Do You Like What I Do For a Living?
byon November 26, 2015
I'm quite delighted with my career choice. As an undergraduate and even in graduate school, I still expected my career would extend my earlier careers in the software industry: a mixture of software developer and sysadmin. I'd probably be a DevOps person now, had I stuck with that career path.
Instead, I picked the charity route: which (not financially, but work-satisfaction-wise) is like winning a lottery. There are very few charities related to software freedom, and frankly, if (like me) you believe in universal software freedom and reject proprietary software entirely, there are two charities for you: the Free Software Foundation, where I used to work, and Software Freedom Conservancy, where I work now.
But software freedom is not merely an ideology for me. I believe the ideology matters because I see the lives of developers and users are better when they have software freedom. I first got a taste of this IRL when I attended the earliest Perl conferences in the late 1990s. My friend James Carter and I stayed in dive motels and even slept in a rental car one night to be able to attend. There was excitement in the Perl community (my first Free Software community). I was exhilarated to meet in person the people I'd seen only as god-like hackers posting on perl5-porters. James was so excited he asked me to take a picture of him jumping as high as he could with his fist in the air in front of the main conference banner. At the time, I complained; I was mortified and felt like a tourist taking that picture. But looking back, I remember that James and I felt that same excitement and we just expressed it differently.
I channeled that thrill into finding a way that my day job would focus on software freedom. As an activist since my teenage years, I concentrated specifically on how I could preserve, protect and promote this valuable culture and ideology in a manner that would assure the rights of developers and users to improve and share the software they write and use.
I've enjoyed the work; I attend more great conferences than I ever
imagined I would, where now people occasionally walk up to me with the same
kind of fanboy reverence that I reserved for Larry Wall,
RMS and the heroes of my
Free Software generation. I like my work. I've been careful, however, to
avoid a sense of entitlement. Since I read it in 1991, I have never
forgotten RMS' point
in the GNU
Most of us cannot manage to get any money for
standing on the street and making faces. But we are not, as a result,
condemned to spend our lives standing on the street making faces, and
starving. We do something else., a point he continues
in his regular speeches,
I [could] just … give up those principles and start
… writing proprietary software. I looked for another alternative,
and there was an obvious one. I could leave the software field and do
something else. Now I had no other special noteworthy skills, but I'm sure
I could have become a waiter. Not at a fancy restaurant; they wouldn’t
hire me; but I could be a waiter somewhere. And many programmers, they say
to me, “the people who hire programmers demand [that I write
proprietary software] and if I don’t do [it], I’ll starve”. It’s
literally the word they use. Well, as a waiter, you’re not going to
RMS' point is not merely to expose the
I have to
program, even if my software is proprietary, because that's what companies pay me to
do, but also to expose the sense of entitlement in assuming a
fundamental right to do the work you want. This applies not just to
software authorship (the work I originally trained for) but also the
political activism and non-profit organizational work that I do now.
I've spent most of my career at charities because I believe deeply that I should take actions that advance the public good, and because I have a strategic vision for the best methods to advance software freedom. My strategic goals to advance software freedom include two basic tenets: (a) provide structure for Free Software projects in a charitable home (so that developers can focus on writing software, not administration, and so that the projects aren't unduly influenced by for-profit corporations) and (b) uphold and defend Free Software licensing, such as copyleft, to ensure software freedom.
I don't, however, arrogantly believe that these two priorities are inherently right. Strategic plans work toward a larger goal, and pursing success of a larger ideological mission requires open-mindedness regarding strategies. Nevertheless, any strategy, once decided, requires zealous pursuit. It's with this mindset that I teamed up with my colleague, Karen Sandler, to form Software Freedom Conservancy.
Conservancy, like most tiny charities, survives on the determination of its small management staff. Karen Sandler, Conservancy's Executive Director, and I have a unique professional collaboration. She and I share a commitment to promoting and defending moral principles in the context of software freedom, along with an unrelenting work ethic to match. I believe fundamentally that she and I have the skills, ability, and commitment to meet these two key strategic goals for software freedom.
Yet, I don't think we're entitled to do this work. And, herein there's another great feature of a charity. A charity not only serves the public good; the USA IRS also requires that a charity be funded primarily by donations from the public.
I like this feature for various reasons. Particularly, in the context of
the fundraiser that
Conservancy announced this week, I think about it terms of seeking a
mandate from the public. As Conservancy poises to begin its tenth year,
Karen and I as its leaders stand at a crossroads. For financial reasons of
the organization's budget, we've been thrust to test this question:
the public of Free Software users and developers actually want the
work that we do?.
While I'm nervous that perhaps the answer is
no, I'm nevertheless
not afraid to ask the question. So, we've asked. We asked all of you to
show us that you want our work to continue. We set two levels, matching
the two strategic goals I mentioned. (The second is harder and more
expensive to do than the first, so we've asked many more of you to support
us if you want it.)
It's become difficult in recent years to launch a non-profit fundraiser
(which have existed for generations) and not think of the relatively recent
advent of gofundme, Kickstarter, and the like. These new systems provide a
(sadly, usually proprietary software) platform for people to ask the
Is my business idea and/or personal goal worth your money?.
While I'm dubious about those sites, I do believe in democracy
enough to build my career on a structure that requires an election (of
sorts). Karen and I don't need you to go to the polls and cast your
ballot, but we do ask you consider if what we do for a living at
Conservancy is worth US$10 per month to you. If it is, I hope you'll
“cast a vote” for Conservancy
and become a Conservancy
Our fundraiser and awesome Supporters pitching in
byon November 24, 2015
You may have noticed that Conservancy launched a big fundraising campaign this week. As we talk about more fully on our Supporter sign up page, over the past year and in particular since we launched the VMware suit some of our corporate funding has been pulled because we tackle important but controversial issues, like GPL compliance. We have even have had talks blocked or canceled at conferences.
In order to ensure that we can continue our work, we must transition to a primarily individual-supported model. We will continue to seek corporate support, of course, and we're grateful for the corporate donors whose support has continued. But our constituency is the software freedom community, and that's where our support should ultimately come from. It's not enough for us to think that the work we do is right - a significant portion of the public must also agree and be willing to vote with their money. Without that support we simply cannot continue. The 10% that our member projects contribute doesn't cover even one staffer plus basic overhead.
We have structured the campaign with two make-or-break levels: a lower level that will just sustain the organization for a "bare minimum" service plan to our member projects, and a separate, higher level to continue doing copyleft enforcement. If we don't meet these goals we'll be forced to radically restructure.
You can see the names of some of our Supporters who choose to be acknowledged, and they are a very impressive bunch!
One Supporter, the very awesome Christopher Allan Webber took some time to sit down with Bradley and me to talk about the campaign and about GPL enforcement generally. You can hear it as the latest episode of Bradley's and my oggcast Free as in Freedom. It's the first episode of FaiF that we've released in some time, and I'm glad we were able to get it together in time for this important fundraiser.
In the coming weeks we will have a few videos from other Supporters about why they choose to support us. Carol Smith of Google was very kind to do one.
Many thanks to Carol for supporting sofware freedom and our organization! Join Carol and become a supporter of Conservancy today.
GPL Enforcement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership
byon November 9, 2015
Many people have criticized the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) treaty since the text was released. In particular, some of the terms in the agreement are bad for software freedom and other social justice causes. Despite the TPP's stated intention to bring "social benefits" in addition to economic growth, the terms of TPP work against social benefits and awards too much power and control to large multinational corporations, including proprietary software companies.
The agreement text is lengthy and complex, filed with bad provisions. A few days ago, the Free Software community uncovered the following text from the TPP:
1. No Party shall require the transfer of, or access to, source code of software owned by a person of another Party, as a condition for the import, distribution, sale or use of such software, or of products containing such software, in its territory.
2. For the purposes of this Article, software subject to paragraph 1 is limited to mass-market software or products containing such software and does not include software used for critical infrastructure.
3. Nothing in this Article shall preclude:
(a) the inclusion or implementation of terms and conditions related to the provision of source code in commercially negotiated contracts; or
(b) a Party from requiring the modification of source code of software necessary for that software to comply with laws or regulations which are not inconsistent with this Agreement.
4. This Article shall not be construed to affect requirements that relate to patent applications or granted patents, including any orders made by a judicial authority in relation to patent disputes, subject to safeguards against unauthorised disclosure under the law or practice of a Party.
The revelation of this clause has confused our community, as it appears as if this provision, once adopted, might impact or restrict the international operation of copyleft licenses. Below we explain that, while everyone should reject and oppose this provision — and the rest of TPP — this provision has no dramatic impact on copyleft licensing.
First, as others have pointed out, Party is a defined term that refers specifically to government entities that sign the treaty. As such, the provision would only constrain the behavior of governments themselves. There are some obviously bad outcomes of this provision when those governmental entities interfere with public safety and ethical distribution of software, but we believe this provision will not interfere with international enforcement of copyleft.
Copyleft licenses use copyright as a mechanism to keep software free. The central GPL mechanism that copyright holders exercise to ensure software freedom is termination of permission to copy, modify and distribute the software (per GPLv2§4 and GPLv3§8). Under GPL's termination provisions, non-compliance results in an automatic termination of all copyright permissions. In practice, distributors can chose — either they can provide the source code or cease distribution. Once permissions terminate, any distribution of the GPL'd software infringes copyrights. Accordingly, in an enforcement action, there is no need to specifically compel a government to ask for disclosure of source code.
For example, imagine if a non-US entity ships a GPL-violating, Linux-based product into the USA, and after many friendly attempts to achieve compliance, the violating company refuses to comply. Conservancy can sue the company in US federal court, and seek injunction for distribution of the foreign product in the USA, since the product infringes copyright by violating the license. The detailed reasons for that infringement (i.e., failure to disclose source code) is somewhat irrelevant to the central issue; the Court can grant injunction (i.e., an order to prevent the company from distributing the infringing product) based simply on the violator's lost permissions under the existing copyright license. The Court could even order the cease of import of the infringing products.
In our view, the violator would be unaffected under the above TPP provision, since the Court did not specifically compel release of the source code, but rather simply ruled that the product generally infringed copyrights, and their distribution rights had fully terminated upon infringement. In other words, the fact that the violator lost copyright permissions and can seek to restore them via source code disclosure is not dispositive to the underlying infringement claim.
While TPP thus does not impact copyright holders' ability to enforce the GPL, there are nevertheless plenty of reasons to oppose TPP. Conservancy therefore joins the FSF, EFF, and other organizations in encouraging everyone to oppose TPP.
Help support Conservancy and its efforts to defend the GPL by becoming a Supporter today.
Join me for a Supporters Only Dinner in Raleigh, NC on Tuesday, October 20
byon October 14, 2015
Are you attending All Things Open next week? Or, are you local to the Raleigh-Durham area? If so, become a Supporter of Conservancy and email <firstname.lastname@example.org> to RSVP for an exclusive dinner with me at Tír na nÓg at 218 S. Blount St. in Raleigh. This event is only open to Conservancy Supporters, so be sure to sign up as a Supporter first and then RSVP via email.
Once you RSVP, I'll reply by email and give you details.
If you're already a Supporter, I hope you'll not only RSVP, but also ask a friend to sign up too and join us!