The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has received criticism in recent months for its copyright assignment policies
and for being slow in dealing with reported GPL
violations. In a talk at FOSDEM on
February 3, John Sullivan, the Executive
Director of the FSF, addressed some of these
issues. In his "State of the GNUnion" talk,
Sullivan highlighted the FSF's recent licensing and compliance activities and
described challenges that are important to the organization for 2013.
Licensing and Compliance Lab
Sullivan started with an overview of the members of the Licensing and
Compliance Lab and its activities. The team is led by Josh Gay, the former
FSF campaigns manager, and Donald Robertson, who has been handling
copyright assignments for some time. While Sullivan helps to define the
overall strategy employed for licensing in order to promote freedom, the team is
supported by Richard Stallman, Bradley Kuhn (a Director of the FSF) and
lawyers from the Software Freedom Law Center, in particular Aaron
Williamson and Eben Moglen. Finally, there's a team of volunteers that
helps out with questions that come in through the email@example.com
address. Sullivan noted that it is important for the FSF to communicate
with people about license choices and related topics.
The Licensing and Compliance Lab focuses on a number of areas. A big one
is the production of educational materials about GNU licenses. It also
investigates license violations, especially for code entrusted to the
FSF. Finally, it certifies products that use and require only free
Licensing is important, Sullivan said, because all software is proprietary
by default. The GPL grants rights to users and he believes that the GPL is
the right license to boost free software adoption. He mentioned claims
that the use of the GPL is declining, but criticized those studies for not
publishing their methodology or data. His own study, based on Debian
squeeze, showed that 93% of packages contained code under the GPL family.
He noted the difficulty of measuring GPL adoption: does a package count if
it contains any GPL code, or should you count lines of code? And what about
software that is abandoned? Sullivan noted that his interest in GPL
adoption is obviously not because the FSF makes money from licensing but
because of his belief that the GPL provides the "strongest legal protection
to ensure that free software stays free".
Sullivan highlighted a new initiative to create more awareness of GNU
licenses. The lab has started publishing interviews on its blog to share insights
about the license choice of different projects. Recent posts have featured
Calibre and Piwik.
Compliance efforts and copyright assignment
FSF collects copyright assignments in order to enforce the GPL, Sullivan
said, but there are
a number of misconceptions about that. He explained that the GNU project does not mandate copyright
assignment and that individual projects have a choice when they join
the GNU project. However, if a project has
assign copyright, all contributions to that project have to be assigned to
The FSF hears frequent complaints that the logistics of copyright
assignment slow down software development within the GNU project. It
has made a number of changes to improve this process. Historically, the
process involved asking for information by email, then mailing out a paper
form, getting it signed, and then sent back. These days, the FSF can email out
forms more quickly. It also accepts scanned versions in the US and
recently expanded this option to Germany after getting a legal opinion there.
Sullivan noted that the laws in many places are behind the times when it
scanned or digital signatures. Having said that, the FSF is planning to
accept GPG-signed assignments for some jurisdictions in the future.
Sullivan lamented that the FSF's copyright assignment policy is often used by
companies to justify copyright assignment. He noted that there are
significant differences between assigning copyright to an entity like the
FSF and a company with profit motives. Not only does the FSF promise that
the software will stay free software but it would also jeopardize FSF's
non-profit charity status if they were to act against their mission.
One reason the FSF owns the copyright for some GNU projects is to perform
GPL enforcement on behalf of the project. He discussed recent complaints
that the FSF is not actively pursuing license violations, notably the issues raised by Werner Koch
from the GnuPG project. Sullivan explained that this was, to a large degree, a
communication problem. The FSF had in fact gone much further than Koch
was aware of, but they failed to communicate that. He promised to keep projects
better informed about the actions taken. Unfortunately, a lot of
this work is not discussed publicly because of its nature. The FSF usually
approaches companies in private and will only talk about it in public
if no agreement can be reached. Also, if it comes to legal action, the FSF
once again cannot
talk about it in public.
The lab closed 400 violation reports in 2012, Sullivan said. Out of
those, some turned out not to be violations at all, but the majority of
violation reports were followed up by
actions from the lab that resulted in compliance. He also noted that the
FSF is planning to
add additional staff resources in order to respond to reported violations
Sullivan then went on to
cover a number of challenges facing the free software world. Richard
few years ago, which is the problem of non-free code running in web browsers.
Sullivan explained that these days browser scripts can be quite advanced
programs but "for some reason we've been turning a blind eye" to their
typically non-free nature. The FSF is
spending a lot of time on tackling this problem and has created LibreJS, which is an
extension for Mozilla-based browsers. LibreJS identifies whether
software, and it can be configured to reject any script that's not free.
In order for this to work the FSF developed a specification that web
pointed out that Mozilla uses web server headers and Sullivan agreed that
LibreJS could be enhanced to support that method too.
that developers have to start marking them as such. They are working with
upstream projects, such as MediaWiki and Etherpad Lite, on doing so.
The FSF has launched a certification program to identify hardware that
only uses free software. It wants to make it easy for people to care.
Sullivan emphasized that the label has to be attractive and hopes
it will cause manufacturers to respect user freedom more. He showed a
different label similar in style to the warning note on a cigarette package
("This product may contain material licensed to you under the GNU General
Public License") and explained that this "is not what we want to do". The
logo (seen at right) shows the Liberty Bell along with the word "freedom". The first
product to achieve certification is the LulzBot 3D printer.
As an alternative to Android, Sullivan recommended Replicant—a
fully free Android distribution—for those willing to sacrifice some
functionality (such as WiFi and Bluetooth on Sullivan's mobile phone) for
freedom. He also encouraged Android users to take advantage of the F-Droid Repository to download free
software apps for their devices. F-Droid also provides the option to make
donations to the authors of the free software apps.
Sullivan also briefly commented on UEFI secure boot. He said that while
is obviously "annoyed by it", it is not fully opposed—there is
nothing inherently wrong with secure boot as long as the power remains with
the users. However, it's important to make a distinction with what he
called "restricted boot". Restricted boot can be found on ARM-based Windows
devices which lock down the device and don't give users any choice. This
is obviously not acceptable, according to the FSF.
Sullivan gave an interesting overview of the FSF's recent activities and
challenges it intends to tackle. He is aware of concerns that have been
expressed by members of the GNU community in recent months and is keen to
improve the situation. The talk showed that the FSF is working on many
activities and that it hopes to improve and expand its work as funding
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