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Conservancy News Round-up

by Deb Nicholson on May 28, 2019

May is for code releases! Check out these videos, blog posts from member projects, code releases and upcoming events.

Recent Videos and Podcasts

Deb's talk on Free Software/Utopia is up, on the Free software Foundation's MediaGoblin server.

Deb was also the guest of honor on Libre Lounge, Episode 19: Community Development with Deb Nicholson. Thanks to Chris and Serge for their dedication to free software and to Conservancy's work!

On Free as in Freedom, Karen and Bradley discuss two additional permissions that can be used to “backport” the GPLv3 Termination provisions to GPLv2 — the Kernel Enforcement Statement Additional Permission, and the Red Hat Cooperation Commitment.

Our Member Projects Have Been Busy

This summer's Outreachy interns were announced. "Congratulations to the 43 interns accepted to the Outreachy May 2019 to August 2019 round!"

phpMyAdmin -- along with several other Conservancy projects -- are excited about participating in Outreachy this round.

MicroBlocks presented at ROBOLOT, an educational robotics conference held in Catalan. The video of their panel is about 75% Catalan and 25% English, so feel to skip around or brush up on your Catalan.

The Godot team attended GDC, aka the "Game Developers Conference" in San Francisco reported on their improved name recognition at this year's event.

The folks at Reproducible Builds, shared" that security and software supply chain attacks were in the news and that this was a busy month for their distro work.

Some recent code releases:

Etherpad merged in a big chunk of code to improve recovery from brief server outages. "The resulting code is 15% smaller than before, and is also much easier to comprehend."

What's coming up?

Catch up with staff:

Karen keynotes sambaXP on June 5th at 10:15 local time in Göttingen, Germany.

Bradley will be at the Ninth Annual RacketCon in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he will give a talk titled, "Conservancy and Racket: What We Can Do Together!"

Many of our projects have events coming up:

In addition to the aforementioned sambaXP and RacketCon...

First talks are announced for Selenium's upcoming London conference, tickets are available now.

North Bay Python has announced their dates for this year's event, November 2 & 3, 2019. Talk submissions will open soon!

Tags: conservancy, Wine, GPL, Kallithea, Google Summer of Code, Member Projects, Godot, Reproducible Builds, QEMU, Selenium, Outreachy

Choosing a GPLv3-termination Backport to GPLv2

by Bradley M. Kuhn and Karen M. Sandler on May 11, 2019

About four years ago, Conservancy (in collaboration with the Free Software Foundation) published the Principles of Community-Oriented GPL enforcement. Our goal was to conduct our enforcement ethically and respectfully, treating today's violators as tomorrow's contributors. Accordingly, the Principles advocate a holistic approach to GPL enforcement that truly seeks to gain GPL compliance to advance software freedom. We were so happy about the way the Principles assisted the Netfilter team and we were excited that there was substantial interest in codifying these long standing ad-hoc Principles into a widely adopted and published consensus.

Ideas in FOSS also have a way of taking on a life of their own; we share our ideas in the hopes that others will build on them. We have been pleasantly surprised that the last Principle, “Community-oriented compliance processes should extend the benefit of GPLv3-like termination, even for GPLv2-only works”, received so much interest.

This interest led to two independent initiatives to “backport” the GPLv3 termination provisions — by way of an additional permission — to GPLv2-only-licensed works. Additional permissions to GPLv2 have been used for various purposes since the early 1990s (such as for the Bison exception). Additional permissions grant more leeway — relaxing some requirement of the default license — in an effort to reach some policy goal for the project. In this case, the additional permission softens the strict terms of the GPLv2 termination provisions, which state that any attempt otherwise to copy, modify, sublicense or distribute the Program is void, and will automatically terminate your rights under this License. That means permissions under GPLv2 are instantly and permanently lost on even easily-correctable violations and require reinstatement of permissions by copyright holders. In contrast, the GPLv3 version gives downstream violators short time periods to comply and receive automatic reinstatement of permissions, via the following clause:

If you cease all violation of this License, then your license from a particular copyright holder is reinstated (a) provisionally, unless and until the copyright holder explicitly and finally terminates your license, and (b) permanently, if the copyright holder fails to notify you of the violation by some reasonable means prior to 60 days after the cessation. Moreover, your license from a particular copyright holder is reinstated permanently if the copyright holder notifies you of the violation by some reasonable means, this is the first time you have received notice of violation of this License (for any work) from that copyright holder, and you cure the violation prior to 30 days after your receipt of the notice.

This improved policy can indeed be “backported” to GPLv2 via an additional permission.

Two Choices

Two efforts over the last year and a half have “implemented” these backports. The first released was the solution now used by the Linux community, which states:

Notwithstanding the termination provisions of the GPL-2.0, we agree that it is in the best interests of our development community to adopt the following provisions of GPL-3.0 as additional permissions under our license with respect to any non-defensive assertion of rights under the license, However:

[Quotes GPLv3 termination provisions as above]

We call this sub-document the Kernel Enforcement Statement Additional Permission (“KESAP”), as it is published as part of a larger document named “Kernel Enforcement Statement”. (The rest of that document does not contain legally binding terms.)

The second effort, inspired by this KESAP, was released later by Red Hat, which they call the GPL Cooperation Commitment (GPL-CC), but which we will call here “RHCC” to avoid any confusion with FSF initiatives around the GPL and license drafting. The RHCC is available on github.

Adopting One of the Additional Permissions

Conservancy finds both documents intriguing and worthy of additional study and consideration. Moreover, Conservancy has decided that we will adopt one of these GPLv3-termination-backport provisions for copyrights we hold, and advocate adoption for other copyrights held by contributors for our member projects. While we don't demand this of anyone (and won't make use of such an additional permission mandatory for our GPLv2'd projects), we make a strong recommendation for use of a GPLv3-termination-backporting additional permission.

We have for months carefully considered which of the two options is the best to adopt. This was a difficult decision, since the two are similar and both have some problematic aspects. While we applaud both the Linux community and Red Hat for promulgating these useful additional permissions, on balance we prefer KESAP, and so we are adopting and endorsing KESAP. Below we discuss our reasons for this choice between the two for those who wish more detail. Anyone interested can also listen to episode 0x67 of Free as in Freedom where we discuss these issues in detail.

Length and Complexity

KESAP is about half as long as RHCC. When you remove the direct quote in both documents that come from GPLv3's text itself (which obviously must be included in both), the RHCC adds 1,180 words and KESAP adds only 323.

The RHCC is also more complex. It adds additional defined terms, including redefining “We”, which is already a term used in GPLv2's preamble to refer to the FSF. It adds an irrevocability clause, which is not harmful, but it is unnecessary since unilaterally granted copyright permissions are generally irrevocable anyway. Furthermore, given that the word “irrevocable” doesn't appear in GPLv2, adding a redundant irrevocable clause could easily confuse license readers into thinking that GPLv2 itself is otherwise revocable even while the additional permission is not.

Aggressive Defensive Termination Violates Principles

Our biggest concern with both KESAP and RHCC is that they only apply in “non-defensive” situations. This allows copyright holders to fail to provide 30 days for violators to repair violations when those violators are already aggressors in some other form of litigation.

While we are somewhat sympathetic to those who might seek to use GPL enforcement to retaliate against other bad actions, we believe that even potential bad actors deserve the benefit of the doubt and the meager 30 days to repair a violation before facing aggressive enforcement tactics. Furthermore, defensive actions that bring the GPL into court as part of business dispute otherwise unrelated to free software are also the most likely litigation to generate bad legal precedent regarding the GPL. (Indeed, many of the lawsuits that have already been brought over the GPL are in this category. While so far these have settled out of court, there's no reason to expect that to always happen in the future.) We are disappointed that both sets of drafters feel that copyright holders should hold back this permission in those cases. As the Principles state, we continue to discourage any legal action (defensive or otherwise) against a copyright holder who otherwise succeeds in producing a compliant GPL'd source release within 30 days of violation notice. We ask Red Hat and the Linux community to also make this same cure commitment universally, perhaps in an updated version of these additional permissions.

We do note that RHCC is slightly better on this point, since it does narrow non-defensive via a defined term, but it does not narrow it enough to make a real difference, while also adding additional complexity. Moreover, the text specifically mentions legal proceedings and claims, which draws attention to the very activities that make nervous copyleft software adopters skittish.

Additional Permissions Should Not Codify Assent Mechanisms

RHCC has its own orthogonal assent mechanism, based on the presence of a file in the repository. This assent mechanism, while it seems similar to a traditional inbound=outbound regime, is actually novel and untested. The mechanism attempts to gain assent based on a specific date of inclusion of the RHCC file in a repository. Contributors, however, do not necessarily receive any notice of the addition of that file, and therefore their assent is unclear.

For example, imagine a pull request from two levels downstream that waits for merge for months. The modern DVCS-based software development process allows developers to work indefinitely on a forked copy of the repository and there is no way to know that the contributor had a copy of the repository that pre-dated the addition of the file, and they may not have a copy of the RHCC in their repository. When all is merged, it will appear that their commit postdated the addition of the RHCC, but the contributor may be unaware that the exception is added.

Furthermore, many projects already have licensing assent systems that are likely incompatible with one that is baked into the RHCC. Indeed, Linux itself has decided that they cannot make KESAP part of the DCO assent, since too many Linux developers already believe Signed-Off-By means assent merely to GPLv2-only-compatible licensing. The RHCC, when added to a existing project, cannot be adapted to fit a DCO process without modification of the DCO. Since Signed-Off-By tags rarely assent specifically to a version of the Project's DCO, RHCC is incompatible with a DCO-assent-based inbound=outbound assent system.

By contrast, the KESAP is flexible on assent. The entire KES, which includes the actual additional permission that is the KESAP, asks contributors to affirmatively assent with a patch that adds their own name to the file — explicitly indicating assent. Extracted from the KES, the KESAP text can be combined easily with virtually any assent mechanism in use in FOSS today. RHCC simply cannot.

Adding KESAP to your project

Linux is the gold standard of frictionless legal assent that is well-accepted by both individual hobbyists and contributors and corporate contributions and users alike. Recommending the Linux solution to this particular GPLv3-termination backport is simply the best way to quickly promulgate these additional permissions to GPLv2'd projects. We'll be working over the coming months to encourage, and hopefully assist, Conservancy's LGPLv2'd and GPLv2'd (or-later) member projects to implement KESAP. We will also relicense all Conservancy's own GPLv2 (or-later) copyrights to include the KESAP.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, law, licensing

Do You Know Where Your Code Came From? If You Don't Have Source You Aren't Secure

by Pamela Chestek on April 4, 2019

I sometimes work for Conservancy assisting in their compliance work. Conservancy follows the Principles of Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement, enforcement principles published by Conservancy and the Free Software Foundation. As the process goes, Conservancy receives complaints from users about products whose sellers aren't meeting their GPL license obligations and Conservancy may investigate. Many of these complaints are for hardware devices with embedded code. The complaints are almost always are that there is free software on the device but that the source code is not available.

Conservancy will purchase the complained-of device and independently determine whether or not there is a GPL violation, including requesting the source code. This is where the rubber meets the road, particularly for embedded devices. In phone calls with the hardware manufacturer, the manufacturer will almost always say that they don't have the code on hand and need to get it from their factory or vendor.

When I hear this, I want to gasp out loud. I'm not gasping because I find the non-compliance so surprising (it's not), but that a manufacturer is shipping a device that it has not independently confirmed was manufactured as spec'd. A manufacturer designs a device, say a home security camera, and has outsourced the manufacturing to a factory. The factory may have subcontracted with someone else for the component, who may have contracted with yet another company for the firmware. Yet despite the length and opaqueness of the supply chain, the companies we buy from are not doing any due dligence on the products they are selling. When a company tells me they don't have the source code available, I add them to the list in my head of brands I will not buy.

This is not a trivial oversight. Doorbell cameras, security cameras, televisions, baby monitors, and home audio equipment have a view into the most intimate parts of our lives, and yet the manufacturers are not doing everything they can to ensure that our private lives stay private. The component manufacturer, the firmware manufacturer, the factory, or all of them, could be adding malicious code to the device and the vendor has not taken the simplest step of verifying the software on the device does only what it is supposed to do and nothing more.

And it's an easy problem to solve. All the company needs is the source code. There is now even a free software project, Reproducible Builds, that can be used to verify that the source code provided compiles to exactly the object code found on the device.

And guess what? By performing the far more critical task of ensuring that a manufactured device has not been compromised, the source code compliance problem has been solved too.

Tags: GPL, Reproducible Builds

Thoughts on IBM’s acquisition of Red Hat

by Karen Sandler on October 31, 2018

There’s been quite a stir in our communities following the announcement that IBM is acquiring Red Hat. As I considered the announcement, one part of the email to employees by Jim Whitehurst posted on the Red Hat blog really struck me:

I appreciate that everyone will experience a range of emotions as a result of this news. Excited, anxious, surprised, fear of the unknown, including new challenges and working relationships - these are all ways I would describe my emotions. What I know is that we will continue to focus on growing our culture as part of a new organization. We will continue to focus on the success of our customers. We will continue to nurture our relationships with partners. Collaboration, transparency, participation, and meritocracy - these values make us Red Hat and they are not changing. In fact, I hope we will help bring this culture across all of IBM.

In addition to the normal anxiety, surprise and fear experienced by employees of companies in the wake of an announcement of a merger, takeover or ordinary reorganization, this transaction will also reverberate through the community outside of the company. Free software contributors across many communities and industries are feeling some of the same apprehension and unease that ordinarily would be reserved for employees.

I wish IBM and Red Hat luck, and I’m optimistic that the partnership will yield good things for both companies and their employees. I hope that following the acquisition, Red Hat is able to maintain its special relationship to the free and open source communities it shepherds, and that its employees continue to feel empowered to support critical free software solutions in a community-focused way. I also hope that in its announcement to keep Red Hat its own unit within IBM is an indication of IBM’s support of Red Hat’s unique business and that the deal does wind up bringing that culture to more of IBM. While some folks at IBM are important contributors to free software, IBM’s is primarily a culture of proprietary software and Red Hat’s is one of open source, so in my view this solution is likely to yield the most success anyway.

I’ve heard people imagining the best from this deal, and also people imagining the worst. The one thing everyone can agree on is that there’s a lot of uncertainty, despite whatever reassurances are contained in corporate messaging. Because of this, I think it’s a good time to remind everyone of the ways we can protect ourselves now and in the future from these kinds of uncertainties related to changes in ownership, structure or motivations of corporate players in free and open source software:

  • Use copyleft. Quite a lot of the software projects that Red Hat plays a critical role in are licensed under a version of the GPL. When we use strong copyleft we set the ground rules for corporate actors to participate with each other and with the public. We get a level playing field and assurance that companies will be less incentivized to go their own way. (We also get other good benefits like the right to the source code, allowing us to be in control of the technology we rely on.)

  • Support strong charities. Nonprofits, and in particular charitable nonprofits, keep the community’s interests at the forefront. They can serve as copyright aggregators in a more trusted way, facilitate cooperation of different stakeholders and function in a variety of ways to forward the long term interest of software freedom. The more we invest in our critical foundations, the less vulnerable we are to changes in corporate actors. The stronger foundations like GNOME, Conservancy and the FSF are, the easier it is for communities to weather a new direction from a prominent company.

  • Encourage diversely held interests. Making sure that interests are not aggregated in single for-profit actors insulates communities against a change in ownership of a company. For effective success in using copyleft, copyrights must not only be with for-profit companies but have substantial copyright holding from charities and individuals. Also, technical leadership should include actors from different types of entities. When copyrights are held by many actors in the field (or by charitable nonprofits), it’s much harder to relicense projects as proprietary or on otherwise less ideal terms, and copyleft enforcement is a community-driven rather than for-profit activity. When care of the technical direction of a project isn’t significantly concentrated in one company, free software projects are more robust. Development may be slower with community-led contribution, but we can have greater confidence about the stability of the project and the community.

The interests of companies are not always aligned with the free software community or the public. Companies that seem to be in one stable condition today may change dramatically tomorrow. While I expect Red Hat to flourish under IBM ownership, the acquisition is a good example of the kinds of changes we must be prepared for down the road, whether it be with Red Hat or any of the other companies on which we’ve come to rely.

Tags: conservancy, GPL

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