Displaying posts tagged licensing
Trademark Was Made to Prevent Attack of the “Clones” Problem in App Stores
byon July 11, 2022
Suppose you go to your weekly MyTown market. The market runs Saturday and Sunday, and vendors set up booths to sell locally made products and locally grown and produced food. On Saturday, you buy some delicious almond milk from a local vendor — called Al's Awesome Almond Milk. You realize that Al's Awesome would make an excellent frozen dessert, so you make your new frozen dessert, which you name Betty's Best Almond Frozen Dessert. You get a booth for Sunday for yourself, and you sell some, but not as much as you'd like.
The next week, you realize you might sell more if you call it Al's Awesome Almond Frozen Dessert instead of your own name. Folks at the market know Al, but not you. So you change the name. Is this a morally and legally acceptable thing to do?
This is a question primarily regarding trademarks. We spend a lot of time in the Free and Open Source Software (FOSS) community talking about copyrights and patents, but another common area of legal issues that face FOSS projects (in addition to copyright and patent) is trademark.
In fact, FOSS projects probably don't spend enough time thinking about their trademark. Nearly ten years ago, Pam Chestek — a lawyer and expert in trademark law as it relates to FOSS and board member of OSI — gave an excellent talk at FOSDEM (2013), wherein she explored how FOSS projects can use trademarks better and to ensure rights of consumers — particularly when dealing with bad actors. Our own Executive Director, Karen Sandler, had also spoken about this issue as well. These older talks, in turn, spawned an ongoing conversation that continues to this day in FOSS policy circles.
Specifically, last week, we learned that the Microsoft Store was changing their policies, ostensibly to deal with folks (probably some of whom are unscrupulous) rebuilding binaries for well-known FOSS projects and uploading them to the Microsoft Store. Yet, this is a longstanding issue in FOSS policy. FOSS experts in this area would have been happy to share what's been learned over the last ten years of studying this issue.
The problem Microsoft faces here is the same problem that the MyTown market folks face if you show up trying to sell Al's Awesome Almond Frozen Dessert. The store/market can set rules that you will no longer be able to sell if you are found to infringe the trademark of another seller. The market could simply require the trademark holder to take trademark action themselves, or it could offer some form of assistance, arbitration, or other-extra-legal resolution mechanism0.
There is often temptation in FOSS to give special status to maintainers, or the original developer, or the copyright holder, or some other entity that is considered “official”. In FOSS, though, the only mechanism of officialness is the trademark — the name of the upstream project (or the fork). The entire point of FOSS is that for the code itself, everyone should have equal rights to the original developers, to the maintainers, or to any other entity.
We have faced this with our member project, Inkscape. While the Inkscape Project Leadership Committee has chosen not to charge for the version of Inkscape that they upload on Microsoft Store, we did see this very problem for many years before these app stores even existed. Namely, it was common for third-parties to sell Windows binaries on CD's for Inkscape in an effort to make a quick buck. We did trademark enforcement in these cases — not forbidding these vendors from selling — but simply requiring the vendors to clearly say that the product was a modified version of Inkscape. Or, if it was unmodified redistribution of Inkscape's own binaries, we required the vendor to note that the Inkscape project's website was the official source for these binaries.
I have often written to complain about copyright and patent law. I have my complaints about trademark law (and I've seen trademark grossly abused, even), but trademark laws tenets are really reasonable and solid: to ensure consumers know the source and quality of the products they receive.
The problem of concern here is one well handled by trademark. It doesn't need excessive app store rules; we don't need FOSS licenses to be usurped or superseded by Draconian policy. And, this solution to this particular problem has been long-known by FOSS. Pam's talk in 2013 explained it quite well!
The MyTown Market doesn't need to create a policy that forbids you from buying Al's Awesome Almond Milk on Saturday and reselling a product based on it on Sunday. They just need to let Al know his rights under trademark, and maybe offer a lightweight provisional suspension of your booth if the trademark complaint seems primia facie valid. But, most importantly, before it announces new rules with a 30 day clock, MyTown's leadership really should discuss it with the citizens first to find a policy that takes into account concerns of the people. Even if they fail to do that, there are MyTown's elected officials whose actions are accountable to the people. App store companies are accountable only to their shareholders, not the authors of the apps. Companies could benefit by learning that the FOSS community prioritizes respecting authors, protecting consumers' and users' rights, and by understanding that the line between user and contributor should blur. The FOSS marketplace functions because the community works.
0 I hesitate to even suggest that an app store should create an extra-legal process regarding trademark enforcement beyond the typical governmental mechanisms — lest they decide they have to do it. A major problem with app stores is that they create rules for software distribution that are capricious, and arbitrary. We all do want FOSS available on Microsoft, Apple, and Google-based platforms — and as such are forced to negotiate (or, rather, try to negotiate) for FOSS-friendly terms. Ultimately, though, the story of major vendor-controlled app stores is always the story of “just barely” being able to put FOSS on them, because the goal of these entities is to profit themselves, not serve the community. We prefer app stores like F-Droid that are community-organized and are not run for-profit.
Give Up GitHub: The Time Has Come!
byon June 30, 2022
Those who forget history often inadvertently repeat it. Some of us recall that twenty-one years ago, the most popular code hosting site, a fully Free and Open Source (FOSS) site called SourceForge, proprietarized all their code — never to make it FOSS again. Major FOSS projects slowly left SourceForge since it was now, itself, a proprietary system, and antithetical to FOSS. FOSS communities learned that it was a mistake to allow a for-profit, proprietary software company to become the dominant FOSS collaborative development site. SourceForge slowly collapsed after the DotCom crash, and today, SourceForge still refuses to solve these problems0. We learned a valuable lesson that was a bit too easy to forget — especially when corporate involvement manipulates FOSS communities to its own ends. We now must learn the SourceForge lesson again with Microsoft's GitHub.
GitHub has, in the last ten years, risen to dominate FOSS development. They did this by building a user interface and adding social interaction features to the existing Git technology. (For its part, Git was designed specifically to make software development distributed without a centralized site.) In the central irony, GitHub succeeded where SourceForge failed: they have convinced us to promote and even aid in the creation of a proprietary system that exploits FOSS. GitHub profits from those proprietary products (sometimes from customers who use it for problematic activities). Specifically, GitHub profits primarily from those who wish to use GitHub tools for in-house proprietary software development. Yet, GitHub comes out again and again seeming like a good actor — because they point to their largess in providing services to so many FOSS endeavors. But we've learned from the many gratis offerings in Big Tech: if you aren't the customer, you're the product. The FOSS development methodology is GitHub's product, which they've proprietarized and repackaged with our active (if often unwitting) help.
FOSS developers have been for too long the proverbial frog in slowly boiling water. GitHub's behavior has gotten progressively worse, and we've excused, ignored, or otherwise acquiesced to cognitive dissonance. We at Software Freedom Conservancy have ourselves been part of the problem; until recently, even we'd become too comfortable, complacent, and complicit with GitHub. Giving up GitHub will require work, sacrifice and may take a long time, even for us: we at Software Freedom Conservancy historically self-hosted our primary Git repositories, but we did use GitHub as a mirror. We urged our member projects and community members to avoid GitHub (and all proprietary software development services and infrastructure), but this was not enough. Today, we take a stronger stance. We are ending all our own uses of GitHub, and announcing a long-term plan to assist FOSS projects to migrate away from GitHub. While we will not mandate our existing member projects to move at this time, we will no longer accept new member projects that do not have a long-term plan to migrate away from GitHub. We will provide resources to support any of our member projects that choose to migrate, and help them however we can.
There are so many good reasons to give up on GitHub, and we list the major ones on our Give Up On GitHub site. We were already considering this action ourselves for some time, but last week's event showed that this action is overdue.
Specifically, we at Software Freedom Conservancy have been actively communicating with Microsoft and their GitHub subsidiary about our concerns with “Copilot” since they first launched it almost exactly a year ago. Our initial video chat call (in July 2021) with Microsoft and GitHub representatives resulted in several questions which they said they could not answer at that time, but would “answer soon”. After six months of no response, Bradley published his essay, If Software is My Copilot, Who Programmed My Software? — which raised these questions publicly. Still, GitHub did not answer our questions. Three weeks later, we launched a committee of experts to consider the moral implications of AI-assisted software, along with a parallel public discussion. We invited Microsoft and GitHub representives to the public discussion, and they ignored our invitation. Last week, after we reminded GitHub of (a) the pending questions that we'd waited a year for them to answer and (b) of their refusal to join public discussion on the topic, they responded a week later, saying they would not join any public nor private discussion on this matter because “a broader conversation [about the ethics of AI-assisted software] seemed unlikely to alter your [SFC's] stance, which is why we [GitHub] have not responded to your [SFC's] detailed questions”. In other words, GitHub's final position on Copilot is: if you disagree with GitHub about policy matters related to Copilot, then you don't deserve a reply from Microsoft or GitHub. They only will bother to reply if they think they can immediately change your policy position to theirs. But, Microsoft and GitHub will leave you hanging for a year before they'll tell you that!
Nevertheless, we were previously content to leave all this low on the priority list — after all, for its first year of existence, Copilot appeared to be more research prototype than product. Facts changed last week when GitHub announced Copilot as a commercial, for-profit product. Launching a for-profit product that disrespects the FOSS community in the way Copilot does simply makes the weight of GitHub's bad behavior too much to bear.
Our three primary questions for Microsoft/GitHub (i.e., the questions they had been promising answers to us for a year, and that they now formally refused to answer) regarding Copilot were:
What case law, if any, did you rely on in Microsoft & GitHub's public claim, stated by GitHub's (then) CEO, that: “(1) training ML systems on public data is fair use, (2) the output belongs to the operator, just like with a compiler”? In the interest of transparency and respect to the FOSS community, please also provide the community with your full legal analysis on why you believe that these statements are true.
We think that we can now take Microsoft and GitHub's refusal to answer as an answer of its own: they obviously stand by their former CEO's statement (the only one they've made on the subject), and simply refuse to justify their unsupported legal theory to the community with actual legal analysis.
If it is, as you claim, permissible to train the model (and allow users to generate code based on that model) on any code whatsoever and not be bound by any licensing terms, why did you choose to only train Copilot's model on FOSS? For example, why are your Microsoft Windows and Office codebases not in your training set?
Microsoft and GitHub's refusal to answer also hints at the real answer to this question, too: While GitHub gladly exploits FOSS inappropriately, they value their own “intellectual property” much more highly than FOSS, and are content to ignore and erode the rights of FOSS users but not their own.
Can you provide a list of licenses, including names of copyright holders and/or names of Git repositories, that were in the training set used for Copilot? If not, why are you withholding this information from the community?
We can only wildly speculate as to why they refuse to answer this question. However, good science practices would mean that they could answer that question in any event. (Good scientists take careful notes about the exact inputs to their experiments.) Since GitHub refuses to answer, our best guess is that they don't have the ability to carefully reproduce their resulting model, so they don't actually know the answer to whose copyrights they infringed and when and how.
As a result of GitHub's bad actions, today we call on all FOSS developers to leave GitHub. We acknowledge that answering that call requires sacrifice and great inconvenience, and will take much time to accomplish. Yet, refusing GitHub's services is the primary power developers have to send a strong message to GitHub and Microsoft about their bad behavior. GitHub's business model has always been “proprietary vendor lock-in”. That's the very behavior FOSS was founded to curtail, and it's why quitting incumbent proprietary software in favor of a FOSS solution is often difficult. But remember: GitHub needs FOSS projects to use their proprietary infrastructure more than we need their proprietary infrastructure. Alternatives exist, albeit with less familiar interfaces and on less popular websites — but we can also help improve those alternatives. And, if you join us, you will not be alone. We've launched a website, GiveUpGitHub.org, where we'll provide tips, ideas, methods, tools and support to those that wish to leave GitHub with us. Watch that site and our blog throughout 2022 (and beyond!) for more.
Most importantly, we are committed to offering alternatives to projects that don't yet have another place to go. We will be announcing more hosting instance options, and a guide for replacing GitHub services in the coming weeks. If you're ready to take on the challenge now and give up GitHub today, we note that CodeBerg, which is based on Gitea implements many (although not all) of GitHub. Thus, we're also going to work on even more solutions, continue to vet other FOSS options, and publish and/or curate guides on (for example) how to deploy a self-hosted instance of the GitLab Community Edition.
Meanwhile, the work of our committee continues to carefully study the general question of AI-assisted software development tools. One recent preliminary finding was that AI-assisted software development tools can be constructed in a way that by-default respects FOSS licenses. We will continue to support the committee as they explore that idea further, and, with their help, we are actively monitoring this novel area of research. While Microsoft's GitHub was the first mover in this area, by way of comparison, early reports suggest that Amazon's new CodeWhisperer system (also launched last week) seeks to provide proper attribution and licensing information for code suggestions1.
This harkens to long-standing problems with GitHub, and the central reason why we must together give up on GitHub. We've seen with Copilot, with GitHub's core hosting service, and in nearly every area of endeavor, GitHub's behavior is substantially worse than that of their peers. We don't believe Amazon, Atlassian, GitLab, or any other for-profit hoster are perfect actors. However, a relative comparison of GitHub's behavior to those of its peers shows that GitHub's behavior is much worse. GitHub also has a record of ignoring, dismissing and/or belittling community complaints on so many issues, that we must urge all FOSS developers to leave GitHub as soon as they can. Please, join us in our efforts to return to a world where FOSS is developed using FOSS.
We expect this particular blog post will generate a lot of discussion. We welcome you to interact with SFC staff on our public mailing list about this effort.
0SourceForge is now built as a (apparently proprietary) fork of a different FOSS system (called Allura). SourceForge's CEO ignored our multiple inquiries asking if SourceForge really is running upstream Allura (i.e., has no proprietary modifications), and our repeated requests for a link that explains how a project can leave SourceForge for self-hosted Allura. The responses from SourceForge management were quite similar to those received since 2001 — when they first went proprietary.
1However, we have not analyzed CodeWhisperer in depth so we cannot say for sure if Amazon's implementation is compliant with the respective licenses. Nevertheless, Amazon's behavior here shows sharp contrast with Microsoft's GitHub: Amazon acknowledges the obvious fact that there are license obligations that deserve attention and care when building AI-assisted programming solutions.
A Federal Hearing about Rights under GPL
byon May 11, 2022
Possible Opportunity for the Public To Hear Oral Arguments in Key GPL Enforcement Case
In our previous update regarding our copyleft enforcement lawsuit against Vizio, we talked about how Vizio “removed” the case to USA federal court (namely, the Central District of California), and how we filed a motion to “remand” the case back to state court. While this all seems like minor legal wrangling early in a case, this very first skirmish in our case goes to the very heart of the right for software repair for consumers. While it won't be a final decision in the case, this motion will be the first indication whether the federal courts view the GPL as purely a copyright license, or as a contract, or as both. That question has been central to legal debate about the GPL for decades, and, thanks to our case, for the first time, a federal Court will directly consider this question.
Our view (and the view of many attorneys whose opinions we trust) and which is supported by substantial case law, is that the GPL functions as both a copyright license and a contract, and that third parties who receive distribution of GPL'd (and LGPL'd) software are third-party beneficiaries. We've done both copyright-based and contract-based enforcement, and both have their advantages. Contract-based enforcement as a third-party has advantages that are central to the GPL's policy goals. Consumers are the first to discover violations in the first place. Consumers are the most likely to utilize complete, corresponding source code (CCS) to enhance their use of the products they have purchased. Third-party, contractual based enforcement gives consumers legal authority when they ask companies for access to the source code that should be available to them. In other words, this approach gives consumers the ability to ask the Court directly for the most important thing that copyleft assures: a right to receive the CCS and “the scripts used to control compilation and installation of the executable”. Indeed, in our suit we have asked only for access to the source code, not for any money.
Our case now is the first of its kind to adjudicate the third-party beneficiary contractual theory. We are excited that a federal district Court is poised to give its first answer to the central question to this endeavor, namely: “Are the GPL and LGPL merely copyright licenses, and thus preempted and only subject matter for the US federal courts, or can a third-party bring a contract claim in state court?” If this question intrigues you, we encourage you to read our motion for remand, Vizio's reply to that motion and our rebuttal reply.
Most importantly, clear your calendar for this Friday 13 May 2022 at 10:30 US/Pacific! While Judge Staton may chose to rule on this motion strictly based on those paper filings, the judge has scheduled a hearing for that date and time. What's more, anyone in the world can attend this hearing to listen! Instructions for how to attend are found on Judge Staton's website0.
While, as FOSS activists, we're very sad that the Judge has chosen to use a proprietary videochat platform, we're glad that PSTN dial-in is provided, and we'll be dialing in and encourage you to do so as well. Watch our microblog for live updates!
take careful note of the warning on the Judge's website:
copying, photographing and rebroadcasting of court proceedings is prohibited
by federal law. Remember: you can take as many notes as you like, and
even live blog/microblog what you hear, but take great care to follow the
directives on Judge Staton's website.
Fighting for the right to repair your electronics - we need your help
byon May 2, 2022
Defending your right to modify and repair the software on your electronics has been a cornerstone of Software Freedom Conservancy since its inception. We defend these rights in a variety of ways: petitioning the Copyright Office to return our repair and modification rights, investigating reports people send us where companies are using our member projects' code but aren't providing the source or repair and modification information that the project's license requires, contacting those companies to remind them of the license requirements, and (eventually, in rare cases after companies ignore our gentle reminders for many months) filing lawsuits against intransigent companies who refuse to give you the complete source and instructions you deserve (and that they are required to provide by the licenses of the software they freely choose to use).
In the rare cases where Software Freedom Conservancy has been forced to move its enforcement actions from gentle reminders to filing lawsuits, we have used a variety of approaches. Our lawsuit filed in 2007 against several manufacturers, used copyright law (specifically copyrights in the BusyBox project) to compel those manufacturers to comply with the GPL (such as Westinghouse). The lawsuit we filed last year against Vizio takes an approach more appropriate for widely marketed and available consumer devices. Namely, the claim in Vizio is a contract claim for third-party beneficiary rights under the GPL, which will allow us (and all other customers who bought Vizio TV's) to receive the repair and modification instructions to the software more directly.
Since we began enforcing the GPL fifteen years ago, the landscape of GPL violations has deteriorated: GPL'd software now appears in nearly every consumer device smarter than a toaster, and very rarely do the manufacturers even bother to offer source code to users — and almost never does the source release meet the requirements of the GPL. As a result, we at Software Freedom Conservancy continue to dedicate more time and resources to our enforcement efforts. We seek to ensure that the situation does not get even worse, and we believe that we can improve the situation even more.
The best approach, in our view, is to continue to bring a variety of different types of actions against intransigent violators. As always, we use litigation and litigation-like means as a last resort, but we've reached that point with dozens of companies. There are a variety of types of actions we could take and lawsuits that we could bring, and different ways we can go about preparing for them. But, to have the full scope of options, we need your help.
As a contributor to copyleft projects, one way that you can help us right now is to assign the copyrights of your software freedom works to Software Freedom Conservancy. As the Vizio suit shows, copyright-based claims will not be the sole focus of our enforcement. However, there are some key types of products where copyright claims are ideal. By assigning your copyrights to us, you can give us the ability to stand up for your software freedom and rights and, more importantly, the rights of your users. While we understand the FOSS community has some aversions to copyright assignment, we also know that, right now, many developers automatically assign their copyrights to their employers without demanding that their employers stand up for the copyleft rights of their users. We ask the community to reconsider this common practice, and request those who haven't already assigned copyright to their employer to assign their copyrights to us, and we urge those who have entered work-for-hire arrangements with employers ask those employers to give them back their copyrights immediately. (See our ContractPatch project for more information on how to do this.)
Today, we launch our self-service Copyright Assignment form. This new form, carefully vetted by our lawyers, allows you to quickly and easily assign your rights in your code, documentation, and other copyrightable works to Software Freedom Conservancy. We will use these copyrights to ensure companies follow the copyleft licenses that they use. You can assign copyrights for projects that are not members of Software Freedom Conservancy too. We will always enforce them in accordance with our Principles, and we will welcome you onto an internal mailing list and regular meetings to discuss our enforcement efforts.
Through the various software freedom lawsuits we have filed over the years, along with the lawsuits we've helped fund, Software Freedom Conservancy has established a track record of tangible enforcement actions.
We are very happy for all the support we've received from software freedom activists, developers, and other community members over the years in our software freedom enforcement actions. We hope you will continue to support us, and encourage others to do so, in whatever ways you can and, if it makes sense for you, by assigning your software freedom works to us so we can ensure the repairability of your electronics (and everyone else's!) going forward.