Brussels / 4 & 5 February 2017


Understanding The Complexity of Copyleft Defense

After 25 Years of GPL Enforcement, Is Copyleft Succeeding?

After 25 years of copyleft enforcement and compliance work, is copyleft succeeding as a strategy to defend software freedom? This talk explores the history of enforcement of the GPL and other copyleft licenses, and considers this question carefully. Attendees who have hitherto not followed the current and past debates about copyleft licenses and their enforcement can attend this talk and learn the background, and can expect to learn enough to provide salient and informed feedback of their own opinions about the processes behind upholding copyleft.

The first GPL enforcement action was done by Richard Stallman against NeXT Computers in 1989, regarding Objective C support in GCC. For 25 years, GPL enforcement has remained a regular but rarely mainstream activity in Open Source and Free Software projects. Very few projects enforce their copyleft licenses; most live with regular violations and merely ignore them, or simply beg violators to comply.

Even under the now-published and publicly discussed Community Principles of GPL Enforcement, co-drafted by Software Freedom Conservancy and the Free Software Foundation, GPL enforcement is regularly criticized and questioned. Those of us who enforce the GPL get wildly inconsistent feedback from the community: some copyright holders recruit organizations like Conservancy and FSF to enforce as much as possible, others often complaining that we simply don't enforce enough, and still others call for a complete moratorium on GPL enforcement.

Meanwhile, not all enforcement abides by community principles. For-profit enforcers, who have existed for decades, use copyleft licenses in a manner not intended by the license drafters: to captiously convince "customers" that they must buy proprietary licenses, or otherwise pay, to incorporate Open Source and Free Software into their products.

This complex landscape has become almost impenetrable for the average FLOSS developers who merely wish their code to remain forever free and libre. This talk will provide the basic history and background information about the state of copyleft in our community, and set the stage for all developers to give informed feedback to organizations that stand up for copyleft.


Photo of Bradley M. Kuhn Bradley M. Kuhn