Brussels / 4 & 5 February 2017


Interview with Bradley M. Kuhn
Understanding The Complexity of Copyleft Defense. After 25 Years of GPL Enforcement, Is Copyleft Succeeding?

Photo of Bradley M. Kuhn

Bradley M. Kuhn will give a talk about Understanding The Complexity of Copyleft Defense. After 25 Years of GPL Enforcement, Is Copyleft Succeeding? at FOSDEM 2017.

Q: Could you briefly introduce yourself?

I’m Bradley M. Kuhn, Distinguished Technologist at the Software Freedom Conservancy, and lifelong software freedom activist.

Q: What will your talk be about, exactly? Why this topic?

My talk will help explain the history of copyleft enforcement, how copyleft works, and why it has historically worked, and ways that it is currently failing. Copyleft was designed as a strategy to defend software freedom. The future of software freedom is currently in peril, and the tool of copyleft is not working as well as we would like. I’ll explain why and help everyone understand why it matters and is worth continuing to support copyleft.

Q: What do you hope to accomplish by giving this talk? What do you expect?

Many in our community have not had time to closely follow the politics around copyleft that have reached a fervor in recent years. My goal is to explain those politics and help attendees get a quick understanding of the background so they can enter discussion or debates.

Q: Why did the Software Freedom Conservancy and the Free Software Foundation publish the document “The Principles of Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement”?

These published principles embody the ad-hoc principles that both Conservancy and the FSF followed for decades in our GPL enforcement work, but they had never been written down. Copyleft enforcers have been accused of some nasty things over the years, and yet adherence to our principles showed those accusations are false.

Q: Do we really need GPL enforcement? According to Greg Kroah-Hartman and Linus Torvalds, the Linux kernel has been doing fine for 25 years without a legal approach.

This conclusion is revisionist history. GPL enforcement has been a mainstay of how copyleft works, and copyleft does not work without it. If you tell people “please release your source code to your users” but then also say “if you chose not to, there will be no consequences, though” – that’s identical strategy to what the non-copyleft licenses do. Apache aficionados say exactly the same thing.

GPL and copyleft generally are special because they have a mechanism to allow copyright holders to defend the rights of users. Folks have been doing that for copylefted software for the last 25 years, included for Linux. In fact, thanks to Harald Welte’s excellent work in the early 2000s, there had been more lawsuits about Linux already – before people started attacking Conservancy’s work, and long before Conservancy funded Hellwig’s lawsuit against VMware.

Q: Again according to Kroah-Hartman and Torvalds, instead of using a legal approach the Linux kernel developers showed the benefit of the GPL to companies violating the license, tried to ‘convert’ them and - after many years - made them part of the community.

That’s precisely what the principles seek to do. This is a classic political attack tactic: find the best parts of what your opponent does, claim credit for what they do and claim that your opponent has failed to do it. Most of my time in GPL enforcement over the last 20 years has been trying to convince violators to join our community.

Q: Some of these GPL violators are now the kernel’s largest contributors.

Indeed, and many of those GPL violators are ones whom I’ve been involved with enforcement actions against and they are indeed contributors because of those enforcement actions and their employees have thanked me for continuing to enforce the GPL to make sure their company continues to contribute.

Q: Did the Linux kernel developers just got lucky?

It was not luck: people like Harald Welte, and now Conservancy, have made sure that Linux’s copyleft was defended.

Q: I think it’s fair to say that most FLOSS developers don’t follow the debates about copyleft licenses and their enforcement, they merely want their code to remain forever free.

I agree with that. I do the work that I do precisely because I want to make it easy for developers to know that if something is copylefted, they can trust it.

Q: If there’s one thing you want the average FLOSS developer to remember about copyleft defense, what would it be?

Developers should remember that GPL is a copyright license, and as such, who holds their copyright matters. In most cases, developers’ copyright (or, in Europe, their exploitative right) is controlled completely by their companies. Companies don’t usually have an interest in defending copyleft.

Developers can assign copyright to a charity that is committed to upholding the GPL (such as Conservancy), or if they don’t like copyright assignment, they can join an enforcement coalition, such as those run by Conservancy.

Q: Have you enjoyed previous FOSDEM editions?

Yes, for the last five years I have co-organized the Legal and Policy Issues DevRoom with three other co-organizers. I encourage attendees to stop by – but come early, the room often fills up!

Creative Commons License
Creative Commons License

This interview is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Belgium License.