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Licensing & Compliance Lab updates and why we need your support to educate, serve the free software community

by Krzysztof Siewicz Contributions Published on Dec 21, 2023 12:55 PM
Meet Kris, the newest member of the Licensing & Compliance Lab, and learn about the good work that the Lab has been doing this year.

My name is Krzysztof Siewicz, but you may call me Kris. I have recently joined the Licensing and Compliance Lab, as the Free Software Foundation's (FSF) new licensing and compliance manager. I am excited to work for a community that is so thoughtful about the impact free software has on our lives and so devoted to empowering everyone to be able to control their computing. At the FSF, we have always believed in educating users about the essential freedoms to run, copy, distribute, study, change, and improve the software, and I'm looking forward to contributing to that role in my capacity.

I received a doctoral degree in law, conferred upon me by Leiden University, The Netherlands, for a thesis about protecting software freedom. I practiced law in Poland, advocated for Internet freedom, and taught in the area of free software licensing. My past clients and employers include nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), as well as educational, academic, and cultural institutions in the EU. In that work, I often received positive feedback for my efforts in explaining complex legal issues in a simple way. My experience also includes coordination of software development.

Since October, I have been fully engaged with the FSF's Licensing and Compliance Lab, specifically by participating in answering licensing questions from the public, evaluating entries in the Free Software Directory (FSD), investigating GNU General Public License (GPL) violations, and upholding the GPL. This is only the beginning, and I can't wait to tackle the Lab's other important activities.

With a fully staffed licensing team and Lab, the FSF has been able to more actively defend free software, for example against contradictory terms added to GNU licenses. Terms that are contradictory to the freedoms promised by GNU licenses were never intended by us; they abuse our good name and the faith the user puts in us. An example of these terms are restrictive clauses to prohibit commercial activity added in a way that contradicts both the letter and the spirit of our licenses. If they are added to version 3 of the GPL or GNU Affero General Public License (GNU AGPL), users can remove them from the license. This right to remove those terms is granted to users in Section 7 of those licenses. The FSF enforces this. We also do not allow the use of our copyright in the GPL, nor the GNU and FSF trademarks, for making nonfree software. You can read more about this activity in our recent blog post on protecting free software against confusing additional restrictions. I can already see that reacting to contradictory terms will be expensive work, because it requires contacting each licensor, clarifying the misunderstanding, and initiating legal procedures in case of any confirmed failures to observe the terms of the GPL or the FSF's rights. The more effective our fundraising efforts, the more such actions we can take.

Another big part of the licensing and compliance team's work is answering licensing questions, which we continue to get in great numbers, from the public. We do this with the help of our licensing volunteers. Some of them have helped in building our licensing answers database for more than a decade now. And the Lab is, of course, also processing copyright assignments for software packages to ensure that the FSF can have a legal standing when defending their freedom. My closest teammate Craig Topham, the FSF's copyright & licensing associate, has tremendous experience in this area. Thanks to his hard work, we had an 11% increase in copyright assignments in the 2023 financial year. Although some packages don't require them anymore, for those that do, copyright assignments are increasing overall.

I enjoy working with different requestors. I recently had the opportunity to explain the benefits of free software licensing to a team working on an embedded device that was using free software libraries in their work. To another requestor we explained in detail the differences between distributing modifications to programs subject to the GPL under compatible licenses and the obligation to release the whole combination under the GPL. The turnaround on our licensing queue shows that we cannot rest assured that publishing static educational materials alone suffices. We have to also be available to provide answers, and we have to use what we learn from our requestors to update the public FAQ and other publications.

Sticking to the theme of this year-end appeal, yet another example of our work with a great educational focus, is the Free Software Directory (FSD), listing nearly 17,000 free software packages, all reviewed individually by staff, together with the help of dedicated volunteers. Anyone interested may learn about the FSD criteria, submit a package for review, and obtain feedback from the Directory's team. Every week, we host a three-hour IRC meeting at #fsf on Libera.Chat. Whether you are a user who's unsure about whether a particular package is truly free software or a developer wishing to double-check that the software you develop is free, this is certainly the place to learn more.

I am full of enthusiasm about my work for the community. I'm also grateful and honored to be able to work in a friendly and supportive working atmosphere here at the FSF, where everyone is always ready to share invaluable insight and guidance. With such wonderful people around, and with your continued support, I am looking forward, with a lot of optimism, to working towards a world in which software freedom is fully protected.

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