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Understanding Installation Requirements in GPLv2

by Denver Gingerich on March 25, 2021

According to our Principles, we always begin discussions with GPL violators privately. Many of these discussions are ongoing at any time. Recently, we received many questions about GPLv2's requirements regarding installation of modified versions of GPLv2'd software on the device on which the software was distributed. GPLv2 was drafted in anticipation of future uses of the software, and includes specific license text regarding installation:

The source code for a work means the preferred form of the work for making modifications to it. For an executable work, complete source code means all the source code for all modules it contains, plus any associated interface definition files, plus the scripts used to control compilation and installation of the executable.

Unfortunately, we find that GPL violators often ignore (sometimes inadvertently) this part of that license text, which has always been of great importance: “the scripts used to control … installation of the executable”.

When a system is 100% FOSS “by design”, meeting this requirement is easy. We applaud the many community-oriented commercial projects that build their own hardware and give their users complete software freedom, such as the LulzBot Mini 3D Printer. We wish that all companies would follow that example and grant customers universal software freedom. Unfortunately, that is currently not realistic, even in the medium term.

Copyleft advocates have always contemplated that some companies will choose to ship proprietary software on the same device as the GPL'd works. Indeed, GPLv2 foresaw this possibility and permits that “mere aggregation” — as long as compliance is achieved for the GPLv2-covered works included on the device.

Indeed, GPLv2 was drafted as a forward looking license. Great care and attention was given to what the future might bring in software, and assure that in the future, GPLv2 defended software freedom adequately. In 1991, the year of GPLv2's drafting, one did not need to look that far ahead to see that general-purpose computers would find their way into devices other than servers, desktops and laptops. It was common, for example, in 1991 to have printers with full computers inside to handle various functionality of those printers. Famously, even back then, software freedom activists were quite frustrated that printer companies and their licensees would not liberate the proprietary software on these printers. Such activists, aware of this problem, sought to fix bugs in this printer software. They demanded source code for their printers, not because they sought to build their own printer from scratch and use that software, but because they wished to modify that source, fix the bugs, and reinstall the liberated printer firmware. This problem was well understood at the time of GPLv2's drafting, and GPLv2 was clearly drafted with this issue and use-case in mind.

To that end, GPLv2 included a clear obligation to provide “the scripts used to control … installation” that function for the GPLv2'd works. GPLv2 assures, to the purchaser of an embedded product, their absolute right to receive the information necessary to install a modified version of the GPLv2'd works. Meanwhile, rules for the legitimately proprietary works remain the prerogative of the licensors of that software. Since we have often been asked, we want to communicate this point with complete clarity and transparency: we would never require that any of the proprietary software on the device continue to function (or even be present) on the device after installation of a modified version of the GPLv2'd works on any device. However, installation of the GPL'd works must succeed and operate in a useful and functional fashion on the device.

Installation is where the proverbial rubber meets the road with software freedom. Of course, we honor the esoteric value of the freedom to study, and that right is important. But much more important, and a key reason that the GPLv2 was created, is the software freedom to reinstall a modified version. That means the right to fix bugs, the right to try out your improvements, and the right to remove privacy-disrespecting anti-features. It's the right that our community needs the most. The GPLv2 was designed to assure bug-fixing. Furthermore, the drafters knew that, on embedded systems and devices, you need to know how to install those fixes. Scripts can be technical artifacts like shell scripts, but can also be merely a recipe and/or guidance — written instructions that explain how to succeed at install.

We know that other software freedom organizations share this view. Conservancy is spearheading the ongoing effort to make this clarity widely known. Below is a simple statement of this position, phrased in other words:

The GPLv2 does not have any specific requirement for preservation of the ability to reinstall proprietary-software-centric vendor-provided firmwares (even if such firmwares contain some GPLv2'd works) on embedded systems, provided that the downstream user (i.e., the consumer with the device) can build, install, run, and (repeatedly and successfully) reinstall a firmware containing at least the copylefted components (such as Linux+Bash).

Not only is this consistent with what the license text says and requires, but it is also consistent with GPL's general policy goal. In our GPL compliance discussions, violators sometimes argue that, in order to install a modified version of the software received on a device, the user should build a new device themselves from scratch (instead of installing those GPLv2'd works on the device they have already). We don't believe that the original intent of the GPLv2 requirements for “the scripts used to control … installation of the executable” included that expectation, nor is that position supported by the license text. GPLv2 was written in a time after embedded devices already existed, and the intent is clear.

Our position is by no means controversial, but we do expect some will seek to argue it is controversial. We encourage you to consider their motives, funding sources, and licensing models. For our part, we published this policy statement to clarify repeated questions that companies distributing devices with GPLv2 software have recently raised in our GPL enforcement actions for Linux, BusyBox, and other software. We look forward to continuing the (sadly) long road toward compliance with these companies, in accordance with The Principles of Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement. We greatly appreciate the work that both individual contributors and companies put into their software and communities. It is our obligation, as copyleft activists, to ensure that GPLv2's rules apply fairly to everyone.

Finally, we encourage others to link to this statement when discussing GPLv2's “the scripts used to control … installation of the executable”.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, law, licensing

On Elastic, its fork, MongoDB, and the SS Public License

by Bradley M. Kuhn on January 29, 2021

Now that Elastic adopted SS Public License, folks have been asking us if Conservancy's view on the SS Public License has changed. It hasn't, and our previous two blog posts on MongoDB's license change and Copyleft Equality are still relevant. The only statement we'd like to add is:

To our knowledge, there is no individual nor organization who has yet agreed that they will run a project under the SS Public License and be themselves bound by the SS Public License. That license remains a disingenuous proposal until it's put to use in an “inbound=outbound” licensing configuration.

(Both Elastic and MongoDB require inbound contributors to give them special licensing rights.)

Meanwhile, on the orthogonal issue of whether a forked project should choose a non-copyleft or a copyleft license, we refer everyone to this excellent old keynote from Martin Fink about how copyleft makes project governance better and easier.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, law, licensing

Conservancy Requests Three DMCA Exemptions to Let People Control Their Devices

by Conservancy's Staff on 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:

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.

Tags: conservancy, Filings, GPL, law

Public Support Makes All the Difference for GPL Compliance

by Denver Gingerich on January 9, 2020

In starting the new year, I am reminded of what we accomplished last year, but also of what we urgently need to get done this year. What I do at Conservancy is relatively unique, not just within Conservancy, but within software freedom non-profits as a whole. My primary focus is ensuring that organizations comply with the GPL so that people like you can continue to enjoy the freedom that the GPL and other copyleft licenses guarantee. Although it's a small part of what we do at Conservancy percentage-wise (partly due to funding constraints), GPL compliance and enforcement is crucial to the future of software freedom.

Your donations so far have allowed us to check numerous companies' source releases this year, each time getting us a bit closer to the goal of fully compliant releases of the GPLed software they use. While this is certainly important, it is frankly the bare minimum that we need to do in order to prevent the GPL from being treated as a permissive license that companies simply use to proprietarize all the code they use. We don't want to see your freedom taken away, and we need to keeping fighting to avoid that future.

We are at a turning point for software freedom. As our lives rely more and more on software embedded in the ever-expanding set of devices we use, it is more and more critical that we control the software they run. Companies need to see that not only is it straight-forward to comply with copyleft licenses, but that copyleft compliance is in fact a feature that their customers are specifically looking for (most companies do not comply with the GPL - we need both carrots and sticks to fix this). We have a project underway that we hope will solidify this in companies' minds, and with continued funding we plan to build and release substantial parts of it this year.

Persistent GPL enforcement has begun to change the software and hardware industry norms in our favour. However, we are at risk of losing all we have accomplished so far unless we are able to both continue our work in the fields that we are familiar with, but also, and even more importantly, to recognize and respond to new threats to our freedom as our digital world changes, demanding new software freedom licensing strategies and enforcement methods.

We often call on the community to help us with compliance work, but it is no exaggeration when I tell you that our ability to ensure your software freedom is a direct result of donations from individuals. The deadline for having your contributions to Conservancy doubled is next week and we have a ways to go to make our match challenge, so if you'd like to increase your donation or get your friends to support us, don't delay! You can find the full match details and donation info here.

Tags: GPL, FOSS Sustainability

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