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FOSDEM 2024: two days on software freedom

by Krzysztof Siewicz Contributions Published on Feb 26, 2024 03:22 PM
We depend on software as a society. In such a world, software freedom has to be protected. Free Software Foundation's (FSF) Licensing and Compliance Manager, Krzysztof Siewicz is sharing his personal account of FOSDEM 2024.
FOSDEM 2024: two days on software freedom

Screenshot of Krzysztof Siewicz and Bradley Kuhn sitting at a table at FOSDEM 2024

I'm already on my plane home, which was scheduled to depart twenty minutes ago. But there are still three extra people in the cockpit and I'm hearing the captain's announcement that they're having "a computer problem." I smile, close my eyes, and... bring up the memories of my last two days at FOSDEM 2024. FOSDEM is one of the biggest events organized by the free software community to promote the widespread adoption of free software, so I find my situation extremely ironic. Being delayed by a "computer problem" is a very accurate real life argument for software freedom. We as a society are so dependent on software, even in situations that we often take for granted. In such a world, the ability to freely run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve software is crucial. And software freedom was the topic of all talks, sessions, and presentations I attended at FOSDEM.

Releasing software under a free license, preferably one of the GNU family of licenses, grants the essential software freedoms to all users. FOSDEM is a great opportunity to learn and discuss what is needed for this to work seamlessly in practice. I had the privilege to contribute to this discussion this year by elaborating on how the FSF addresses confusing licensing.

Confusing licensing is using existing terms and conditions of a GNU license, altered by adding a further restriction, with the intention not to grant all the four freedoms to users. A not-to-be-followed example would be to release a program under the GNU General Public License v3 (GPL) with a notice that the software cannot be sold. As a part of the FSF's stewardship of the GNU family of licenses, we react to such practices.

My contribution was delivered in the "Fireside Chat on Further Restrictions, Imposed Downstream on Copyleft, Wreaking Havoc", which I shared with Bradley M. Kuhn of Software Freedom Conservancy, who focused on the currently pending lawsuit brought by the company Neo4j, which involves the application of Sec. 7.

Our panel was just one part of the FOSDEM's Legal & Policy devroom that included a lot of other interesting talks. For example, "RHEL and CentOS and the growth of openwashing in FOSS," which addressed attempts to restrict user freedoms granted under the GPL by separate service contracts where users are expected to agree not to exercise the freedoms. Just to mention another interesting presentation, there was also "GPL’s Termination under German Law." Interestingly, apart from some peculiarities of German civil law, the termination mechanism can also be applied to violators operating there.

Legal certainty is not the only building block of software freedom. I was amazed by the diversity and selection of topics at FOSDEM. This is a huge conference where every enthusiast of free software can find their favorite topic covered. When I was not in the Legal devroom, I was running across the campus of the Université Libre de Bruxelles to make it to yet another presentation. The topics included: Funding free software projects; Coordinating and mentoring volunteers and contributors; Incoming EU legislation (Cyber Resilience Act, Product Liability Directive); Right to Repair; Enforcing the GPL by third-party beneficiaries (the "yous"); Public Money Public Code; OpenLLMs; Applying the Digital Markets Act to free direct communications; and, last but not least, Software bills of materials (SBOMs).

Those were two intense and stimulating days. Apart from attending sessions, FOSDEM is a great opportunity to meet in person and talk to all the great hackers in the community, make new friends, and discuss plans for future cooperation. I am looking forward to processing everything that I have learned there and using it in my work at the Licensing & Compliance Lab at the FSF.

By the time I'm done reflecting on my experiences at FOSDEM, the plane's computer is successfully fixed and we are high up in the air. My thoughts run ahead now, towards LibrePlanet 2024, the annual conference hosted by the FSF in Boston, this year on May 4 & 5. I'm looking forward to continuing conversations about protection of software freedom there.

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