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You are here: Home Blogs Licensing Introducing the Compliance Lab's summer intern

Introducing the Compliance Lab's summer intern

by Brett Smith Contributions Published on Jun 23, 2011 05:26 PM
William Theaker recently started working at the FSF as this summer's licensing intern. In this post, he writes about what brought him to free software, and the goals for his internship.

Hi! My name is William Theaker; I'm a college student from Connecticut interested in free software and copyright law. This summer I will be interning with the FSF; I will be working on various free software licensing issues by answering questions about licensing, investigating possible GPL violations, and working on my biggest project this summer, organizing the drafting archives for the GPLv3. My first interaction with free software was when I started using “Linux” in 2003, though I was unaware of the actual origins of the software in my computer. What I referred to as “Linux” is, in fact, GNU/Linux. Linux is not an operating system unto itself, but rather another free component of a fully functioning GNU system, made useful by the GNU core libraries, shell utilities, and vital system components comprising a full operating system as defined by POSIX.

Despite my early misunderstanding of free software, as I began to learn more I found myself extremely impressed by the clever logic and the democratic values on which the community was founded. When Richard Stallman launched the free software movement in the 1980s, he also wrote what would become the GNU General Public License (GPL), which uses copyright in a novel way to ensure that the freedoms of users are retained when they use and distribute the software. The GPL's strong emphasis on copyleft—the assurance that free software cannot be published under a proprietary license—caused it to become the world's most popular free software license. By using copyright law in a novel way, the GPL ensures that the freedoms of end users are retained during distribution. Before the 2005 announcement of the first draft of the GPLv3, the GPL had remained unchanged for over 15 years. The creation of a new license was one of the most exciting times in the free software world, underscoring the level of community involvement that sustains the free software movement.

GPLv3 and its drafting process were innovative in many ways. It marked the first time a copyright license was created with extensive input from the public, as well as the first time a free software license worked to address “tivoization”—limiting devices that run free software from running user modifications. Developers, lawyers, and free software advocates dedicated thousands of hours to editing and discussing the GPL, bringing to light issues that were not addressed in previous versions. Thanks to the hard work of these tireless volunteers, flaws in the drafts were identified and addressed, strengthening the ability for the GPL to promote freedom while still remaining flexible to the introduction of new technologies and distribution methods such as BitTorrent. GPLv3 emerged from this process with robust measures to support and protect free software from threats such as software patents.

One of the best aspects of the free software movement is the fact that anyone can join to help promote software freedom, and the GPLv3 drafting process allowed people who don't usually write code to contribute to crafting a document that will define the free software movement for years to come. While the GPLv3 drafting process was a fascinating time for free software, thanks to the movement's decentralized nature it was not the only opportunity to get involved. Anyone has the ability to help the cause of software freedom, whether by designing new artwork for free software projects, developing code, providing support or documentation, or donating to a free software project that they find important.

Many documents about GPLv3 came out of the drafting process, including the thousands of comments on the drafts of the various licenses. These documents provide a wealth of information that has the potential to be useful to software projects looking to modify their licenses, legal scholars interested in copyleft, cultural anthropologists, and free software advocates. Unfortunately they have not been organized into a centralized repository, which is my project for the summer. I've already completed a manifest of all the documents and materials involved in the drafting process, and will be working to produce a Web-facing archive that includes all of the comments and discussions on the GPLv3 drafts. I look forward to continuing my work on this project and can't wait to delve into the archives this summer.

If you have ideas for this project, you can reach me via our licensing address at

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