Status of FSFE’s legal dept: FTF

Inside FSFE, we talk a lot about our legal department, the FTF. I was in the Zurich office a while ago with the FTF’s coordinator, Shane Coughlan, and took the opportunity to gather some info for anyone interested.

The FTF works in five main areas:

  1. Building a European legal network
  2. Producing documentation
  3. GPL enforcement
  4. FLA agreement for copyright management
  5. Training and consultation

Legal network

For two years now, Shane’s been building this network of lawyers and licence experts which now includes 145 members. Three quarters of the members are lawyers. The others are experts in company policy, licences, or technical aspects of licence enforcement. About 120 come from Europe, and the others are spread across The Philippines, Japan, Singapore, China, Taiwan, South Korea, Australia, Canada, and the USA.

I think most network members support FSFE’s work. I know others don’t, and that’s ok. Whether we share a vision for the future or not, everyone has to obey the GPL, so it’s useful for free software licence compliance specialists to talk with each other and share best practices. Most discussion is about the GPL, but we talk about all free software licences.

Other topics such as software patents and antitrust are also discussed.

FTF organised Europe’s first free software legal conference in Amsterdam in April with 53 members of the legal network attending – 5 coming from outside of Europe. Feedback from the attendees was very positive, so there’ll certainly be more such conferences in the mid-term future.

Producing documentation

Some of the documentation produced by FTF is already online – there’s a documentation section on the website. One type is the documents Shane produces, such as the useful tips for users of GPL, and same for vendors of GPL’d software.

Another type is the documents that the network members pass around among themselves. These are usually procedures, guidelines and other documents that have existed for a long time internally in their various companies. If these documents cannot be published, then at least by circulating them privately in the network, they can expand the knowledge of many free software lawyers. In the long term, some of these documents might become publishable or, if allowed by the author(s), will be used for the basis of our own documents.

GPL enforcement

This is the quietest part of FTF’s work. We don’t go to court, and we don’t go to Slashdot. (Update: Hi Slashdot) Compliance is gotten while maintaining relations with the distributor. Of course, we also work with, which does take people to court. We’ve been working with them since FTF started in 2006, and earlier this year we agreed to deepen that relationship. And to reduce problems originating from the manufacturers, the "for users" and "for vendors" useful tips have been translated and distributed in Chinese and Korean (they’re temporarily offline during a webpage reorganisation).

FLA: Fiduciary Licence Agreement

The Fiduciary Licence Agreement is used when a developer wants to grant an organisation the ability to enforce the licence of the code, and give them the ability to update the licence of the code – with the limit that the new licence must also be a free software licence. The developer doesn’t lose their copyright, so they can also enforce and change the licence of their code, without limits.

This is important for legal maintainability of a project. If a problem is discovered with the licence, having a central body maintaining the copyright would allow the project to avoid the difficulty of find all past authors and getting unanimous agreement on what changes to make to the licence. A big recent success is that KDE announced that they’re going to use it. More good news is that it should soon be in 10 languages. FSFE has become the legal guardian for a small number of projects, such as OpenSwarm and Bacula, but that’s not our focus for the FLA.

Training and consulation

Lastly, Shane visits companies or regions to deliver training courses on free software licences and legal issues. A skeleton course is online on the SELF platform: The strategic implementation of Free Software in business.

These courses are educational for legal experts dealing with free software, and they’re also a way for the FTF to be financially sustainable. If you work for a company that has a legal department and that deals with free software, you can help the FTF by suggesting to your boss that they get Shane to deliver a course. With so many big companies profiting from free software, and with the FTF providing value to so many lawyers for free, it’s only right that the costs of the FTF be covered by these companies rather than the income we get from the community (through the Fellowship). Another significant source of funding for which we’re grateful is NLnet.

Ok. That’s what I see the FTF doing. If you read this far, I hope I answered some questions!

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Ciarán O’Riordan,
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