Firmware Liberation Project

Conservancy plans to select a class of product in the Linux-based embedded system space. For this product, Conservancy will launch, or assist, a project that creates a functioning alternative firmware for those devices. The promise of GPL enforcement is only realized through actual, practical use and improvement of the released software for users.

GPL Enforcement Needs Follow-Through

Simply enforcing the GPL is an important first step, and Conservancy continues our efforts in that regard. However, we can replicate the success found with OpenWrt only by a substantial effort after enforcement occurs to turn the compliant source release into a viable alternative firmware for the platform.

Conservancy has seen non-compliant Linux-based firmwares on refrigerators, baby monitors, virtual assistants, soundbars, doorbells, home security cameras, police body cameras, cars, AV receivers, and televisions. We believe that building an alternative firmware for one of these classes of devices — or joining our work with an existing alternative firmware project that is struggling due to lack of sources available — will lead to more palpable software freedom for users of these device.

Limited Success of Alternative Hardware

Alternative hardware projects remain an essential component of small device freedom. Conservancy supports and engages with communities that seek to source and build IoT-style devices from the ground up. We’re excited to see deployable boards that allow Maker efforts to create new devices.

Nevertheless, we remain ever-cognizant that FOSS succeeded on servers, laptop, desktop, and wireless router computers precisely because users could buy commodity hardware at any store and install FOSS alternatives to the vendor-provided software. Throughout the history of FOSS, most new users who seek to experience software freedom want to do so with their existing devices first. Many don't even know much about the issues involved in software liberation until they've already purchased hardware. Conservancy therefore believes support of alternative firmwares for such devices is paramount.

Demonstrating the power of software freedom

To many, the benefits of software freedom are abstract. For less technical users, the idea of modifying or even reviewing the software on their devices is wholly theoretical. For technical users, there is a limited time available to invest in the devices they use for their everyday lives. Bringing people together to take collective action for the control of their own technology is a powerful proposition that has rarely been demonstrated.

When alternative firmware projects like OpenWrt exist for IoT devices, non-technical users can replace the software on their devices and benefit from custom, community-controlled software. Technical users are more likely to contribute knowing their efforts will be meaningful.

However, decades of corporate involvement in copyleft have demonstrated that without an organized effort, control over one’s own software is purely theoretical, even when software has a copyleft license, and sometimes even when compliance with the copyleft license is acheived. Conservancy recognizes that there is a unique opportunity for charitable organizations to step in and change the power dynamic of the tech industry for consumers.

Conservancy’s Plan For Action

Conservancy seeks to fund work on liberating firmware for a specific device. This is accomplished with a two-prong approach: first, we will leverage increased interest and tendency toward GPL compliance throughout the embedded industry to more quickly achieve compliant source releases in a particular subindustry.

Second, depending on what subindustry (i.e., specific class of devices) seems most responsive to increased enforcement activity and willing to provide compliant source releases quickly, we will launch, coordinate and fund an alternative firmware project for that class, or, if appropriate, merge our efforts with an existing alternative firmware project for that class of device.

Leveraging on Increased Enforcement

Conservancy already plans to select a specific violation and engage in litigation. Based on past experience, we expect that the press and attention to that ongoing litigation will yield increased responsiveness by violators throughout the industry. (A similar outcome occurred after our BusyBox-related litigation in 2006.) This expected change in behavior will open opportunities to replicate the OpenWrt approach in another embedded electronic subindustry. Fast action will be necessary; most IoT products have an 18 month lifecycle, so we seek to quickly identify the right subindustry, gain compliance there, and move on to the next phase.

Funding Firmware Liberation

While we’ve long hoped that volunteers would take up compliant sources obtained in our GPL enforcement efforts and build alternative firmware projects as they did with OpenWrt, history shows us that the creation of such projects is not guaranteed and exceedingly rare.

Traditionally, our community has relied exclusively on volunteers to take up this task, and financial investment only comes after volunteers have put in the unfunded work to make a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) liberated firmware. While volunteer involvement remains essential to the success of alternative firmware projects, we know from our fiscal sponsorship work that certain aspects of FOSS projects require an experienced charity to initiate and jump-start some of the less exciting aspects of FOSS project creation and development. (In our last fiscal year, Conservancy funded 160 contributors to work on FOSS.)

In the initial phase, Conservancy will select a specific class of device. Upon achieving compliant source releases in that subindustry through GPL enforcement, Conservancy will launch an alternative firmware project for that class of device.

Conservancy will seek to fund the time of project leaders and infrastructure for the project. The goal is to build a firm base that draws volunteers to the project. We know that sustaining funding over long periods for a grassroots hobbyist activity is quite challenging; we seek to bootstrap and catalyze interest and contribution to the project. Ideally, Conservancy would run the project with a single full-time staffer for about a year, and achieve a volunteer base sufficient to reduce funding to one part-time staffer.

Criteria for Device Selection

The IoT device industry moves quickly and we must be prepared to adapt based on new information. The first stage in this work will be to carefully evaluate and select the device on which to focus for this project. Conservancy will evaluate the following criteria in selecting a class of devices:

  • Do most devices in the subindustry already run a known FOSS system (such as Android/Linux, BusyBox/Linux or GNU/Linux)?

  • In response to our increased enforcement activity, how many existing GPL-compliant source releases are available from how many different vendors in this subindustry?

  • Is there a known userspace application that runs on Maker-built hardware that does the task the proprietary userspace software from the vendor did?

  • What is the excitement level among volunteers for this project?

  • What value will hobbyists achieve from replacing the software on their device? For example, would they be able to avoid surveillance or add accessibility features?

Finally, Conservancy will be prepared and willing to recognize temporary failure and setbacks in a particular subindustry and pivot quickly to choosing a different class of devices. This project is ambitious, and we’ll be adroit in our approach to ensure success.

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