The Free Software Foundation has sent out a
proclaiming the receipt of a $25,000 donation from
MySQL AB. The donation is intended to support the FSF's GPL
Compliance Lab. The donation is a good thing, even if it can be seen as a
relatively straightforward payback for the FSF's assistance in MySQL's
lawsuit against NuSphere. But the PR is also interesting in
that it is the first public mention we could find of the "GPL Compliance
Lab." So we contacted the FSF to learn a little more about it.
The Lab, as it turns out, has existed as an "informal activity" since
1992; it was formalized toward the end of 2001. According to FSF Executive
Director Bradley Kuhn:
The Compliance Lab is our department that handles the investigation
of GPL (and LGPL) violations and subsequent enforcement when
violations are confirmed. The Lab also assists other copyright
holders (besides FSF itself) when they seek to enforce the GPL.
Finally, the Lab provides general "knowledge infrastructure"
concerning the GNU GPL and Free Software licensing; we answer many
licensing questions from the public and from lawyers working in the
field each day.
The Lab's staff includes, beyond a piece of Mr. Kuhn's time to run the
whole thing, a "GPL Compliance Engineer" who investigates GPL
issues, a half-time clerk to handle copyright assignments, and two lawyers
who donate a few hours a week to the project. According to Mr. Kuhn, the
demand for the lab's services could easily employ twice as many people; in
particular, more lawyer time is needed. But, since the FSF lacks the funds
to actually hire a lawyer, it is entirely dependent on pro bono work.
The Lab's staff works on a number of tasks, including the investigation of
GPL violations, "diplomatically" working with violators to bring them back
into line, helping others (like MySQL) in GPL enforcement efforts, GPL
education efforts, and developing new versions of free software licenses.
They currently handle about 50 violations every year; most of these are
indeed handled with certain amount of diplomacy, since the world as a whole
never hears about them. This is certainly the right approach, since, as
Mr. Kuhn points out, almost all GPL violations are mistakes, rather than
malicious misuses of GPL-licensed code. A quiet approach gets these
violations taken care of without backing the violator into a defensive
So why have most of us never heard of the Lab? The answer is resource
constraints: the FSF is not exactly overflowing with funds, and has never
been able to find the time to set up its own web site. The FSF is not the
same thing as the GNU project; while the GNU folks are busy writing
software and trying to get past that pesky HURD 2GB filesystem limit, the
FSF is working on the broader free software picture. And it is doing so on
a shoestring budget.
Bradley Kuhn is hoping that other companies will take a cue from MySQL and
make donations to help the GPL compliance effort. He tells us:
Companies that rely on GPL'ed code need an impartial party, whose
sole mission is to uphold software freedom. That's us. If your
company is a good Free Software citizen and complies with the GPL,
you need someone out there to make sure that all your competitors
are respecting freedom, too.
He also states that companies which have violated the GPL and been brought
back into line by the FSF should donate as well; that seems like a rather
There is a serious point here, however. Companies that release code under
the GPL do so in the hope that their competitors will not take unfair
advantage of that code and distribute proprietary enhancements. As the
free software ecosystem grows, an increasing number of companies will
surely be tempted to do exactly that. Preventing this sort of behavior
requires vigorous enforcement of the GPL's requirements. And that
enforcement requires lawyers.
The FSF has been the champion of the GPL since the beginning, and is an
obvious focal point for GPL enforcement efforts. But they need a level of
funding that allows them to carry out that work. A donations page exists for individuals
wanting to help out, and companies with bigger checks will certainly get
their phone calls returned quickly. But the FSF may want to
consider creating consulting and enforcement services that can be sold
to companies that depend on respect for the terms of the GPL. Otherwise,
as the market grows, somebody else will.
Comments (3 posted)
National governments are increasingly taking an interest in free software
as a way to reduce costs, improve security, support local software
development industry, and decrease reliance on Microsoft. At least,
governments outside the U.S. are interested... Here we take a quick look
at recent events in Italy and India which give some hints of where this
trend is heading.
The Italian Ministry for Innovation and Technology has announced
(in Italian) the creation of the "Commission for Open Source Software
in Public Administration," which is charged with evaluating free software
for governmental use.
This committee is headed by Professor Raffaele Meo,
former president of the Italian National Research Council (CNR), and a
well-known free software advocate.
The scope of its work is to look at the "efficiency, effectiveness,
and cost savings" of free software. They are also supposed to evaluate
technology trends across Europe and other industrialized countries. The
group's final report, due in three months, should advise the government on
strategies for the evaluation and choice of free software.
This charge may disappoint hard core free software supporters, since it
seems to focus primarily on the economic arguments. The driving force
behind the establishment of this committee, however, is a proposed law (in
Italian, of course) being pushed by the (opposition) Italian Green
Party. This law would require government agencies to prefer free software
for their information systems needs. Agencies wanting to buy proprietary
software would be required to justify that choice. In situations where
"personal or sensitive data" (or data whose disclusure could impact
national security) is being handled, use of free software would be
mandatory. Public agencies would also be required to keep copies of the
source for software they use, and would be required to keep data in open
The long-term direction, thus, is toward strong support of free software as
a way of improving security and access to public information - along with
the usual economic reasons. Adoption of free software at this level in
Italy is still a fairly distant prospect, however; for now, we have to wait
to see what this committee has to say, early next year. (Thanks to Davide
Barbieri for the tip).
Meanwhile, events in India are worth a look. The country's Department of
Information Technology announced last month a new set of initiatives to
promote the development and use of Linux there. Linux obviously has a lot
to offer a country like India, but the cynical among us need not look too
hard for another motivation for this effort. After all, Bill Gates has
just taken a trip over there and talked about spending $400 million in the
country. The two events are unlikely to be unrelated.
India is an important country for both Microsoft and the free software
community. Its software market is relatively small, especially when
considering the size of the country as a whole. But India is rich in
highly educated software developers. If a substantial portion of those
developers were to start working on free software, the results would be
felt worldwide. It is an outcome that, for Microsoft, is worth $400
million to prevent.
Comments (4 posted)
This week's exercise in LWN writing about itself looks at European
subscriptions, corporate subscribers, and a couple other aspects of how
things are going.
The individual subscriber count stands at a little over 2300. New
subscriptions have levelled off greatly in recent weeks. The total number
of subscribers has yet to decline; if the number of new subscribers remains
low, and the number of expiring short-term subscriptions remains relatively
high, that could happen before too long, however.
We continue to see a slow but steady trickle of group subscriptions.
Subscribers which have given us permission to drop their names include
Dell, the IBM Linux Technology Center, NEC, Trustix, Carmen Systems AB,
Progeny, The Linux Box Corporation, Boston University, the National Center
for Atmospheric Research Library, Bibliotek-Systemer, BitMover, the SAIC
Advanced Technologies and Solutions Group, Prosa, Intevation, the Debian
Project (funded by HP), and SecurePipe.
If your company is not on this list, perhaps it should be; please drop us a
note at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a group
Our investigations into setting up an European bank account have led us to
the conclusion that it's not a viable option for us at this point.
Setting up an account requires a "presence" that we don't have, and, even
then, it turns out that monetary union has not done much to reduce wire
transfer fees across the European Union. Accepting European debit cards
that are not part of the Visa or MasterCard networks is not an option
available to us.
So it looks a little difficult, still, for European subscribers who do not
have credit cards or PayPal accounts. There is, however, one other option
we have found: accepting personal checks. It turns out that the costs to
us for dealing with European checks (in Euros) is not that
unreasonable. So we ask our European readers: how many of you would be
willing to mail us a check, for something like EUR 65 to 70, for
a one-year "professional hacker" level subscription? Drop us a note (at email@example.com, or as a comment to this
article) if you would be interested in that option.
The old "About LWN" page has been replaced with a new LWN.net FAQ with answers to a number of questions.
This document is clearly under construction; drop us a note with questions
you think we should have answered.
That's about it for this week. Thanks, as always, for supporting LWN.
Comments (15 posted)
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