Conservancy Requests Three DMCA Exemptions to Let People Control Their Devices
byon September 16, 2020
Every three years, the US Copyright Office conducts a rulemaking process to consider exemptions to the anticircumvention provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). These are the provisions of the law that make it a criminal offense to circumvent digital rights management technology (DRM). These provisions give technology companies far too much control over the technology people use, prohibiting all kinds of modification and tinkering in the name of “copyright protection.” We would love to see the anticircumvention provisions of the DMCA repealed in their entirety.
Until that happens, the rulemaking process gives us an opportunity to request exemptions that are strategically important for software freedom and essential for us to be able to control our own devices. This year we requested three new exemptions:
- To allow people to investigate whether software on a device violates free and open source software (FOSS) licenses, and to exercise rights that would ordinarily be granted by those licenses were it not for the technological restrictions
- To allow people to conduct good-faith testing, investigation, and correction of privacy issues—for example, think Internet of Things devices that phone home with more information than they disclose
- To allow people to install alternative firmware on routers and other network hardware they buy, to add or remove functionality as they see fit
All of these exemptions recognize the growing prevalence of small, dedicated devices in many people’s lives. We’re always horrified to learn when gadgets that should be innocuous like doorbells, thermostats, and baby monitors are spying on us, whether by design or careless programming. It should not be a crime for people to investigate these issues and take steps to defend themselves with devices they’ve bought and own—especially when the device is running FOSS that promises the user those very rights. Our requests call on the US Copyright Office to codify that common sense into law.
We also requested renewal of the exemption that allows people to install alternative software on smart TVs that we previously won in 2015.
These requests kick off the beginning of the process, where all new exemptions are requested. We can expect the Copyright Office to announce what exemptions are granted around this time next year. We’ll be sure to keep you updated on the process.
In free software, you're still not alone: the evolution of our weekly chats
byon July 29, 2020
We began our weekly chats in mid-March to give people a dedicated place and time each week to talk with fellow free software enthusiasts during the pandemic. During that first month, mostly we talked about what events were being cancelled and how frustrating it was that so many entities immediately embraced non-free tools for connecting remotely. We were also starting to contend with the financial effects of a global pandemic and some in our community wondered about job security and shared some information on who was doing layoffs and who might be hiring -- for remote work, of course.
Once the Copyleft Conf videos were posted in April, we hoped to sort of fill in the gap left by in-person events and so we hosted some chats based on some of those talk recordings. The talks we covered sparked some lively discussions about copyleft adoption and the effects of license choices for users. We discussed these presentations:
- Tony Sebro's keynote about community and copyleft
- "Copyleft of Things" with Peter Hoddie
- "Ethics and FOSS" with Coraline Ada Ehmke and her collaborator Don Goodman-Wilson
- "Copyleft in a Business Context" with Josh Simmons, Markus Glaser and Bjorn Scheissle
Then at the end of May, Black Lives Matter protests began happening every single day in the US as well as in many other places around the world. We thought long and hard about how we might support this long overdue moment of reckoning with systemic racism and violence. We felt we had a responsibility to look at how we might combat racism within our own community. We started with a fairly general discussion and worked towards more action-oriented topics as we went along. In the end, we hosted four discussions around racism and free software, including:
- "How to Dismantle Systemic Racism in Free Software" -- This was an open discussion where people shared resources and talked about strategies for dismantling racism in free software projects and communities that have worked and some that haven't.
- "How Racism is a Free Software Issue" -- Led by Molly de Blanc, in which "So you want to talk about race" by Ijeoma Oluo was heartily recommended.
- "Allyship in FOSS and Beyond" -- Led by Ben Cotton in which participants shared a number of reading suggestions, many of which had already been compiled by the Chicago Public Library.
- Finally, we watched Byron Woodfork's excellent talk from Strange Loop in 2017, "The Truth About Mentoring Minorities" and shared suggestions for participating in existing mentorship programs or starting programs within your workplace.
After the first Thursday in July, we hosted a "no topic" chat and noticed that the folks who showed up to that chat really appreciated the opportunity for no-topic chats. Most of the US is still limiting the size of public indoor gatherings, so we still don't know when we'll be able to do in-person FOSS events again. The virtual hallway track where we talk about installing free software on different devices, how to best advocate for software freedom, who might be hiring free software contributors and what's a good free software tool for some particular task, serves a very real function in the global, remote free software community. So, we've decided that we're going to be doing a topic on the first Thursday of the month and invite folks to share whatever's on their minds on the other Thursdays.
Tomorrow's chat (July 30th) will be "no topic" and then on August 6th we'll have a topic again. Next week we're inviting people to talk about online resources for learners of all ages that either use or teach free software or otherwise support you -- or your child's -- development as free software user or contributor. The next chat with a topic will take place on September 3rd. Feel free to write to us with a topic suggestion and we encourage you to follow us on social media where we'll be announcing the topics and reminding folks about each week's chat, either on Mastodon or Twitter.
All our public chats take place in #conservancy on freenode.net on Thursday afternoons at 2pm Eastern/6pm UTC. The #conservancy channel is accessible via your IRC client. If you don't already use an IRC client, you can come in through your browser. Just visit this page https://webchat.freenode.net/#conservancy and choose a nick (or nickname) and you'll be "in channel." In free software, you're still not alone.
Conservancy Staff at Virtual GUADEC
byon July 17, 2020
This year's GUADEC — the GNOME community's annual conference — will be virtual. Two Conservancy staffers are participating and the conference will be run using the free (as in freedom) Big Blue Button platform. We're especially looking forward to being part of an event that doesn't encourage attendees to engage with proprietary software.
Our Executive Director, Karen Sandler is co-presenting with Molly de Blanc on "Introducing Principles of Digital Autonomy", they'll be sharing an activist's perspective on how we interact with technology on a daily basis and how the technology using public could re-imagine that relationship in a way that better respects user autonomy and privacy. The talk will stream on July 22nd, at 18:45 UTC.
Our Director of Community Operations, Deb Nicholson will present two topics at GUADEC this year. On July 23rd, at 17:15 UTC, she will share her communication strategies in "Let's Have Great Meetings!" Then on Saturday, she will present "Building Ethical Software Under Capitalism" on July 25th at 18:45, a look at alternative tactics for creating software that doesn't exploit its users.
This year's event is free (as in cost) to attend and conveniently located online. Registration is open now -- see you next week!
Organizational Proliferation Is Not the Problem You Think It Is
byon July 9, 2020
I've been concerned this week about aggressive negative reaction (by some) to the formation of an additional organization to serve the Free and Open Source (FOSS) community. Thus it seems like a good moment to remind everyone why we all benefit when we welcome newcomer organizations in FOSS.
I've been involved in helping found many different organizations — in roles as varied as co-founder, founding Board member, consultant, spin-off partner, and “just a friend giving advice”. Most of these organizations fill a variety of roles; they support, house, fiscally sponsor, or handle legal issues and/or trademark, copyright, or patent matters for FOSS projects. I and my colleagues at Conservancy speak regularly about why we believe a 501(c)(3) charitable structure in the USA has huge advantages, and you can find plenty of blog posts on our site about that. But you can also find us talking about how 501(c)(6) structures, and other structures outside the USA entirely, are often the right choices — depending on what a FOSS project seeks from its organization. Conservancy also makes our policies, agreements, and processes fully public so that organizations can reuse our work, and many have.
Meanwhile, FOSS organizations must avoid the classic “not invented here” anti-pattern. Of course I believe that Conservancy has great ideas for how to help FOSS, and our work — such as fiscal sponsorship, GPL enforcement work, and the Outreachy internship program — are the highest priorities in FOSS. I also believe the projects we take under our auspices are the most important projects in FOSS today.
But not everyone agrees with me, nor should they. Our Executive Director, Karen Sandler, loves the aphorism “let a thousand flowers bloom”. For example, when we learned of the launch of Open Collective, we at Conservancy were understandably concerned that since they were primarily a 501(c)(6) and didn't follow the kinds of fiscal sponsorship models and rules that we preferred, that somehow it was a “threat” to Conservancy. But that reaction is one of fear, selfishness, and insecurity. Once we analyzed what the Open Collective folks were up to, we realized that they were an excellent option for a lot of the projects that were simply not a good fit for Conservancy and our model. Conservancy is deeply steeped in a long-term focus on software freedom for the general public, and some projects — particularly those that are primarily in service to companies rather than individual users (or who don't want the oversight a charity requires) — just don't belong with us. We regularly refer projects to Open Collective.
For many larger projects, Linux Foundation — as a 501(c)(6) controlled completely by large technology companies — is also a great option. We've often referred Conservancy applicants there, too. We do that even while we criticize Linux Foundation for choosing proprietary software for many tasks, including proprietary software they write from scratch for their outward-facing project services. We know that large for-profit companies and their employees generally don't mind using proprietary software (even to develop FOSS), so we don't hesitate to refer those kinds of projects (with our activist caveats) to Linux Foundation.
Of course, I'm thinking about all this today because Conservancy has been asked what we think about the Open Usage Commons. The fact is they're just getting started and both the legal details of how they're handling trademarks, and their governance documents, haven't been released yet. We should all give them an opportunity to slowly publish more and review it when it comes along. We should judge them fairly as an alternative for fulfilling FOSS project needs that no else addresses (or, more commonly are being addressed very differently by existing organizations). I'm going to hypothesize that, like Linux Foundation, Open Usage Commons will primarily be of interest to more for-profit-company focused projects, but that's my own speculation; none of us know yet.
No one is denying that Open Usage Commons is tied to Google as part of their founding — in the same way that Linux Foundation's founding (which was originally founded as the “Open Source Development Labs”) was closely tied to IBM at the time. As near as I can tell, IBM's influence over Linux Foundation is these days no more than any other of their Platinum Members. It's not uncommon for a trade association to jumpstart with a key corporate member and eventually grow to be governed by a wider group of companies. But while appropriately run trade associations do balance the needs of all for-profit companies in their industry, they are decidedly not neutral; they are chartered to favor business needs over the needs of the general public. I encourage skepticism when you hear an organization claim “neutrality”. Since a trade association is narrowed to serving businesses, it can be neutral among the interests of business, but their mandate remains putting business needs above community. The ultimate proof of neutrality pudding is in the eating. As with multi-copyright held GPL'd projects, we can trust the equal rights for all in those — regardless of the corporate form of the contributors — because the document of legal rights makes it so. The same principle applies to any area of FOSS endeavor: examine the agreements and written rules for contributors and users to test neutrality.