May They Make Me Superfluous

Tuesday 10 August 2010 by Bradley M. Kuhn

The Linux Foundation announced today their own FLOSS license compliance program, which included the launch of a few software tools under a modified BSD license. They also have offered some training courses for those that want to learn how to comply.

If this Linux Foundation (LF) program is successful, I may get something I've wished for since the first enforcement I ever worked on back in late 1998: I'd like to never do GPL enforcement again. I admit I talk a lot about GPL enforcement. It's indeed been a major center of my work for twelve years, but I can't say I've ever really liked doing it.

By contrast, I have been hoping for years that someone would eventually come along and “put me out of the enforcement business”. Someday, I dream of opening up the <gpl@busybox.net> folder and having no new violation reports (BTW, those dreams usually become real-life nightmares, as I typically get two new violations reports each week). I also wish for the day that I don't have a backlogged queue of 200 or more GPL violations where no source nor offer for source has been provided. I hate that it takes so much time to resolve violations because of the sheer magnitude that exist.

I got into GPL enforcement so heavily, frankly, because so few others were doing it. To this day, there are basically three groups even bothering to enforce GPL on behalf of the community: Conservancy (with enforcement efforts led by me), FSF (with enforcement efforts led by Brett Smith), and gpl-violations.org (with enforcement efforts led by Harald Welte). Generally, GPL enforcement has been a relatively lonely world for a long time, mainly because it's boring, tedious and patience-trying work that only the most dedicated (masochistic?) want to spend their time doing.

There are a dozen of very important software-freedom-advancing activities that I'd rather spend my time doing. But as long as people don't respect the freedom of software users and ignore the important protections of copyleft, I have to continue doing GPL enforcement. Any effort like LF's is very welcome, provided that it reduces the number of violations.

Of course, LF (as GPL educators) and Brett, Harald, and I (as GPL enforcers) will share the biggest obstacle: getting communication going with the actual violators. Fact is, people who know the LF exists or have heard of the GPL are likely to already be in compliance. When I find a new violation, it's nearly always someone who doesn't even know what's going on, and often doesn't even realize what their engineering team put into their firmware. If LF can reach these companies before they end up as a violation report emailed to me, I'll be as glad as can be. But it's a tall order.

I do have a few minor criticisms of LF's program. First, I believe the directory of FLOSS Compliance Officers should be made publicly available. I think FLOSS Compliance Officers at companies should make themselves publicly known in the software freedom community so they can be contacted directly. As LF currently has it set up, you have to make a request of the LF to put you in touch with a company's compliance officer.

Second, I admit I'd have liked to have been actively engaged in LF's process of forming this program. But, I presume that they wanted as much distance as possible from the world's most prolific GPL enforcer, and I can understand that. (I suppose there's a good cop/bad cop metaphor you could make here, but I don't like to think of myself as the GPL police.) I did offer to help LF on this back in April when they announced it at the Linux Collaboration Summit, but they haven't been in touch. Nevertheless, I'll hopefully meet with LF folks on Thursday at LinuxCon about their program. Also, I was invited a few months ago by Martin Michlmayr to join one subset of the project, the SPDX working group and I've been giving it time whenever I can.

But, as I said, those are only minor complaints. The program as a whole looks like it might do some good. I hope companies take advantage of it, and more importantly, I hope LF can reach out to the companies who don't know their name yet but have BusyBox/Linux embedded in their products.

Please, LF, help free me from the grind of GPL enforcement work. I remain committed to enforcing GPL until there are no violations left, but if LF can actually bring about an end to GPL violations sooner rather than later, I'll be much obliged. In a year, if I have an empty queue of GPL violations, I'll call LF's program a unmitigated success and gladly move on to other urgent work to advance software freedom.

Posted on Tuesday 10 August 2010 at 09:45 by Bradley M. Kuhn.

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#include <std/disclaimer.h>
use Standard::Disclaimer;
from standard import disclaimer
SELECT full_text FROM standard WHERE type = 'disclaimer';

Both previously and presently, I have been employed by and/or done work for various organizations that also have views on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. As should be blatantly obvious, this is my website, not theirs, so please do not assume views and opinions here belong to any such organization. Since I do co-own ebb.org with my wife, it may not be so obvious that these aren't her views and opinions, either.

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Bradley M. Kuhn <bkuhn@ebb.org>