Copyleft For the Next Decade – Bradley M. Kuhn

We sometimes forget what copyleft is. Copyleft is not a goal unto itself – the goal is software freedom. Copyleft is a strategy. So we should evaluate whether it is succeeding in achieving software freedom. Bradley believes it still is a good strategy, and he certainly doesn’t know of a better strategy. It is a forceful strategy, and it uses the force of the “opponent” to take them on. The goal of copyleft is also forceful: it allows you to force would-be proprietary vendors into software freedom. And even if there are other good strategies (like seducing students into free software) it is possible to keep using the forceful copyleft at the same time.

It’s of course impossible to do an experiment to see if copyleft is successful. But in a way there is, because copyleft and non-copyleft free software has lived side by side. And we can conclude that most non-copyleft projects end up with a proprietary fork at some point. Examples: OpenStack (Rackspace), BSD (OSX).

Bradley still often hears developers say that “people prefer permissive licenses”. However, copyleft is not a magic fix that makes sure that your code will be free software forever. If it doesn’t get enforced, it is in practice permissive. The problem is that it’s more difficult than ever to do it. The political climate for copyleft and free software is tough. Remember, if you spend less than 50% of your time writing free software, you have a total negative impact on free software (because you create more proprietary software than free software). Also, if you write free software for your employer and transfer copyright to them, they will rarely do GPL enforcement for the community (they may enforce it get money, but not to get more software freedom). Your employer takes a lot more copyright assignment than the FSF. To make sure that GPL enforcement is done to further the software freedom rather than monetary gains, the FSF has published the community enforcement principles.

There is a political strategy to thwart copyleft. This includes convincing developers that copyleft is old style and no longer done, and to vilify GPL enforcement.

Lawyers are supposed to be risk analysers. However, in many companies the legal team has a tremendous amount of control over open source policy – so it is taken out of the hands from business deciders. There are at least two venues were corporate lawyers are plotting against the GPL. For example, they think about strategies to get more copyrights of GPLed code be owned by corporations rather than people.

Other strategies: replace GCC with LLVM, replace Busybox by Toybox. Linux is the elephant that is still the battleground for copyleft. Everybody has decided that they will not rewrite it from scratch. And corporate lawyers have decided to stand their ground on the combined work issue of proprietary modules.

To be able to uphold the GPL, we have to make sure that a lot of copyrights are held by people who have software freedom principle. So most likely not for-profit corporations or trade associations. Step 0, renegotiate your employment contract so that you get your copyrights back (SFC is working on an example text). Also, you can join coalitions where copyright holders fight together.

We also need more people who write Affero GPL’d software on their own time. You can also fork existing permissive projects and relicense it copyleft.

Assigning copyright turns out not to be needed, because enforcement by even a few authors is sufficient.

It used to be that most violators were innocent and just needed to be educated. Nowadays, violators hire lawyers in advance to plan arguments to defend violations. Our transparency and honesty is helping them.

Also, GPL enforcement is a zero-sum game. Either we win or they win.

Violators always ask how much they have to pay to be allowed to keep on violating. They start with a very high number, but the more you insist on compliance, the lower they are willing to pay. So trying to self-fund GPL enforcement is a path to corruption.  We need both the developers who hold copyright to join the battle, and supporters who fund the enforcement.



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