Paul Boddie's Free Software-related blog

Paul's activities and perspectives around Free Software

Supporting the Software Freedom Conservancy

Daniel Pocock asks whether supporting the Software Freedom Conservancy is the right thing to do, given the recent announcement of a fund-raising drive inviting individuals to sustain the organisation’s activities. The short answer is “yes it is”, but the question and the longer answer are still worth thinking about.

An Overview

A certain focus has been placed on the Conservancy’s licensing compliance activities, which are valuable for a number of reasons that we shall consider in a moment, but let us also consider the other work done by the organisation:

Although other organisations exist to look after Free Software projects in certain ways, many only offer technical facilities to those projects, whereas others rely on copyright assignments or comparable instruments in order to act as stewards for those projects. Unusually, the Conservancy instead offers a framework where projects may delegate responsibility for activities that would otherwise take time away from the vital work of developing software, rather than assuming all responsibility and leadership for a project as a starting point for cooperation.

So, by working with the Conservancy, developers may retain their project’s autonomy while being able to get help from the Conservancy when they need it. Indeed, the merits of the Conservancy’s offerings complement the offerings of other organisations in such a way that Debian has chosen to work more closely with the Conservancy to safeguard the interests of those developers making their work available via the Debian software distribution.

The image of member project logos gives a representative indication of the organisation’s influence and importance in the Free Software world today. Many of these projects provide vital infrastructure and tools that Free Software users and developers rely upon every single day.

Compliance and Enforcement

But what about those licensing compliance or licensing enforcement activities undertaken by the Conservancy? Some people might wonder whether there is a real need to ensure that individuals and organisations adhere to Free Software licences, and if they do not, whether it is worthwhile taking those parties to task on such matters. Others, arguably with their own agenda, may even dislike the very idea of bringing anyone to account for not respecting the Free Software licensing of various works.

First of all, we must ask whether Free Software licences are being violated. The sad answer to this is “on an industrial scale“, given the glut of products being manufactured on the back of Free Software and then sold without even notifying customers of their rights. When companies are approached about the source code for the copyleft-licensed software provided in their products, it is by all accounts a rare occurrence to be directed to a well-managed repository of code that can be built, installed and used on the product. If one is lucky, a hastily-prepared bundle of sources might be thrown over the wall, leaving the enquirer with the task of verifying that it really does generate the originally-shipped software.

And beyond those more favourable outcomes is the case of the mystery “original design manufacturer”, who was merely passing on stuff concocted by the platform vendor, with everybody else insisting that they hardly touched anything and that the software is someone else’s responsibility. Or the manufacturer who declares that they are not affected by the software licensing and that anything they find on the Internet is presumably fair game to use as they please.

Now, some people would advise Free Software developers not to expect too much after contributing anything to a project. Such people would probably also advise developers to use permissive licences: that way, they won’t build up any expectations around what people might do with their work, nor hold out any hopes that others might benefit from seeing the source code down the line.

Certainly, it rather suits some of those people to cultivate the notion that getting one’s code out there into widespread use should be the principal reward for a Free Software developer, not because it actually encourages generosity or delivers a sense of satisfaction or recognition, but because it keeps those developers in their place and discourages them from expecting anything more. Meanwhile, various companies do very nicely out of repackaging and selling such code, denying end-users any insight into – or control over – the code they end up using, and (of course) denying them the right to give away or sell such code to others themselves.

When choosing to use a copyleft licence, Free Software developers are making a valid statement: they are actively stating that anyone who receives their software should enjoy the benefits of being able to modify, install, run and redistribute it to others who would also benefit from it. This is nothing that anyone should be ashamed of, nor should it be something that people should be forced to abandon because others (for whatever reason) do not share the same goals or vision. But at the same time, it perhaps requires more attention to be paid towards those redistributing the software. If others fail to uphold the licence, there needs to be some mechanism in place to demand a remedy.

Some people are obviously never going to like the idea of licence enforcement. For a start, licence violators are not going to like it: it means that they can no longer get away with their shoddy engineering practices and turning a quick profit on code they happened to find online. It has previously been made very apparent that apologists for licence violators are likely to claim that licence enforcement will only “scare away business from open source” (being of the ideological persuasion that considers “open source” as a business productivity tool, as opposed to Free Software which is about end-user freedoms), and they also tend to advocate for more permissively-licensed software so that it will be virtually impossible for the average software outfit not to accidentally clear the resulting lower threshold for licence compliance.

But why should Free Software developers care about the convenience of blatantly profiteering, inept and often hostile companies? No-one forces those companies to use the software, and if they don’t like the licensing terms, they can always go and use something else. The problem here is firmly with the companies in question (and their apologists): they really want to use such software, but they also want to behave as if they own it, all so that they get to decide what kind of licence it might have, and all without having done the hard work of actually writing it themselves. In short, they want it all! Well, forgive the rest of us for not giving them the ingredients of a charmed existence on a silver platter!

Investments of Time and Money

Unfortunately, chasing up licence violators is costly in terms of time and money. The Conservancy actually takes a very gentle approach to seeking licensing compliance when you consider that other people accused of copyright infringement can expect hostile industry bodies working law-enforcement agencies like puppets and performing on-the-spot “audits” (not to mention the endless barrage of messaging about “piracy” aimed at individuals).

Here, Daniel gets on to something fairly important. While certain figures promote the virtues of volunteering one’s own time to write “open source” software, presumably around a day job which does not reward the average developer for writing Free Software, certain aspects of software development and distribution cannot be so easily covered by spontaneous volunteer contributions. Money is required, but that money has to come from somewhere. Again, people can be persuaded to donate their own money (alongside their own time) to help make things happen, but that money also has to come from somewhere.

Sadly, with the cultivation of the notion of the noble volunteer, together with the misguided idea that “open source” be promoted as the cheap or free-of-charge alternative to “commercial” software, the realm of Free Software development – as far as community-centred projects, not corporate projects, are concerned – has been left chronically underfunded. And when many corporate participants prioritise their own interests, the result is a funding gap that leaves vital projects undone or unfinished and a more general sustainability problem around how such projects may be started, staffed and supported.

Lately, I have read a few articles about people burning out, perhaps because they took on too much work, and perhaps because they believed that their “marketable skills” would be enhanced by a heavy portfolio of volunteer responsibilities, making them attractive to potential employers. Again, the interests of profit-making businesses are put before the needs or values of the individual, with the individual even feeling obliged to make this so. Indeed, there are commercial interests which gain from Free Software remaining perpetually underfunded: proprietary software vendors can portray Free Software solutions as being less capable and somehow worth less. That results in Free Software projects, whose offerings would be improved and more competitive with more available revenue, actually getting less and less funding, interest and support over time.

We should not be pandering to the interests of those who are effectively impoverishing us, degrading our life quality, or forcing us to choose between the things we believe in and the means to be able to live a decent-enough life. Quite how we can develop a sustainable stream of funding for projects that would benefit everybody, along with forms of organisation where such actual work may be undertaken, is a topic for another time. However, one way of stopping the exploitation of developers is to uphold the licences through which those developers have shared their contributions, and that requires us to realise that such efforts also require ongoing funding to become viable and to remain so.

So, of course, I believe that supporting the Software Freedom Conservancy is the right thing to do. And beyond the good work that is done by that organisation, sustained by what is effectively an investment in the continued viability of Free Software in a hostile world, I hope that people will gradually realise that investment is also more generally needed to sustain the creation and maintenance of Free Software as well.

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