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FSF's Stallman Applauds Conservancy's Linux Enforcement

by Bradley M. Kuhn and Karen M. Sandler on May 11, 2017

In a blog post today, Richard M. Stallman of the Free Software Foundation applauds our work at Conservancy enforcing the GPL for Linux.

In his statement, Stallman reiterates the importance of the Principles of Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement and the need for lawsuits, but only as a last resort.

We thank RMS for his support of our work and for asking more people to become Conservancy Supporters.

RMS' blog post has links to LibrePlanet talks [1, 2] by both of us where we discuss Conservancy's work in this area.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, supporter

Why GPL Compliance Tutorials Should Be Free as in Freedom

by Bradley M. Kuhn on April 25, 2017

I am honored to be a co-author and editor-in-chief of the most comprehensive, detailed, and complete guide on matters related to compliance of copyleft software licenses such as the GPL. This book, Copyleft and the GNU General Public License: A Comprehensive Tutorial and Guide (which we often call the Copyleft Guide for short) is 155 pages filled with useful material to help everyone understand copyleft licenses for software, how they work, and how to comply with them properly. It is the only document to fully incorporate esoteric material such as the FSF's famous GPLv3 rationale documents directly alongside practical advice, such as the pristine example, which is the only freely published compliance analysis of a real product on the market. The document explains in great detail how that product manufacturer made good choices to comply with the GPL. The reader learns by both real-world example as well as abstract explanation.

However, the most important fact about the Copyleft Guide is not its useful and engaging content. More importantly, the license of this book gives freedom to its readers in the same way the license of the copylefted software does. Specifically, we chose the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 license (CC BY-SA) for this work. We believe that not just software, but any generally useful technical information that teaches people should be freely sharable and modifiable by the general public.

The reasons these freedoms are necessary seem so obvious that I'm surprised I need to state them. Companies who want to build internal training courses on copyleft compliance for their employees need to modify the materials for that purpose. They then need to be able to freely distribute them to employees and contractors for maximum effect. Furthermore, like all documents and software alike, there are always “bugs”, which (in the case of written prose) usually means there are sections that fail to communicate to maximum effect. Those who find better ways to express the ideas need the ability to propose patches and write improvements. Perhaps most importantly, everyone who teaches should avoid NIH syndrome. Education and science work best when we borrow and share (with proper license-compliant attribution, of course!) the best material that others develop, and augment our works by incorporating them.

These reasons are akin to those that led Richard M. Stallman to write his seminal essay, Why Software Should Be Free. Indeed, if you reread that essay now — as I just did — you'll see that much of the damage and many of the same problems to the advancement of software that RMS documents in that essay also occur in the world of tutorial documentation about FLOSS licensing. As too often happens in the Open Source community, though, folks seek ways to proprietarize, for profit, any copyrighted work that doesn't already have a copyleft license attached. In the field of copyleft compliance education, we see the same behavior: organizations who wish to control the dialogue and profit from selling compliance education seek to proprietarize the meta-material of compliance education, rather than sharing freely like the software itself. This yields an ironic exploitation, since the copyleft license documented therein exists as a strategy to assure the freedom to share knowledge. These educators tell their audiences with a straight face: Sure, the software is free as in freedom, but if you want to learn how its license works, you have to license our proprietary materials! This behavior uses legal controls to curtail the sharing of knowledge, limits the advancement and improvement of those tutorials, and emboldens silos of know-how that only wealthy corporations have the resources to access and afford. The educational dystopia that these organizations create is precisely what I sought to prevent by advocating for software freedom for so long.

While Conservancy's primary job provides non-profit infrastructure for Free Software projects, we also do a bit of license compliance work as well. But we practice what we preach: we release all the educational materials that we produce as part of the Copyleft Guide project under CC BY-SA. Other Open Source organizations are currently hypocrites on this point; they tout the values of openness and sharing of knowledge through software, but they take their tutorial materials and lock them up under proprietary licenses. I hereby publicly call on such organizations (including but not limited to the Linux Foundation) to license materials such as those under CC BY-SA.

I did not make this public call for liberation of such materials without first trying friendly diplomacy first. Conservancy has been in talks with individuals and staff who produce these materials for some time. We urged them to join the Free Software community and share their materials under free licenses. We even offered volunteer time to help them improve those materials if they would simply license them freely. After two years of that effort, it's now abundantly clear that public pressure is the only force that might work0. Ultimately, like all proprietary businesses, the training divisions of Linux Foundation and other entities in the compliance industrial complex (such as Black Duck) realize they can make much more revenue by making materials proprietary and choosing legal restrictions that forbid their students from sharing and improving the materials after they complete the course. While the reality of this impasse regarding freely licensing these materials is probably an obvious outcome, multiple sources inside these organizations have also confirmed for me that liberation of the materials for the good of general public won't happen without a major paradigm shift — specifically because such educational freedom will reduce the revenue stream around those materials.

Of course, I can attest first-hand that freely liberating tutorial materials curtails revenue. Karen Sandler and I have regularly taught courses on copyleft licensing based on the freely available materials for a few years — most recently in January 2017 at LinuxConf Australia and at at OSCON in a few weeks. These conferences do kindly cover our travel expenses to attend and teach the tutorial, but compliance education is not a revenue stream for Conservancy. While, in an ideal world, we'd get revenue from education to fund our other important activities, we believe that there is value in doing this education as currently funded by our individual Supporters; these education efforts fit withour charitable mission to promote the public good. We furthermore don't believe that locking up the materials and refusing to share them with others fits a mission of software freedom, so we never considered such as a viable option. Finally, given the institutionally-backed FUD that we continue to witness, we seek to draw specific attention to the fundamental difference in approach that Conservancy (as a charity) take toward this compliance education work. (My recent talk on compliance covered on LWN includes some points on that matter, if you'd like further reading).


0One notable exception to these efforts was the success of my colleague, Karen Sandler's (and others) in convincing the OpenChain project to choose CC-0 licensing. However, OpenChain is not officially part of the LF training curriculum to my knowledge, and if it is, it can of course be proprietarized therein, since CC-0 is not a copyleft license.

Tags: conservancy, GPL

Getting Started with Linux Development and Compliance: An Interview with Christoph Hellwig

by Karen Sandler on February 22, 2017

Christoph Hellwig is a Linux developer, responsible for the code for several filesystems and the NVM Express drive. He’s a member of Conservancy’s GPL Compliance Project for Linux Developers and the plaintiff in the case against VMWare, which still awaits appeal. We recently had a chance to catch up with him to hear how he got started working on Linux, what advice he would give newcomers, and why he supports Conservancy’s work.

Photo of Christoph Hellwig speaking at DebConf 2015

Q: How did you become interested in Linux? Is there a contribution you are most proud of?

CH: When I was a kid in Germany I started using Usenet and got myself into programming more or less by accident. That lead to learning about Linux and installing it at home. Soon after I started hacking kernel to make the sound card in my computer work under Linux.

Q: Why did you join Conservancy’s GPL Compliance Project For Linux Developers?

CH: I decided that fighting copyright violations on my Linux code wasn’t a task I could take on alone. Based on that I decided to join the Conservancy’s GPL Compliance Project for Linux Developers, which is a very open project and also includes other kernel developers I respect a lot.

Q: What advice would you give to someone who is starting out in the Linux kernel today?

CH: Try to scratch an itch instead of just looking for an easy task that looks good on a resume. For example fix something that annoys you or a friend. Or try to upstream support for an embedded device you use. Don’t send cleanup patches for random code—that’s a good way to be seen as someone who is only interested in polishing his or her resume with kernel commits.

Q: Why do you choose to support Conservancy, in addition to volunteering your time to promote free software and compliance?

CH: I am very impressed with Conservancy’s work. Not only in the compliance program where I work closely with the Conservancy, but also how it helps a lot of free software projects to manage their affairs.

Join Christoph and support Conservancy today! Supporters sustain all of this work we do, from fiscal sponsorship for projects, to compliance work on their behalf.

Tags: conservancy, GPL

linux.conf.au is Like a Dream

by Karen Sandler on January 31, 2017

I’m writing this on my way to Campus Party Brasil, and I’m finally able to report about and reflect on linux.conf.au. I’m still buoyed by the enthusiasm and passion exhibited by the Linux Australia community.

I hit the ground running in Hobart. The organizers invited me to give a presentation in the opening plenary to introduce Outreachy. I explained why we need the program, how it works on a basic level and shared the metrics that show that the program is succeeding in its goals. Chris Neugebauer, lead organizer and emcee for the week, then surprised the crowd by announcing that Outreachy would be the designated charity for the conference. Every year, LCA picks a charity and sells raffle tickets to raise money for the selected charity. Usually this is a local charity, so this year LCA focused on raising money to support interns in Australia and New Zealand.

The first two days of the conference were mini-conference days, each organized by a volunteer to have a day-long track on a particular topic. I proposed a GPL enforcement feedback session for the Linux kernel miniconf—the third in our series. So far each session has been on a different continent to make sure that people have a chance to weigh in all over the world. The session wasn’t recorded, as we wanted to make sure that attendees felt comfortable speaking candidly. James Scheibner of the University of Tasmania volunteered to take notes to make sure we kept track of what was said. The session was well attended. I didn’t count how many people were there, but others told me that it was somewhere between 80 and 100 people. I expected the session to be like the one at Linux Plumbers, with an immediate flood of thoughts about enforcement and Conservancy’s activities in particular, but instead this session started out as a Q&A. About half way into the designated time, I stopped the Q&A and specifically asked for feedback. When no one volunteered to speak, I goaded the audience a bit, eventually saying that if no one had any feedback I was going to take it that they were happy with Conservancy’s work. The audience burst into applause, and there were shouts of “thank you!” The positive response was just fantastic. We continued with Q&A and also brainstorming about things that can be done in the future. I also facilitated a discussion in the Legal & Policy miniconf on Tuesday, which included a lot of interesting discussion too.

The keynotes were all really good, and I would be remiss if I didn’t point to r0ml’s talk “Keeping Linux Great”. There’s a full write-up of it on Rodger Donaldson’s blog. As always, r0ml’s talk was a roller coaster ride, densely packed with thoughts and observations. I was especially surprised to see he included a slide with Conservancy’s logo between pictures of me and Bradley! He said (thanks to Rodger for transcribing this):

If you think I’m a bozo, you need to join Software Freedom Conservancy, because they’re the vanguard of trying to push free and open software into the future and preventing people like me from ruining it. And if you think that I have an excellent point and that this might be the future, we still need free software to build it. We still need somebody to be the rearguard to prevent the barbarians from overrunning us while we build this future. So if you agree with me you should join Software Freedom Conservancy.

The pictures of us were huge on the giant screen in Plenary Hall—Bradley turned bright red, much to my amusement!

I also gave a talk in the same room, called “Surviving the Next 30 Years of Free Software”. I plan to write a separate post about it, but the video is already up. This deals with a lot of issues I’ve been wrestling with about how our community transitions when more of us become incapacitated and pass away. It’s heavy stuff, and a hard topic to talk and think about, but it’s important. I appreciate the fact that this topic was chosen by the conference and that many in the Linux Australia community are receptive to the ideas I proposed.

There were so many great talks and an engaging hallway track. I recommend reading Kathy Reid’s write-up of her highlights. (Also at the conference Kathy was elected to the post of president for Linux Australia.)

People run down to make last-minute cash donations to fund a third Outreachy intern. Picture from linux.conf.au 2017 video.

The conference wound down with fantastic lightning talks (check out Rusty Russell’s) and then I was surprised to be called to the stage by Chris. Chris, ever the showman, walked us through an ever-increasing amount of money raised for Outreachy. First, he told us that they sold many more raffle tickets than they had anticipated such that they had to get three batches of tickets and differentiate them. Then, Chris announced that two anonymous donors matched amounts and that they raised enough to fund two interns, and Kathy announced that Linux Australia was donating AU$7000! With three interns within reach, Martin Krafft ran down to the stage and called for people to donate the last amount on the spot. And then a lot of people ran down with their cash! In the end, the conference raised enough money for three interns, and the 2018 team announced that they’ll sponsor tickets for all three interns and their mentors to attend LCA 2018 (plus I got to pick the raffle winners). It was an amazing way to end an amazing conference!

Many thanks to the LCA organizing team and the Linux Australia community for keeping such a magical community alive.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, conferences

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