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FSF Licensing and Compliance Lab: 2018 and the future

by Donald Robertson Contributions Published on Dec 12, 2018 03:08 PM
2018 marked my tenth year working for the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and its Licensing & Compliance Lab. It was a year of celebration but also a time of reflection.

We are currently running a fundraising drive to launch free software to new frontiers. Would you consider supporting the work of the Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Licensing and Compliance team by becoming a member or making a donation today?

I am the current licensing and compliance manager for the FSF, though I've had several roles in my time here. The Lab handles all the free software licensing work for the FSF. Copyleft is the best legal tool we have for protecting the rights of users, and the Lab makes sure that tool is at full power by providing fundamental licensing education. From publishing articles and resources on free software licensing, to doing license compliance work for the GNU Project, to handling our certification programs like Respects Your Freedom, if there is a license involved, the Lab is on the case.

When I started working at the FSF part-time in 2008, the GNU General Public License version 3 (GPLv3) was only a year old. Our Respects Your Freedom certification program didn't yet exist. The Free Software Directory wasn't yet a wiki that could be updated by the community at large. Things have changed a lot over the years, as has our ability to help users to understand and share freely licensed works. I'd like to take just a moment as 2018 draws to a close to look back on some of the great work we accomplished.

While the GPLv3 celebrated its tenth anniversary last year, there still remains a lot to be done in helping developers understand how to best use it and other GNU licenses. The Licensing and Compliance Lab, along with a team of volunteers, has for many years answered questions from the community. This year, we were delighted for Jake Glass to join the team as an intern, and are grateful for his help in improving licensing materials as well as answering questions from the community. The world of free software has grown so much over the past decade that we want to help make it as easy as possible to use free software and track the licenses in projects. Many organizations are developing tools to help tackle this issue, such as the Software Package Data Exchange (SPDX). But these tools are only useful if they are accurate and support best practices. Looking to improve the situation, we worked together with SPDX to make sure that their identifiers correctly reflected the licensing choices of developers. In 2018, we were happy to announce that SPDX updated their identifiers to differentiate between choosing only a specific version of a GNU license versus that version or any later version (e.g. GPL-3.0-only or GPL-3.0-or-later). This is just one example of our ongoing work interfacing with other organizations and projects in order to improve the culture of free software licensing for everyone.

This year also saw more growth in our Respects Your Freedom certification program. This program helps users to find hardware devices they can trust to respect their freedom and privacy. We were excited to add another laptop/tablet hybrid with the Minifree Libreboot X200 Tablet. While we have previously certified many Librebooted laptops, 2018 was the year we finally certified a device to help you Libreboot your own device: the Zerocat Chipflasher Board Edition 1. While we celebrate reaching thirty total certified devices, we are looking forward to even more exciting additions in the future, with over fifty devices currently working their way through certification. Watching this important program grow so fast from the beginning has been incredibly rewarding.

2018 also saw the return of our Continuing Legal Education seminars. While executive director John Sullivan and I give many licensing talks at conferences throughout the year geared towards a more general audience, these seminars are sessions meant for legal professionals and interested licensing geeks to dive deeply into their understanding of the GPL and to help people understand how the Principles of Community Oriented GPL Enforcement work. It's an opportunity to teach the law and history of free software, as well as to connect with legal practitioners from around the world. The last seminar prior to this was over four years ago, so we were long overdue to run another. Looking to the future, we plan on making these seminars a more regular occurrence.

The Free Software Directory saw a major milestone in the past year, surpassing 16,000 listed packages. We were also aided by the tech team interns, David Hedlund and Sonali Singhal. David is a long-time Directory volunteer who exemplifies the way that program grew and developed over the past decade. David long ago took a leadership role in updating and improving the Directory, and we were grateful that he was able to take a role as an intern to extend that work even further. Sonali was an Outreachy intern who was able to upgrade the software running the Directory itself. This important work helps keep the Directory running while putting us in a great place for the future. However, while we celebrate the accomplishments of this year, there's clearly a lot more work to be done in order to ensure that the Free Software Directory truly lists every free software package in existence.

Even as 2018 demonstrates how much the size of our job grew in the past decade, the size of our team hasn't quite kept the same pace. When I started, there were just one and a half staff members dedicated to licensing at the FSF -- Brett Smith was the licensing and compliance manager at the time, and I was working with him part-time. I later moved to full time, and since then the team has stayed at just two staff members working with a team of paid and pro bono attorneys. Just think: we've expanded many programs, and created whole new ones, while still maintaining all the other programs of the Compliance Lab with just two staff. It's really a testament to what we can accomplish. Looking back over the past ten years fills me with pride, but also awe at the size of the job in front of us.

Reviewing past accomplishments always makes one think of challenges not yet met. We have to keep expanding and improving our work, if we want the next ten years to be as successful. But as always, that depends in large part on you. None of what we've done would have been possible without your support, and nothing that we hope for in the future will happen without your help. Will you build the foundation for the next great expansion?

The Licensing and Compliance team's work is fueled primarily by donors and associate members of the FSF. We are asking you to become an associate member or make a donation to the FSF to support our work expanding to new frontiers over the next year. Membership costs as little as $10 per month ($5 per month for students). Membership comes with benefits, and if you join by the end of 2018, you can choose to receive an enamel pin set, so you can wear your free software pride on your sleeve wherever you go.

Sincerely,
Donald Robertson, III
Licensing and Compliance Manager

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