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Recap: GPL Compliance BoF at Linux Plumbers’ Conference

by Brett Smith on November 16, 2016

At the Linux Plumbers Conference a couple of weeks ago, Karen and I ran a Birds of a Feather session about our GPL Compliance Project for Linux Developers. It was a success by every measure. Approximately seventy people attended, and about twenty of them participated in the discussion, covering a wide variety of issues around compliance. The interactive and inclusive format was ideal for us to provide additional information and get feedback from a lot of interested people. Many thanks to the Linux Plumbers Organizing Committee for scheduling a slot for us to run this session.

We opened the discussion with a basic overview of the program: its history and mission, the structure of how we coordinate with Linux developers on our coalition, the typical flow of how we respond to a violation and work to help the distributor comply. We published the project agreement templates beforehand to facilitate the discussion. In the past, we heard people express concern that these agreements were private. We were happy to tackle that issue head-on, and I was glad to see several attendees download the template and review it during the session.

We also talked about how our work differs from some inappropriately aggressive enforcement efforts going on today—including Patrick McHardy's unfortunate enforcement lawsuits. One person rightly pointed out that less savvy distributors will often assume all GPL compliance is handled the same way. We discussed how Conservancy could emphasize the distinctions up front. We agree that's important; it's why we published our Principles of Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement, and why we were the first organization to publicly criticize McHardy's actions. Still, a new Linux distributor might not know about our principles, or understand that they specifically call on lawsuits only as a last resort. Based on this feedback, we plan to mention the Principles in our first correspondence about GPL compliance problems.

Our transparency in our methods and goals distinguishes Conservancy's compliance work from others'. There were several suggestions that we could take this further by publishing different numbers about how many cases we're handling, and different ways they've been resolved. To this end, Karen echoed the same point Bradley made at ELC EU that we only have the resources to pursue a relatively small percentage of the violation reports we receive. Because of this, publishing these numbers could de-anonymize active cases, which would contravene our compliance principles. Nonetheless, we will reexamine this issue to see if we could publish some numbers safely.

That discussion led to suggestions that volunteers could help us with technical compliance work, confirming violations and the completeness of source code. We've discussed that idea internally for many years. Even more than publishing numbers, engaging volunteers risks leaking information about violators to the public. Furthermore, we would need to vet and train volunteers, which we lack the resources to do now. If we received funding for this work, we could use that to plan and provide volunteer training, but there has been limited interest in funding community-oriented compliance initiatives.

Finally, we discussed different ways to make compliance work less necessary. We'd love to see more of this: as more distributors proactively come into compliance, we have more time to spend supporting our member projects and other initiatives. That's a big reason we helped write the Copyleft Guide, which helps distributors better understand the conditions and requirements of the GPL. The pristine source example, in particular, is designed to show step-by-step the process of verifying a complete, corresponding source release. There's certainly lots of great ideas for more work like this, and I think naming them in the BoF helped make some good connections between them.

Our thanks to everyone who attended and provided feedback. If you couldn't attend this BoF, don't worry. We'll be running similar sessions at other conferences over the next few months, and you can also provide feedback on our principles-discuss mailing list. We want to hear from as much of the community as possible, so if you have questions or comments about our Linux compliance work, we hope we'll hear from you soon.

Tags: conservancy, GPL

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

Why You Should Speak At & Attend LinuxConf Australia

by Bradley M. Kuhn on August 4, 2016

Monday 1 February 2016 was the longest day of my life, but I don't mean that in the canonical, figurative, and usually negative sense of that phrase. I mean it literally and in a positive way. I woke up that morning Amsterdam in the Netherlands — having the previous night taken a evening train from Brussels, Belgium with my friend and colleague Tom Marble. Tom and I had just spent the weekend at FOSDEM 2016, where he and I co-organize the Legal and Policy Issues DevRoom (with our mutual friends and colleagues, Richard Fontana and Karen M. Sandler).

Tom and I headed over to AMS airport around 07:00 local time, found some breakfast and boarded our flights. Tom was homeward bound, but I was about to do the crazy thing that he'd done in the reverse a few years before: I was speaking at FOSDEM and LinuxConf Australia, back-to-back. In fact, because the airline fares were substantially cheaper this way, I didn't book a “round the world” flight, but instead two back-to-back round-trip tickets. I boarded the plane at AMS at 09:30 that morning (local time), and landed in my (new-ish) hometown of Portland, OR as afternoon there began. I went home, spent the afternoon with my wife, sister-in-law, and dogs, washed my laundry, and repacked my bag. My flight to LAX departed at 19:36 local time, a little after US/Pacific sunset.

I crossed the Pacific ocean, the international dateline, left a day on deposit to pickup on the way back, and after 24 hours of almost literally chasing the sun, I arrived in Melbourne on the morning of Wednesday 3 February, road a shuttle bus, dumped my bags at my room, and arrived just in time for the Wednesday afternoon tea break at LinuxConf Australia 2016 in Geelong.

Nearly everyone who heard this story — or saw me while it was happening — asked me the same question: Why are you doing this?. The five to six people packed in with me in my coach section on the LAX→SYD leg are probably still asking this, because I had an allergic attack of some sort most of the flight and couldn't stop coughing, even with two full bags of Fisherman's Friends over those 15 hours.

But, nevertheless, I gave a simple answer to everyone who questioned my crazy BRU→AMS→PDX→LAX→SYD→MEL itinerary: FOSDEM and LinuxConf AU are two of the most important events on the Free Software annual calendar. There's just no question. I'll write more about FOSDEM sometime soon, but the rest of this post, I'll dedicate to LinuxConf Australia (LCA).

One of my biggest regrets in Free Software is that I was once — and you'll be surprised by this given my story above — a bit squeamish about the nearly 15 hour flight to get from the USA to Australia, and therefore I didn't attend LCA until 2015. LCA began way back in 1999. Keep in mind that, other than FOSDEM, no major, community-organized events have survived from that time. But LCA has the culture and mindset of the kinds of conferences that our community made in 1999.

LCA is community organized and operated. Groups of volunteers each year plan the event. In the tradition of science fiction conventions and other hobbyist activities, groups bid for the conference and offer their time and effort to make the conference a success. They have an annual hand-off meeting to be sure the organization lessons are passed from one committee to the next, and some volunteers even repeat their involvement year after year. For organizational structure, they rely on a non-profit organization, Linux Australia, to assist with handling the funds and providing infrastructure (just like Conservancy does for our member projects and their conferences!).

I believe fully that the success of software freedom and GNU/Linux in particular has not primarily come from companies that allow developers to spend some of their time coding on upstream. Sure, many Free Software projects couldn't survive without that component, but what really makes GNU/Linux, or any Free Software project, truly special is that there's a community of users and developers who use, improve, and learn about the software because it excites and interests them. LCA is one of the few events specifically designed to invite that sort of person to attend, and it has for almost an entire generation stood in stark contrast the highly corporate, for-profit/trade-assocation events that slowly took over our community in the years that followed LCA's founding. (Remember all those years of LinuxWorld Expo? I wasn't even sad when IDG stopped running it!)

Speaking particularly of earlier this year, LCA 2016 in Geelong, Australia was a particular profound event for me. LCA is one of the few events that accepts my rather political talks about what's happening in Open Source and Free Software, so I gave a talk on Friday 5 February 2016 entitled Copyleft For the Next Decade: A Comprehensive Plan, which was recorded, so you can watch it, or read the LWN article about it. I do warn everyone that the jokes did not go over well (mine never do), so after I finished, I was feeling a bit down that I hadn't made the talk entertaining enough. But then, something amazing happened: people started walking up to me and telling me how important my message was. One individual even came up and told me that he was excited enough that he'd like to match any donation that Software Freedom Conservancy received during LCA 2016. Since it was the last day of the event, I quickly went to one of the organizers, Kathy Reid, and asked if they would announce this match during the closing ceremonies; she agreed. In a matter of just an hour or two, I'd gone from believing my talk had fallen flat to realizing that — regardless of whether I'd presented well — the concepts I discussed had connected with people.

Then, I sat down in the closing session. I started to tear up slightly when the organizers announced the donation match. Within 90 seconds, though, that turned to full tears of joy when the incoming President of Linux Australia, Hugh Blemings, came on stage and said:

[I'll start with] a Software Freedom Conservancy thing, as it turns out. … I can tell that most of you weren't at Bradley's talk earlier on today, but if there is one talk I'd encourage you to watch on the playback later it would be that one. There's a very very important message in there and something to take away for all of us. On behalf of the Council I'd like to announce … that we're actually in the process of making a significant donation from Linux Australia to Software Freedom Conservancy as well. I urge all of you to consider contributing individual as well, and there is much left for us to be done as a community on that front.

I hope that this post helps organizers of events like LCA fully understand how much something like this means to us who run a small charities — and not just with regard to the financial contributions. Knowing that the organizers of community events feel so strongly positive about our work really keeps us going. We work hard and spend much time at Conservancy to serve the Open Source and Free Software community, and knowing the work is appreciated inspires us to keep working. Furthermore, we know that without these events, it's much tougher for us to reach others with our message of software freedom. So, for us, the feeling is mutual: I'm delighted that the Linux Australia and LCA folks feel so positively about Conservancy, and I now look forward to another 15 hour flight for the next LCA.

And, on that note, I chose a strategic time to post this story. On Friday 5 August 2016, the CFP for LCA 2017 closes. So, now is the time for all of you to submit a talk. If you regularly speak at Open Source and Free Software events, or have been considering it, this event really needs to be on your calendar. I look forward to seeing all of you Hobart this January.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, supporter, conferences

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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