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A Modest Proposal In The New Age of DMCA Takedown Aggression

by Bradley M. Kuhn on November 13, 2020

Just two weeks ago, my colleague Denver posted a criticism of Microsoft's GitHub for its capitulation to the RIAA takedown notice — which alleged, with specious evidence, that youtube-dl violated 17 USC § 1201. Frankly, this is the kind of behavior we'd expect from the RIAA — an organization controlled in recent decades by two dudes who seem to have helped write § 1201. No one is surprised when the RIAA attacks FOSS projects.

Last night, though, I was shocked to learn that a company that generally has a much better track record on DMCA matters (and with FOSS projects) joined the recent onslaught of DMCA takedown notices against FOSS projects. Namely, GitHub announced yesterday that Google sent a § 1201 DMCA takedown notice for a FOSS project called widevine-l3-decryptor.

Google is the primary provider of browser-based DRM technology for nearly all of the well-known entertainment streaming services, through a product called Widevine. If you've watched a streaming video from a major provider (such as Netflix, Prime Video, and Hulu), then you've probably used Google's DRM. For the past two years, researchers have been in a DRM arms race with Google in cracking the lowest level (and lowest video quality level) of Widevine (called “L3”). The most recent crack inspired creation of a FOSS project, called widevine-l3-decryptor. If successfully integrated into browsers and other platforms, this new freely licensed code may well allow a 100% FOSS solution for viewing videos at this lowest level of DRM0. As always, though, DRM and software freedom remain on an irreconcilable collision course; the function of one always precludes the other.

If you just had déjà vu, it's likely because the narrative here resembles the story of DeCSS from about 20 years ago. The big differences are: (a) cracking L3 isn't as big of a threat to DRM technology (since it yields video output at very low quality), and (b) more importantly, and strangely, Google takes on the role of the MPAA in this repeat dance of DMCA history.

What Should Activists Do?

I admit that this situation kept me up half the night. My first thought was to come out blogging today that we needed to immediately institute a full boycott of all DRM, and the companies that produce it. Yes, a boycott would surely be effective, but it is effectively impossible. Seth Schoen, who has spent nearly a lifetime working to fight DRM, told me once that the talking point inside the industry circles in the early 2000s was: DRM is inevitable. Indeed, the media companies succeeded in inserting that phrase into culture, research circles, and everywhere else — so much so that it eventually became a running joke for activists.

We erred in our arrogant belief that DRM would remain clunky and rare. Media companies and their technology providers have laughed at us all the way to the proverbial bank. Then, the W3C and Mozilla Foundation capitulated with EME. Simply put, the boycott won't work now because DRM, along with the ubiquity of proprietary software in (at least as some component of) every popular platform means that DRM is seamless, easy-to-use, and rarely gets in the way of paying customers. We in fact tried, and mostly succeeded, in boycotting DRM when it was cumbersome, full of bugs, and annoyed users in the early 2000s. Today, most users of DRM don't even know it's there, or who provides it. While I'm not a user of browser-based streaming, I am still embarrassed to say that until yesterday I didn't even know Widevine was a Google product. I thought others were fighting the good fight against DRM and I mostly ignored it. But no one really is. DRM may not rule the technological world for software freedom activists who shun proprietary platforms. But it silently rules everyone else's tech world, and boycotting DRM effectively means boycotting most technology.

This led me to think of political polarization and a failure to compromise, and how it puts policy issues into gridlock. So, for a moment, let's step aside from our visceral negative reaction to 17 USC § 1201. Of course, we should never forget that § 1201 frustrates many Free Speech rights with respect to software in the USA; however, we also must admit that strategies until now have failed to repeal that abhorrent law. So, let's attempt for a few minutes to see the other side's position, as it might help us find other ideas to try while we wait indefinitely (22 years and counting ☹) for restoration of technological Free Speech rights.

Toward that mindset, consider that the copyright statute is ultimately a tool. We in the FOSS community created copyleft as a method to use that tool for good rather than ill. Meanwhile, the media and big tech companies lack any moral motivations on this issue, so they see this tool as merely a method to keep paying customers paying over and over again for the same content. It seems on the surface that there's no zone of agreement, but perhaps there is. Maybe we can agree, especially when we look back to the era of DeCSS, that §1201 is a tool so sharp that it instead became a clumsy weapon. Herein, I propose a compromise that slightly blunts §1201's sharpness. That compromise can be found by focusing on the consensus we already have regarding what parts of copyright that copyleft enforcement should avoid.

Short Term: Copyright Enforcement Parity

Two years ago, Google along with many other companies signed on to the IBM's Red Hat initiative and agreed to the RHCC. The RHCC is a pledge (similar to the KESAP, the latter of which we endorsed) whereby all copyright holders in GPL'd software agree to allow infringers 30 days to repair any copyright infringement consequence-free. During that 30 days, the infringer can continue acts of copyright infringement (e.g., violating the GPL) with impunity. On the thirtieth day, if the infringer achieves full compliance with the GPL, all is forgiven and no penalties are imposed.

While 30 days of unabated GPL violations are quite problematic and often result in thousands of customers remaining uninformed forever that their products contain copylefted software (and thus are possibly never informed that software freedom exists), GPL enforcers have always understood that it takes time for folks to coordinate a response and fix the situation. We have remained steadfast in our focus on beginning with friendly and respectful conversation with any infringer. We never demand immediate injunction; in fact, we usually don't even request one for about 120 days or more. By contrast, DMCA takedown is the exact opposite approach. Takedowns are unwarranted for FOSS projects that develop and operate transparently in the open and facilitate important work for the public good.

Thus, I hereby call on all these companies who signed onto the RHCC to agree immediately to the following pledge:

We agree that regarding any and all alleged copyright infringement committed by any software project that is licensed under (or intends to license under) an OSI-Approved License, that we will give notice to the project, and take no action of copyright enforcement (including but not limited to DMCA takedown) for at least 30 days from the date of notice of our concerns made to the project.

I will be writing to my contacts at all the companies who signed onto the RHCC to ask them to sign onto this provision as well.

Medium and Long Term Solutions

An agreement to slow the rising DMCA takedown onslaught won't actually solve the scourge of §1201. But it can raise awareness. We live every day under unreasonable restrictions from the DMCA and similar laws worldwide. We sometimes forget the urgency of this problem, but this fall's reemergence of the DRM wars should remind us that we must regularly discuss concrete ideas for response. Over the coming weeks, I'll be blogging more on the topic with more ideas to address this problem. In the meantime, I hope I've inspired some of you to propose ideas on how to respond in this struggle, and please do share this post and the request above on social media and any other fora you frequent!

0Google does claim, without evidence (presumably because DMCA doesn't require Google to provide evidence at this stage of the process), that some of the files in the project were copyrighted by Google and therefore not licensable as FOSS. If true, Google would also have a more mundane copyright infringement allegation unrelated to §1201. However, recall that it's typical for pro-DRM organizations to (incorrectly) claim that databases of keys or even keys themselves are independently copyrightable, and we strongly suspect that's occurring here.

Tags: conservancy, licensing, software freedom for everyone

Conservancy is headed to Brussels

by Deb Nicholson on January 24, 2020

Greetings software freedom friends! We will again be in Brussels for FOSDEM and the Second Annual Copyleft Conf. We would love to see you while we're there so here are few of the places and times where you can find us.


Our Executive Director, Karen Sandler and our Policy Fellow, Bradley M. Kuhn are half of the team behind Saturday's popular and long-running Legal & Policy DevRoom. This year the DevRoom will have debates on critical current topics. Sustainability, the relevance of the Open Source Definition, privacy and open hardware are just a few that will be covered. In past years this room has gotten full, so savvy attendees should show up a little early for the sessions they want to catch.

On Sunday, Conservancy staff have two talks in the Community Devroom run by Leslie Hawthorn, Laura Czajkowski and Shirley Bailes. Our Director of Community Operations, Deb Nicholson will be discussing Building Ethical Software Under Capitalism just before lunch, and near the end of the day Bradley looks at how Innersource might affect the future of upstream contributions.

Conservancy will also have a stand all day on Sunday in K level 2 (we are in group E). Come by, say hi, load up on stickers, share some FLOSSip, etc. We could also use a few volunteers at the booth. If you like talking about free software and you can help out for an hour or two, please get in touch!

Conservancy projects Godot and Coreboot also have stands at FOSDEM so be sure to swing by and see what they've got going on.

Second Annual Copyleft Conf

Copyleft Conf is a one day conference on February 3rd, dedicated to -- you guessed it -- copyleft licensing! We'll be discussing theory, practice and the future of copyleft in a friendly and welcoming environment. Porfessional tickets are $200, student/under-employed/non-profit employee tickets are just $20. Both tickets include coffee and tea in the morning as well as lunch. You're going to want to register in advance so that we can get a solid headcount for lunch and get everyone checked in quickly in the morning. Please get in touch if $20 is prohibitive for you.

We could also use volunteers onsite for Copyleft Conf. Volunteer tasks include; helping with registration, time-keeping and recording. Email us if you can pitch in with these important tasks.


Deb is also keynoting CHAOSScon on the Friday before FOSDEM starts. She'll be talking about ethics and metrics. If you're in town early and want to join, the conference organizers recommend registering as soon as possible because space is limited.

Tags: conferences, licensing

Toward Copyleft Equality for All

by Bradley M. Kuhn on January 6, 2020

I would not have imagined even two years ago that expansion of copyleft would become such an issue of interest in software freedom licensing. Historically and for good reason, addition of new forms of copyleft clauses has moved at a steady pace. The early 2000s brought network services clauses (such as that in the Affero GPL), which hinged primarily on requiring provision of source to network-remote users. Affero GPL implemented this via copyright-controlled permission of modification. These licenses began as experiments, and were not approved by some license certification authorities until many years later.

Even with the copyleft community's careful and considered growth, there have been surprising unintended consequences of copyleft licenses. The specific outcome of proprietary relicensing has spread widely and — for stronger copyleft licenses like Affero GPL — has become the more common usage of the license.

As the popularity of Open Source has grown, companies have searched for methods to combine traditional proprietary licensing business models with FOSS offerings. Proprietary relicensing, originally pioneered by MySQL AB (now part of Oracle by way of Sun), uses software freedom licenses to compel purchase of proprietary licenses for the same codebase. Companies accomplish this by ensuring they collect all copyright control of a particular codebase, thus being its sole licensor, and offer the FOSS licenses as a loss-leader (often zero-cost) product. Non-commercial users generally are ignored, and commercial users often operate in fear of captious interpretations of the copyleft license. The remedy for their fear is a purchase of a separate proprietary license for the same codebase from the provider. Proprietary relicensing seems to have been the first mixed FOSS/proprietary business model in history.

The toxicity of this business model has only become apparent in hindsight. Initially, companies engaging in this business model did so somewhat benignly — often offering proprietary licenses only to customers who sought to combine the product with other proprietary software, or as supplemental income along with other consulting businesses. This business model (for some codebases), however, became so lucrative that some companies eventually focused exclusively on it. As a result, aggressive copyleft license overreading and inappropriate, unprincipled enforcement typically came from such companies. For most, the business model likely reached its crescendo when MongoDB began using the Affero GPL for this purpose. I was personally told by large companies at the time (late 2000s into early 2010s) that they'd listed Affero GPL as “Never Allowed Here” specifically because of shake-downs from MongoDB.

Copyleft itself is not a moral philosophy; rather, copyleft is a strategy that software freedom activists constructed to advance a particular set of policy goals. Specifically, software copyleft was designed to ensure that all users received complete, corresponding source for all binaries, and that any modifications or improvements made anywhere in the chain of custody of the software were available in source form to downstream users. As orginially postulated, copyleft was a simple strategy to disarm proprietarization as an anti-software-freedom tactic.

The Corruption of Copyleft

Copyleft is a tool to achieve software freedom. Any tool can be fashioned into a weapon when wielded the wrong way. That's precisely what occurred with copyleft — and it happened early in copyleft's history, too. Before even the release of GPLv2, Aladdin Ghostscript used a copyleft via a proprietary relicensing model (which is sometimes confusingly called the “dual licensing” model). This business model initially presented as benign to software freedom activists; leaders declared the business model “barely legitimate”, when it rose to popularity through MySQL AB (later Sun, and later Oracle)'s proprietary relicensing of the MySQL codebase.

In theory, proprietary relicensors would only offer the proprietary license by popular demand to those who had some specific reason for wanting to proprietarize the codebase — a process that has been called “selling exceptions”. In practice, however, every company I'm aware of that sought to engage in “selling exceptions” eventually found a more aggressive and lucrative tack.

This problem became clear to me in mid-2003 when MySQL AB attempted to hire me as a consultant. I was financially in need of supplementary income so I seriously considered taking the work, but the initial conference call felt surreal and convinced me that MySQL AB was engaging in problematic behavior . Specifically, their goal was to develop scare tactics regarding the GPLv2. I never followed up, and I am glad I never made the error of accepting any job or consulting gig when companies (not just MySQL AB, but also Black Duck and others) attempted to recruit me to serve as part of their fear-tactics marketing departments.

Most proprietary relicensing businesses work as follows: a single codebase is produced by a for-profit company, which retains 100% control over all copyright in the software (either via an ©AA or a CLA). That codebase is offered as a gratis product to the marketplace, and the company invests substantial resources in marketing the software to users looking for FOSS solutions. The marketing department then engages in captious and unprincipled copyleft enforcement actions in an effort to “convert” those FOSS users into paying customers for proprietary licensing for the same codebase. (Occasionally, the company also offers additional proprietary add-ons, improvements, or security updates that are not available under the FOSS license — when used this way, the model is often specifically called “Open Core”.)

Why We Must End The Proprietary Relicensing Exploitation of Copyleft

This business model has a toxic effect on copyleft at every level. Users don't enjoy their software freedom under an assurance that a large community of contributors and users have all been bound to each other under the same, strong, and freedom-ensuring license. Instead, they dread the vendor finding a minor copyleft violation and blowing it out of proportion. The vendor offers no remedy (such as repairing the violation and promise of ongoing compliance) other than purchase of a proprietary license. Industry-wide. I have observed to my chagrin that the copyleft license that I helped create and once loved, the Affero GPL, was seen for a decade as inherently toxic because its most common use was by companies who engaged in these seedy practices. You've probably seen me and other software freedom activists speak out on this issue, in our ongoing efforts to clarify that the intent of the Affero GPL was not to create these sorts of corporate code silos that vendors constructed as copyleft-fueled traps for the unwary. Meanwhile, proprietary relicensing discourages contributions from a broad community, since any contributor must sign a CLA giving special powers to the vendor to continue the business model. Neither users nor co-developers benefit from copyleft protection.

The Onslaught of Unreasonable Copyleft

Meanwhile, and somewhat ironically, the success of Conservancy's and the FSF's efforts to counter this messaging about the Affero GPL has created an unintended consequence: efforts to draft even more restrictive software copyleft licenses that can more easily implement the proprietary relicensing business models. We have partially succeeded in convincing users that compliance with Affero GPL is straightforward, and in the backchannels we've aided users who were under attack from these proprietary relicensors like MongoDB. In response, these vendors have responded with a forceful political blow: their own efforts to redefine the future of copyleft, under the guise of advancing software freedom. MongoDB even cast itself as a “victim” against Amazon, because Amazon decided to reimplement their codebase from scratch (as proprietary software!) rather than use the AGPL'd version of MongoDB.

These efforts began in earnest late last year when (against the advice of the license steward) MongoDB forked the Affero GPL to create the SS Public License. I, with the support of Conservancy, rose in opposition of MongoDB's approach, pointing out that MongoDB would not itself agree to its own license (since MongoDB's CLA would free it from the SS Public License terms). If an entity does not gladly bind itself by its own copyleft license (for example, by accepting third-party contributions to its codebases under that license), we should not treat that entity as a legitimate license steward, nor treat that license as a legitimate FOSS license. We should not and cannot focus single-mindedly on interpretation of the formalistic definitions when we recommend FOSS licensing policy. The message of “technically it's a FOSS license, but don't use” is too complicated to be meaningful.

A Copyleft Clause To Restore Equality

My friend and colleague, Richard Fontana, and I are known for our very public and sometimes heated debates on all manner of software freedom policy. We don't always agree on key issues, but I greatly respect Fontana for his careful thought and his inventive solutions. Indeed, Fontana first formulated “inbound=outbound” into that simple phrasing to more easily explain how the lopsided rights and permissions exchanges through CLAs actually create bad FOSS policy like proprietary relicensing. In the copyleft-next project that Fontana began, he further proposed this innovative copyleft clause that could, when Incorporated in a copyleft license, prevent proprietary licensing before it even starts! The clause still needs work, but Fontana's basic idea is revolutionary for copyleft drafting. The essence in non-legalese is this: If you offer a license that isn't a copyleft license, the copyleft provisions collapse and the software is now available to all under a non-copyleft, hyper-permissive FOSS license.

This solution is ingenious in the way that copyleft itself was an ingenious way to use copyright to “reverse” the rights and ensure software freedom. This provision doesn't prohibit proprietary relicensing per se, but instead simply deflates the power of copyleft control when a copyright holder engages in proprietary relicensing activities.

Given the near ubiquity of proprietary relicensing and the promulgation of stricter copylefts by companies who seek to engage (or help their clients engage) in such business models, I've come to a stark policy conclusion: the community should reject any new copyleft license without a clause that deflates the power of proprietary relicensing. Not only can we incorporate such a clause into new licenses (such as copyleft-next), but Conservancy's Executive Director, Karen Sandler, came up with a basic approach to incorporating similar copyleft equality clauses into written exceptions for existing copyleft licenses, such as the Affero GPL. I have received authorization to spend some of my Conservancy time and the time of our lawyers on this endeavor, and we hope to publish more about it in the coming months.

We've finished the experiment. After thirty years of proprietary relicensing, beginning with Aladdin and culminating with MongoDB and their SS Public License, we now know that proprietary relicensing does not serve or extend software freedom, and in most cases has the opposite effect. We must now categorically reject it, and outright reject any new licenses that can be used for it.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, CLA, law, licensing, FOSS Sustainability

Copyleft Conf Tickets On Sale Now!

by Deb Nicholson on December 16, 2019

Tickets are now on sale for the Second Annual Copyleft Conf! Last year's event was so successful that we are doing it again. Please join us on February 3rd (right after FOSDEM) from 9:30am - 4:30pm.

Get your tickets now!

Where's it happening? La Tricoterie, it's just 18 minutes southwest of Grande Place by tram. Folks who like to start the day with walk can get there in 30 minutes under their own power. By car, it's 13 minutes from Grande Place.

Who should attend? Developers, strategists, enforcement organizations, scholars, activists and critics — will be welcomed for an in-depth, high bandwidth, and expert-level discussion about the day-to-day details of using copyleft licensing, obstacles facing copyleft and the future of copyleft as a strategy to advance and defend software freedom for users and developers around the world.

Individual tickets are for students, or folks who are unemployed, under-employed, self-employed or working at a small charity. The ticket prices also cover coffee breaks and lunch. If $20 is a barrier, please get in touch. We could definitely use a few volunteers for the day and will waive the entrance fee in exchange for a bit of help onsite.

We want everyone to feel welcome at Copyleft Conf! We have a robust Code of Conduct that covers the behavior of our staff, board members and volunteers. The venue is wheelchair accessible, there will be a gender neutral bathroom available and food will be provided including options for gluten-free and for vegan diets. If there is anything that we can do to make attending Copyleft Conf more comfortable for you, please write to us.

Tags: events, licensing, Copyleft Conf

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