend the free speech and association rights of political causes we oppose — particularly for those like the NRA and big software companies who have adequate resources to defend themselves?

A few weeks ago, I heard a good explanation of this in an interview with ACLU's Executive Director, whom I'll directly quote, as he stated succinctly the reason why ACLU has a long history of defending everyone's free speech and free association rights:

[Our decision] to give legal representation to Nazis [was controversial].… It is not for the government's role to decide who gets a permit to march based on the content of their speech. We got lots of criticism, both internally and externally. … We believe these rights are for everyone, and we truly mean it — even for people we hate and whose ideology is loathsome, disgusting, and hurtful. [The ACLU can't be] just a liberal/left advocacy group; no liberal/left advocacy group would take on these kinds of cases. … It is important for us to forge a path that talks about this being about the rights of everyone.

Ultimately, fighting for software freedom is a social justice cause similar to that of fighting for free speech and other causes that require equal rights for all. We will always find groups exploiting those freedoms for ill rather than good. We, as software freedom activists, will have to sometimes grit our teeth and defend the rights to modify and improve software for those we otherwise oppose. Indeed, they may even utilize that software for those objectionable activities. It's particularly annoying to do that for companies that otherwise produce proprietary software: after all, in another realm, they are actively working against our cause. Nevertheless, either we believe the Four Software Freedoms are universal, or we don't. If we do, even our active political opponents deserve them, too.

I think we can take a good example from the ACLU on this matter. The ACLU, by standing firm on its core principles, now has, after two generations of work, developed the power to make impact on related causes. The ACLU is the primary organization defending immigrants who have been forcibly separated from their children by the USA government. I'd posit that only an organization with a long history of principled activity can have both the gravitas and adequate resources to take on that issue.

Fortunately, software freedom is already successful enough that we can do at least a little bit of that now. For example, Conservancy already took a public position, early, in opposition of Trump's immigration policy because of its negative impact on software freedom, whose advancement depends on the free flow of movement by technologists around the world. Speaking out from our microphone built from our principled stand on software freedom, we can make an impact that denying software freedom to others never could. Specifically, rather than proprietarizing the license of projects to fight USA's Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and its software providers, I'd encourage us to figure out a specific FOSS package that we can prove is deployed for use at ICE, and use that fact as a rhetorical lever to criticize their bad behavior. For example, has anyone investigated if ICE uses Linux-based servers to host their otherwise proprietary software systems? If so, the Linux community is already large and powerful enough that if a group of Linux contributors made a public statement in political opposition to the use of Linux in ICE's activities, it would get national news attention here in the USA. We could even ally with the ACLU to assure the message is heard. No license change is needed to do that, and it will surely be more effective.

Again, this is how software freedom is so much like free speech. We give software freedom to all, which allows them to freely use and deploy the software for any purpose, just like hate groups can use the free speech microphone to share their ideas. However, like the ACLU, software freedom activists, who simultaneously defend all users equal rights in copying, sharing and modifying the software, can use their platform — already standing on the moral high ground that was generated by that long time principled support of equal rights — to speak out against those who bring harm to society in other ways.

Finally, note that the Four Software Freedoms obviously should never be the only laws and/or rules of conduct of our society. Just like you should be prevented from (proverbially) falsely yelling Fire! in a crowded movie theater, you still should be stopped when you deploy Free Software in a manner that violates some other law, or commits human rights violations. However, taking away software freedom from bad actors, while it seems like a panacea to other societal ills, will simply backfire. The simplicity and beauty of copyleft is that it takes away someone's software freedom only at the moment when they take away someone else's software freedom; copyleft ensures that is the only reason your software freedom should be lost. Simple tools work best when your social justice cause is an underdog, and we risk obscurity of our software if we seek to change the fundamental simple design of copyleft licensing to include licensing penalties for other social justice grievances (— even if we could agree on which other non-FOSS causes warrant “copyleft protection”). It means we have a big tent for software freedom, and we sometimes stand under it with people whose behavior we despise. The value we have is our ability to stand with them under the tent, and tell them: “while I respect your right to share and improve that software, I find the task you're doing with the software deplorable.”. That's the message I deliver to any ICE agent who used Free Software while forcibly separating parents from their children.

Tags: conservancy, law, licensing

Software Freedom Ensures the True Software Commons

by Bradley M. Kuhn on August 22, 2018

Proprietary software has always been about a power relationship. Copyright and other legal systems give authors the power to decide what license to choose, and usually, they choose a license that favors themselves and takes rights and permissions away from others.

The so-called “Commons Clause” purposely confuses and conflates many issues. The initiative is backed by FOSSA, a company that sells materiel in the proprietary compliance industrial complex. This clause recently made news again since other parties have now adopted this same license.

This proprietary software license, which is not Open Source and does not respect the four freedoms of Free Software, seeks to hide a power imbalance ironically behind the guise “Open Source sustainability”. Their argument, once you look past their assertion that the only way to save Open Source is to not do open source, is quite plain: If we can't make money as quickly and as easily as we'd like with this software, then we have to make sure no one else can as well.

These observations are not new. Software freedom advocates have always admitted that if your primary goal is to make money, proprietary software is a better option. It's not that you can't earn a living writing only Free Software; it's that proprietary software makes it easier because you have monopolistic power, granted to you by a legal system ill-equipped to deal with modern technology. In my view, it's a power which you don't deserve — that allows you to restrict others.

Of course, we all want software freedom to exist and survive sustainably. But the environmental movement has already taught us that unbridled commerce and conspicuous consumption is not sustainable. Yet, companies still adopt strategies like this Commons Clause to prioritize rapid growth and revenue that the proprietary software industry expects, claiming these strategies bolster the Commons (even if it is a “partial commons in name only”). The two goals are often just incompatible.

Here at Conservancy, we ask our projects to be realistic about revenue. We don't typically see Conservancy projects grow at rapid rates. They grow at slow and steady rates, but they grow better, stronger, and more diverse because they take the time to invite everyone to get involved. The software takes longer to mature, but when it does it's more robust and survives longer.

I'll take a bet with anyone who'd like. Let's pick five projects under the Affero GPL and five projects under the Commons Clause, and then let's see which ones survive longer as vibrant communities with active codebases and diverse contributors.

Finally, it's not surprising that the authors chose the name “Commons”. Sadly, “commons” has for many years been a compromised term, often used by those who want to promote licenses or organizational models that do not guarantee all four freedoms inherent in software freedom. Proprietary software is the ultimate tragedy of the software commons, and while it's clever rhetoric for our opposition to claim that they can make FOSS sustainable by proprietarizing it, such an argument is also sophistry.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, CLA, law

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