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Random Questions about Fairphone Source Code Availability

I was interested to read the recent announcement about source code availability for the first Fairphone device. I’ve written before about the threat to that device’s continued viability and Fairphone’s vague position on delivering a device that properly supports Free Software. It is nice to see that the initiative takes such matters seriously and does not seem to feel that letting its partners serve up what they have lying around is sufficient. However, a few questions arise, starting with the following quote from the announcement:

We can happily say that we have recently obtained a software license from all our major partners and license holders that allows us to modify the Fairphone 1 software and release new versions to our users. Getting that license also required us to obtain rights to use and distribute Mentor Graphics’s RTOS used on the phone. (We want to thank Mentor Graphics in making it possible for us to acquire the distribution license for their RTOS, as well as other partners for helping us achieve this.)

I noted before that various portions of the software are already subject to copyleft licensing, but if we ignore those (and trust that the sources were already being made available), it is interesting to consider the following questions:

  • What is “the Fairphone 1 software” exactly?
  • Fairphone may modify the software but what about its customers?
  • What role does the Mentor Graphics RTOS have? Can it be replaced by customers with something else?
  • Do the rights to use and distribute the RTOS extend to customers?
  • Do those rights extend to the source code of the RTOS, and do those rights uphold the four freedoms?

On further inspection, some contradictions emerge, perhaps most efficiently encapsulated by the following quote:

Now that Fairphone has control over the Fairphone 1 source code, what’s next? First of all, we can say that we have no plans to stop supporting the Fairphone hardware. We will continue to apply security fixes as long as it is feasible for the years to come. We will also keep exploring ways to increase the longevity of the Fairphone 1. Possibilities include upgrading to a more recent Android version, although we would like to manage expectations here as this is still very much a longshot dependent on cooperation from license holders and our own resources.

If Fairphone has control over the source code, why is upgrading to a more recent Android version dependent on cooperation with licence holders? If Fairphone “has control” then the licence holders should already have provided the necessary permissions for Fairphone to actually take control, just as one would experience with the four freedoms. One wonders which permissions have been withheld and whether these are being illegitimately withheld for software distributed under copyleft licences.

With a new device in the pipeline, I respect the persistence of Fairphone in improving the situation, but perhaps the following quote summarises the state of the industry and the struggle for sustainable licensing and licence compliance:

It is rather unusual for a small company like Fairphone to get such a license (usually ODMs get these and handle most of the work for their clients) and it is uncommon that a company attempts and manages to obtain such a license towards the end of the economic life cycle of the product.

Sadly, original design manufacturers (ODMs) have a poor reputation: often being known for throwing binaries over the wall whilst being unable or unwilling to supply the corresponding sources, with downstream manufacturers and retailers claiming that they have no leverage to rectify such licence violations. Although the injustices and hardships of those working to supply the raw materials for products like the Fairphone, along with those of the people working to construct the devices themselves, make other injustices seem slight – thinking especially of those experienced by software developers whose copyright is infringed by dubious industry practices – dealing with unethical and untidy practices wherever they may be found should be part of the initiative’s objectives.

From what I’ve seen and heard, Fairphone 2 should have a better story for chipset support and Free Software, but again, an inspection of the message raises some awkward questions. For example:

In the coming months we are going to launch several programs that address different aspects of creating fairer software. For now, one of the best tools for us to reach these goals is to embrace open source principles. With this in mind and without further ado, we’re excited to announce that we are going to release the complete build environment for Fairphone OS on Fairphone 2, which contains the full open source code, all the tools and the binary blobs that will allow users to build their own Fairphone OS.

To be fair, binary blobs are often difficult to avoid: desktop computers often use them for various devices, and even devices like the Neo900 that emphasise a completely Free Software stack will end up using them for certain functions (mitigating this by employing other technical measures). Making the build environment available is a good thing: frequently, this aspect is overlooked and anyone requesting the source code can be left guessing about build configuration details in an exercise that is effectively a matter of doing the vendor’s licence compliance work for them. But here, we are left wondering where the open source code ends, where binary blobs will be padding out the distribution, and what those blobs are actually for.

We need to keep asking difficult questions about such matters even if what Fairphone is doing is worthy in its own right. Not only does it safeguard the interests of the customers involved, but it also helps Fairphone to focus on doing the right thing. It does feel unkind to criticise what seems like a noble initiative for not doing more when they obviously try rather hard to do the right thing in so many respects. But by doing the right thing in terms of the software as well, Fairphone can uphold its own reputation and credibility: something that all businesses need to remember, as certain very large companies have very recently discovered.

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