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.
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