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The Fiduciary License Agreement

January 31, 2007

By Pamela Jones, Editor of Groklaw

On Thursday, February 1, the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) is releasing a new license and with it an offer to help FOSS projects deal with copyright issues. The license is called the Fiduciary License Agreement (FLA), and it's a new type of copyright assignment agreement, designed to be effective internationally, whereby a project with many authors can designate FSFE or a single organization or individual as the copyright holder, while maintaining complete autonomy as far as project management otherwise.

Projects may apply to be accepted by FSFE's Fiduciary Project, whereby copyrights and the responsibility to protect and enforce them are turned over to FSFE. and OpenSwarm are examples of projects already accepted into the program. You can see that version of the FLA here.

Alternatively, projects can use the newly released license, choosing another entity - such as a foundation it sets up itself - or designating one individual to hold the copyrights. FSFE's Freedom Task Force is willing to help projects with that too as far as sharing insights and their experience.

What need does the FLA license fill? I see several. First, it's international, not US-centric.

Second, maybe you don't have a lawyer on call. Maybe you are among those who just don't want to think about legal things and or realize you are not equipped financially or legally to handle that task yourself. Then you may wish to apply for the FSFE's Fiduciary Project. You retain rights to the management of the project. But they have the headache of license compliance enforcement.

Third, it's of interest to projects that have more than one author and are concerned about the future (what happens if one of the authors dies, leaves the project, etc.?) but for any number of reasons the authors don't want to assign copyright to the Free Software Foundation or don't want to be a GNU project under that umbrella. In countries where such terms are allowed, it's designed to "be temporally unlimited" so once the agreement is signed, future contributions, such as patches, are covered.

An important purpose of the license is to ensure project survival. Shane Coughan, coordinator of the Freedom Task Force confirms that one goal is to make sure people think about and plan for the possibility that a project might have to withstand a legal attack, but as to which of the two ways to use the license a project should choose, he says that FSFE is neutral:

Deciding which approach is best for a project depends on many different factors and always boils down to individual circumstances. Ideally, organsations handling these issues should be non-profit and have a clear primary focus on Free Software.

Do you have to choose the GPL or LGPL to make use of the license? Coughan:

The FLA allows fiduciary activity with all types of Free Software licenses, though naturally the GNU GPL is our preferred license.

There is a list of Free Software licenses here.

Some issues you may wish to consider: The FLA is a one-time copyright assignment (or in countries where that isn't possible, like in Germany, Austria, Slovenia and Hungary, an exclusive license grant) worldwide. The grant reads that the beneficiary assigns the following rights:

a) the right to reproduce in original or modified form;

b) the right to redistribute in original or modified form;

c) the right of making available on data networks, in particular via the Internet, as well as by providing downloads, in original or modified form;

d) the right to authorize third parties to make derivative works or to work on and commit changes or perform this conduct themselves.

There are countries where you can't assign copyright in a future work, France, for example. In such a country, I'm told a project would need to work out a strategy to deal with that restriction. As just one example, authors might assign each patch as it is contributed.

The authors' "moral or personal rights remain unaffected" by the agreement. Also, "modifications that are not derived from the subject matter and that have to be regarded as independent and original software" are excluded from the agreement. In some countries, an employer is deemed to be the owner of the rights on materials developed by an employee in the course of his or her employment, unless the parties have agreed otherwise, so there is language that authors acknowledge that he or she is aware of that and "warrants, represents and guarantees" that the materials are "free of any of his or her employer's exclusive exploitation rights."

What FSFE, or the designated entity, gets is the authority to "enjoin third parties form using the software and forbid any unlawful or copyright infringing use of the Software, and shall be entitled to enforce all its rights in its own name in and out of court." The authors keep a "non-exclusive, worldwide, perpetual and unrestricted license in the Software," which includes all the rights, listed above, and FSFE or the entity grants the authors "additional nonexclusive, transferable license to use, reproduce, redistribute and make available" the software "as needed for releases of the Software under other licenses."

Some may not feel comfortable with any copyright assignment, but with projects with many authors, it's a matter of deciding which kinds of problems you'd rather deal with. The Linux kernel specifies "GPLv2 only" to keep control over licensing decisions. The same kinds of concerns that might come to mind with regard to a license will likely also be considered when it comes to a copyright assignment to another entity. On the other hand, that same restriction is what left the kernel in a position where it would be a great deal more difficult to upgrade the license even if desired. The license itself says this:

FSFE shall only exercise the granted rights and licences in accordance with the principles of Free Software. FSFE guarantees to use the rights and licences transferred in strict accordance with the regulations imposed by Free Software licences, including, but not limited to, the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) or the GNU Lesser General Public Licence (LGPL) respectively. In the event FSFE violates the principles of Free Software, all granted rights and licences shall automatically return to the Beneficiary and the licences granted hereunder shall be terminated and expire.

Some questions come to mind. What principles, precisely? How would you know when they are violated if they are not listed? We certainly have some guidance. The Free Software Foundation Europe is committed to following publicly defined principles. The Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) is a non-profit and (in some countries) a charitable non-governmental organization dedicated to Free Software as in freedom, so that restricts what it can and can't do. Their principles are listed here and in a longer version here.

I would assume, then, that a violation of the principles of Free Software would be any action undertaken with the intent to violate one of the famous four software freedoms. But if one has concerns about assigning copyright, then it's something to factor in to the decision. Legally, FSFE could do things it almost certainly never would, such as relicense. If you have control issues, the best thing would be to seek legal advice. That's always good advice anyway. And some may choose to set up their own foundation, to establish certain ground rules of their own, for that very reason. The choice is yours.

Finally, if you choose to assign copyrights to FSFE, German law applies to the agreement as the default, unless otherwise negotiated, and any conflicts would have to be settled in Munich.

The license is being released under the GNU Free Documentation License (GFDL) and the Creative Commons Attribution/Share-alike (CC by-sa) licenses. The FLA was written by Dr. Axel Metzger (ifrOSS) and FSFE in consultation with other international legal and technical experts, and the final version was then compiled by Georg Greve, president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) and Shane M Coughlan based on feedback provided by Dr. Lucie Guibault of the Institute for Information Law in the Netherlands. The final text of the license is expected to be released on February 1.

Comments (1 posted)

Embedded Linux: Using Compressed File Systems

January 30, 2007

This article was contributed by Michael J. Hammel

This series is all about making small systems, from the kernel on up. In the first part I covered the TinyLinux project and its eventual integration into the kernel to help reduce kernel sizes for small systems. In the second part, I looked at the use of the Initramfs and its role in providing a root file system (directly or indirectly) for an embedded system.

Now it's time to look at getting applications and utilities into the system, still keeping an eye on size. The most direct approach is to use as few utilities as possible, even replacing /sbin/init with a single application. This is possible in very small systems but, generally speaking, if you only have a single application to run you probably didn't need the complexity of a multitasking system like Linux to run it anyway. There are other, smaller operating systems that might be better suited in that case.

There are a number of ways to keep application layer tools small. If you have multiple applications and/or require the facilities in Linux, then you can (and should, for production systems) consider stripping your binaries of all symbols. The symbols are useful for debugging purposes but won't be of much value to your users. Additionally, using compile-time features to reduce size is another option, and will be the focus of the final article in this series. For now, we'll consider yet another option: using a compressed file system.

Compressed File Systems

File systems provide the structure for managing files on storage media, such as disks or tapes. While a device driver knows how to get data to and from those devices, file system provide the logical structure of that data. There are a huge number of file systems types, ranging from the standard ext3 you'll find on many Linux systems to parallel and clustered file systems, to steganographic file systems that can both encrypt and hide data on the media. (Note that Wikipedia has a nice long list of file systems).

A compressed file system is one that uncompresses data as it is retrieved and may or may not compresses data as it goes into the storage media. Working with compressed files is an obvious benefit for saving space on small systems. The decision to use a compressed file system is usually based on the storage media you'll use in your system. A ram-disk based system, for example, might copy data from flash into the ramdisk. Since RAM is essential for system operation the size of the ram disk would probably be best kept small. Compact flash or hard disk based systems, on the other hand, offer more storage but may still be too small to fit all the required files without some sort of compression.

While compressed file systems offer you more space for files, they also may affect performance. There may be unacceptable overhead in managing the decompression of large files at run time. And compressing files on the fly is computationally expensive; random writes of compressed data is difficult to achieve. Therefore it is far more common for compressed file systems to be read-only.

Compressing data is a common practice for live CD distributions, which use compression to squeeze a more complete distribution onto the limited size of a CD or DVD. But many of the live CD distributions don't actually use a compressed file system, instead using an conventional file system image made up of compressed blocks which are uncompressed when read using the "cloop", or compressed loopback, device. But this isn't a compressed file system. It's a block level device handling compressed data.

The Knoppix distribution popularized the use of cloop when its author, Klaus Knopper, picked up support of the driver. Many other live CDs followed suit. One advantage of using this kind of compressed image is that, since the blocks are compressed independently, it is possible to seek to specific blocks without uncompressing all the blocks. The disadvantage of such a device is that the entire image must fit into memory in order to be uncompressed.

An example of a real compressed file system is CramFS, a file system popular with embedded users of the 2.4 kernel for use with the initrd image. This file system actually has compressed files with uncompressed metadata. The files are placed in the file system from a standard directory using the mkcramfs program, which compresses the files one page at a time. This is done, for example, when creating an initrd image.

Another example of a compressed file system is e2compr. This is actually a set of patches to make the well known EXT2 file system handle on-the-fly compression and decompression. It supports both 2.4 and 2.6 kernels, but has not been submitted for inclusion in either because of the complexity of the patches. As with CramFS, metadata in e2compr is not compressed.


A more recent (and more actively supported, the last updates coming in mid January 2007) compressed file system is SquashFS. SquashFS is a kind of successor to CramFS because it aims at the same target audience while providing a similar process for creation and use of the file system. What makes SquashFS an improvement over CramFS is best stated by Phillip Lougher in a linux-kernel mailing list post: "SquashFS basically gives better compression, bigger files/file system support, and more inode information."

Both SquashFS and CramFS use zlib compression. However, CramFS uses a fixed size 4KB block while SquashFS supports from 0.5KB to 64KB. This variable block size allows for much larger file systems under SquashFS, something desirable for complex embedded systems like digital video recorders. Also SquashFS supports compression of both the metadata and block fragments while CramFS does not. And, while CramFS is integrated with the kernel source, SquashFS is not. It comes as a set of kernel patches and the driver module. The CELinux Forum provides some comparisons of SquashFS against other file systems (compressed and uncompressed).


Another compressed file system is JFFS2, the Journaling Flash file system, version 2. It was designed specifically for use with both NOR and NAND flash devices, and recently received an update via David Woodhouse for the NAND flash memory being used in the OLPC project. JFFS2 is actually a bit more sophisticated than SquashFS because it provides mechanisms for plugging in different compression algorithms, including not using any compression at all. But unlike SquashFS, JFFS2 is integrated into the kernel.

So if you're building an embedded system with flash storage, wouldn't you be better with JFFS2? Not necessarily.

According to the OpenWRT project, which uses both SquashFS and JFFS2, SquashFS provides better performance than JFFS2. Additionally, at least in the case of the few files that need to be updated for a production version of the project, there is little advantage to using a read/write JFFS2 compressed root file system with respect to the performance hit it incurs vs a read-only SquashFS root file system used with a writable JFFS2 file system for stored files.

JFFS2 is a read/write file system while SquashFS is a read-only file system. A runtime system very often needs to write to its root file system. Imagine making updates to /etc/hosts, for example, as you might with a embedded video recorder client trying to access a server backend on a local network. If writing to the file system is required for an embedded system, how could you use SquashFS at all?

Some projects, like OpenWRT, use a hybrid system that uses a read-only root file system mixed with a read/write file system for saving files. In such a hybrid you might use special configurations or modified applications to access read/write file systems, but that doesn't help if you need write access to /etc/hosts on a read-only file system. What you need is a method of having parts of the directory structure writable while other parts are read-only. What you need is a stackable file system like UnionFS.

Using UnionFS: BusyBox and SquashFS together

UnionFS is a mechanism for mounting two directories from different file systems under the same name. For example, I could have a read-only SquashFS file system and a read/write JFFS2 file system mounted together under the root directory so that the JFFS2 would be /tmp and /etc while the SquashFS might be everything else.

So how might you use this with a compressed file system and our BusyBox based utilities we created in the last article? First, we build our kernel with SquashFS patches and then build the UnionFS driver as a loadable module. Next, we build BusyBox with all the runtime utilities we need and install the result to a local directory on the build machine, let's call it "/tmp/busybox". Next, we package those files into a compressed SquashFS file system:

    mksquashfs /tmp/busybox /tmp/busybox.sqfs -info 

This command takes the contents of /tmp/busybox and compresses it into a file system image in /tmp called busybox.sqfs. The -info option increases verbosity, printing the filenames, original size and compression ratio as they are processed.

We then create an initramfs with another build of BusyBox that has only minimal utilities - enough to do mounting of the loopback device and loading kernel modules, plus the UnionFS module we built previously (which we manually copy into the directory after we rebuild BusyBox). We might add support for other devices like a CDROM if we store the SquashFS file there or JFFS2 and support for flash memory if we store the SquashFS file there.

At runtime, I need a writable file system to go with my read-only SquashFS file system. I'll use the tmpfs file system which puts all the files I'll write at runtime in virtual memory. In my init script for my initramfs, I add:

    mkdir /.tmpfs
    mount -w -t tmpfs -o size=90% tmpfs /.tmpfs
    mkdir /.tmpfs/.overlay

The overlay directory will be used to store data written by my embedded system.

When you boot your 2.6 kernel, you'll have a BusyBox based initramfs with an init script and your SquashFS file system (or a way to get to that file system via commands in your init script). I'm mounting the busybox.sqfs file from the root directory of a CD over the loopback device onto a directory in my initramfs, so I add the following to the init script:

	mkdir /.tmpfs/.cdrom
	mount -r -t iso9660 /dev/cdrom /.tmpfs/.cdrom
	losetup /dev/loop0 /.tmpfs/.cdrom/root.sqfs

Then I can mount the loopback device as a SquashFS file system to another directory I've created in my tmpfs:

	mkdir /.tmpfs/.sqfs
	mount -r -t squashfs /dev/loop0 /.tmpfs/.sqfs

UnionFS mounts multiple directories, in either read-only or read-write mode, onto a single directory. In the init script, I place three directories side by side under a single UnionFS directory:

	mount -w -t unionfs -o \
		dirs=/.tmpfs/.overlay=rw:/.tmpfs/.cdrom=ro:/.tmpfs/.sqfs=ro \
		unionfs /.union

What this does is place all three directory structures, which are referred to as branches under UnionFS, under /.union; any conflicting directory names are resolved by taking the first one found, searching the branches left to right. So if there is an /.tmpfs/.overlay/etc/hosts (a file we've created at runtime, for example), it takes precedence over /.tmpfs/.sqfs/etc/hosts.

With this command, when you write to /.union (which later becomes the root directory due to a switch_root in the init script), the writes go to the read/write directory which is on the tmpfs file system. But this writable space is in memory and won't survive reboots. If you need to save data between boots, you could mount a compact flash drive under /.tmpfs/cf and use that instead of /.tmpfs/.overlay in the previous mount command.

Which directory gets the write if there are two read-write branches? UnionFS uses "copy-up", which causes any attempt to write to a read-only branch to be written to the next read-write branch on its left. Imagine creating a SquashFS for /etc, one for /var and one for everything else in your root partition. Then if you had 2 compact flashes you could use one for writes to /etc and one for writes to /var simply by ordering these correctly when you mounted them under the UnionFS file system.

UnionFS is considered by some to be too buggy for production use, though I've never had much trouble with it when building live CDs. If you experience problems using UnionFS, you might consider AuFS as an alternative. AuFS started out as a rewrite of UnionFS but has since evolved into its own file system. SLAX, a Slackware based live CD that originally used UnionFS, has migrated to AuFS. In fact, a bug bounty was offered by SLAX for a bug and the winner of that bounty, Junjiro Okajima, is the author of AuFS.

Next in the series: uClibc

This long running series (it's taken me awhile to write each of the three articles so far) has one piece left: using uClibc to reduce program size. This is a reduced size version of the standard glibc library, specifically built for small footprint systems.

Comments (18 posted)

An LWN reader survey

The first announced LWN Weekly Edition was published on January 29, 1998 - though we had quietly put out a test issue the week before. So, it seems, we just had our ninth birthday. We could never have imagined we would still be at it after this many years - but we have no intention of stopping now. Thanks to all of you for keeping us going for so long.

Every now and then, an LWN reader notes that there have been no "state of LWN" postings in recent times. There is a reason for that: LWN is supposed to be about the Linux and free software community. LWN talking about itself just seems less interesting, somehow.

There is another reason, however: things simply have not changed that much. The number of subscribers grows very slowly; subscription counts still have not reached a level where LWN can truly be said to be paying for itself. We would like to change that, and make LWN better in the process. To that end, we would like to get a better handle on what our subscribers think of LWN now.

For our subscribers: if you could please take a few minutes and give us your input on the ups and downs of LWN, we would more than appreciate it. The survey will remain open until February 8. For those coming after that date, you can see what answers we got by going directly to the results page. Thank you for helping us to make LWN better.

Comments (4 posted)

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