Conservancy and FSF Publish Principles of Copyleft Enforcement

October 1, 2015

Software Freedom Conservancy announces today the publication of The Principles of Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement. This document, co-authored with the Free Software Foundation (FSF), outlines basic guidelines for any organization that seeks to uphold copyleft licenses on behalf of the public good. In their regular work, Conservancy and FSF each actively pursue compliance actions for copylefted software. Members of the public entrust the FSF and Conservancy to uphold the rights embodied in the GPL family of licenses. The FSF holds copyrights in many essential GNU packages, and Conservancy not only holds its own copyrights in BusyBox, the Linux kernel, and Debian, but also has built coalitions of BusyBox, Debian, Linux, and Samba developers who have delegated their license enforcement authority to Conservancy. Both organizations conduct GPL enforcement as transparently as possible, and provide helpful and abundant educational material (such as their joint project) for individuals and companies who use and distribute Open Source and Free Software.

Copyleft license enforcement, as performed by community-oriented organizations such as Conservancy and FSF, focuses on the promotion of software freedom as paramount. Publishing the guiding principles behind this activity clearly explicates this activity, removes uncertainty for companies who face compliance actions, and also provides criteria for evaluating whether license compliance is in the community's interest. The principles enumerated in the document include prioritizing software freedom over all other ancillary goals, using legal action only as a last resort, and offering flexibility on rights restoration under GPLv2's termination clause (GPLv2§4).

“The ugly truth about copyleft compliance is that if there are never any law suits when companies refuse to comply, then there's very little incentive to do the right thing,” said Karen M. Sandler, Conservancy's Executive Director and FOSS legal expert and activist for a decade. “No copyleft compliance initiatives of any kind will succeed without enforcement being conducted by organizations who seek users' rights and the public good. These principles express our ethical compass for this enforcement - we conduct this activity in the best interests of both the free software movement and the industry built around it.”

Bradley M. Kuhn, Conservancy's President and Distinguished Technologist, who has, on behalf of both the FSF and Conservancy, regularly enforced the GPL since 1999, and who first formulated many of this principles in those early days, added: “I've enjoyed the growth and adoption of copyleft software throughout the software industry. However, copyleft violations remain abysmally prevalent, and even worse, some individuals and companies succumb to avarice in their copyleft enforcement work. Companies have reported to Conservancy real confusion about the motivations of the burgeoning license compliance industry complex. I have helped my colleagues draft these principles, not only as documentation of the moral code our organizations follow, but also so that the entire public can review and evaluate our behavior transparently and thus distinguish our work from those who use these important licensing tools nefariously.”

Publishing these principles builds on the work Conservancy and FSF began last year with their joint launch of hosts a guide which provides comprehensive explanation about the GPL and includes a detailed analysis of a complete, corresponding source (CCS) release for a real-world electronics product. The Guide demonstrates and discusses the process that Conservancy and the FSF use to determine whether a CCS candidate complies with the requirements of the GPL. The Guide itself is freely distributed under copyleft, and we invite contributions. Karen Sandler will jointly lead a session entitled Community Licensing Education & Outreach with FSF licensing & compliance manager Joshua Gay and FSF copyright and licensing associate Donald R. Robertson, III at the FSF's User Freedom Summit in Cambridge, Massachusetts this Saturday, October 3. On Tuesday, October 6 in Dublin, Ireland Bradley M. Kuhn will present at the Embedded Linux Conference a session entitled A Beautiful Build: Releasing Linux Source Correctly, which will discuss the pristine example found in the Guide.

FSF has also released its own announcement. A copy of the principles document will be hosted both on Conservancy's website and on FSF's website.

About Software Freedom Conservancy

Software Freedom Conservancy is a charitable nonprofit organization that promotes, improves, develops and defends Free, Libre and Open Source software projects. Conservancy is home more than thirty software projects, each supported by a dedicated community of volunteers, developers and users. Conservancy's projects include some of the most widely used software systems in the world across many application areas, including educational software deployed in schools around the globe, embedded software systems deployed in most consumer electronic devices, distributed version control developer tools, integrated library services systems, and widely used graphics and art programs. It is the home of the award winning internship program Outreachy, which helps people from groups underrepresented in free and open source software get involved. A full list of Conservancy's member projects is available. Conservancy enables its projects' communities to focus on what they do best: creating innovative software and advancing computing for the public's benefit.

Media Contacts

Karen M. Sandler <>
Executive Director, Software Freedom Conservancy

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