A Requiem for Ian Murdock
byon December 30, 2015
I first met Ian Murdock gathered around a table at some bar, somewhere, after some conference in the late 1990s. Progeny Linux Systems' founding was soon to be announced, and Ian had invited a group from the Debian BoF along to hear about “something interesting”; the post-BoF meetup was actually a briefing on his plans for Progeny.
Many of the details (such as which conference and where on the planet it was), I've forgotten, but I've never forgotten Ian gathering us around, bending my ear to hear in the loud bar, and getting one of my first insider scoops on something big that was about to happen in Free Software. Ian was truly famous in my world; I felt like I'd won the jackpot of meeting a rock star.
More recently, I gave a keynote at DebConf this year and talked about how long I've used Debian and how much it has meant to me. I've since then talked with many people about how the Debian community is rapidly becoming a unicorn among Free Software projects — one of the last true community-driven, non-commercial projects.
A culture like that needs a huge group to rise to fruition, and there are no specific actions that can ensure creation of a multi-generational project like Debian. But, there are lots of ways to make the wrong decisions early. As near as I can tell, Ian artfully avoided the project-ending mistakes; he made the early decisions right.
Ian cared about Free Software and wanted to make something useful for the community. He teamed up with (for a time in Debian's earliest history) the FSF to help Debian in its non-profit connections and roots. And, when the time came, he did what all great leaders do: he stepped aside and let a democratic structure form. He paved the way for the creation of Debian's strong Constitutional and democratic governance. Debian has had many great leaders in its long history, but Ian was (effectively) the first DPL, and he chose not to be a BDFL.
The Free Software community remains relatively young. Thus, loss of our community members jar us in the manner that uniquely unsettles the young. In other words, anyone we lose now, as we've lost Ian this week, has died too young. It's a cliché to say, but I say anyway that we should remind ourselves to engage with those around us every day, and to welcome new people gladly. When Ian invited me around that table, I was truly nobody: he'd never met me before — indeed no one in the Free Software community knew who I was then. Yet, the mere fact that I stayed late at a conference to attend the Debian BoF was enough for him — enough for him to even invite me to hear the secret plans of his new company. Ian's trust — his welcoming nature — remains for me unforgettable. I hope to watch that nature flourish in our community for the remainder of all our lives.
From a lawyer who hates litigation
byon December 30, 2015
Before I started working in free and open source software, before I found out I had a heart condition and became passionate about software freedom, I was a corporate lawyer at a law firm. I worked on various financial transactions. There were ups and downs to this kind of work but throughout I was always extremely vocal about how happy I was that I didn't do any litigation.
Litigation is expensive and it is exhausting. As a lawyer you're dealing with unhappy people who can't resolve their problems in a professional manner, whose relationships, however rosy they may have been, have completely broken down. When I started working in free and open source software, I started out primarily as a nonprofits lawyer. As I did more in copyright and trademark, I continued to avoid GPL litigation. I wasn't really convinced that it was needed and I was sure I wanted no part of the actual work. I also was pretty license agnostic. X.Org, Apache Foundation and other permissively licensed projects were my clients and their passion for free software was very inspiring. I did think that the legal mechanisms in copyleft were fascinating.
Like Keith Packard, my view has changed considerably over the years. I became frustrated seeing companies wrest control of permissively licensed projects, or more often, engineer that from the outset. I've seen developers convinced that the only way a new project will gain adoption is through a lax permissive license only to find down the road that so much of their code had been proprietarized. I think there are times that a permissive license may be the right choice, but I'm now thoroughly convinced about the benefits of copyleft. Seeing the exceptional collaboration in the Linux kernel, for example, has sold me.
But as Bradley put it in our oggcast, “ The GPL is not magic pixie dust.” Just choosing a license is not enough. As you surely have too, I've seen companies abuse rights granted to them under the GPL over and over again. As the years pass, it seems that more and more of them want to walk as close to the edge of infringement as they can, and some flagrantly adopt a catch-me-if-you-can attitude.
As a confrontation-averse person who has always hated litigation, I was certain that I would be able to help with the situation and convince companies to do the right thing. I really thought that some plucky upbeat bridge building would make the difference and that I was just the woman to do it. But what I found is that these attempts are futile if there are no consequences to violating the license. You can talk about compliance until you are blue in the face, run webinars, publish educational materials, form working groups and discussion lists but you cannot take the first step of asking for compliance if at some point someone isn't willing to take that last step of a lawsuit. We at Conservancy are committed to doing this in the ways that are best for long-term free software adoption. This is hard work. And because it's adversarial, no matter how nicely we try to do it, no matter how much time we give to companies to come into compliance and no matter how much help we try to give, we can't count on corporate donors to support it (though many of the individuals working at those companies privately tell me they support it and that it helps them be able to establish budgets around compliance internally).
Conservancy is a public charity, not a for profit company or trade association. We serve the public's interest. I am deeply convinced that GPL enforcement is necessary and good for the free software ecosystem. Bradley is too. So are the members of our Copyleft Compliance Projects. But that's simply not enough. It's not enough from a financial perspective and it's not enough from an ideological one either. What matters is what the public thinks. What matters is what you think. This fundraiser is not a ploy to raise more money with an empty threat. If we can't establish support for enforcement then we just shouldn't be doing it.
Despite the fact that I am an employee of the organization, I am myself signing up as a Conservancy Supporter (in addition to my FSF associate membership). I hope you will join me now too. GPL enforcement is too important to hibernate.
A Special Appeal for Support by Bradley M. Kuhn
byon December 29, 2015
In this video, Bradley M. Kuhn, Conservancy's Distinguished Technologist and President, asks you to support Conservancy. Bradley explains a few details of what Conservancy does for its member projects and the Free Software community and the benefits of becoming a Supporter.
Note that if you are in the USA, you should renew or join in the next few days to be eligible for a tax deduction on your 2015 taxes (to the extent permitted). Also, Conservancy currently has a match provided by Private Internet Access, which will double your supporter donation if you make it soon!
This video is also available on Youtube.
Sumana Harihareswara Explains What Conservancy Does & Why She Supports Us
byon December 22, 2015
In this video, Sumana Harihareswara gives a nice introduction to Conservancy, and explains why she supports Conservancy. Sumana explains Conservancy's work in a way that's easy to understand for those who are new to issues surrounding software freedom, so this is a great video to share with your friends and family this holiday season to convince them to join you in supporting Conservancy.
(Also available on YouTube.)