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Sharing knowledge about the GNU family of licenses

by Craig Topham Contributions Published on Jan 06, 2023 02:04 PM
Copyright and licensing associate Craig Topham discusses the work done by the Licensing and Compliance Lab to answer licensing questions via articles, the FAQ, and email.
Sharing knowledge about the GNU family of licenses

An audience looking at a slideshow about licensing

I am truly grateful for the opportunity to serve a community where sharing is at the core of its purpose. It's amazing that we can duplicate software so quickly -- just a few taps on a keyboard or clicks of a mouse -- to such great benefit. In the free software community, there are other elements that can be spread just as easily as computer source code. One of them is knowledge. From helping someone use free software to spreading the understanding of free software, knowledge comes in all shapes and sizes. This includes sharing knowledge of the GNU General Public Licenses (GPL) and free software licensing more generally.

As the copyright and licensing associate at the Free Software Foundation (FSF), one of my tasks is to coordinate with licensing volunteers of the Licensing and Compliance Lab. As a part of the Lab, the licensing volunteers help the FSF share free software licensing knowledge. We do this together through the combined decades of experience and the plethora of licensing materials available on and However, the world we live in constantly generates new curiosities and areas to explore, inevitably leaving people with new questions. When this happens, the Licensing and Compliance Lab is here to provide answers. Your support will help us continue to do so heading into the future. As free software licensing is a complex subject, we're proud to provide this service to free software developers and other members of the community.

Much like free software, knowledge requires someone to have it first in order to distribute it. When it comes to free software licensing knowledge, the licensing volunteers have it in abundance. Although a small group, they have answered over 1,300 questions sent in by those hoping to better understand how the family of GNU licenses work since the pandemic started in March 2020. I can honestly say that this work would have been impossible without the licensing volunteers.

So who are these dedicated volunteers? It's programmer and paralegal Yoni Rabkin, attorney and software developer Paulius Galubickas, radio-engineer and longstanding GNU volunteer Ineiev, software engineer and mathematician Yuchen Pei, and administrator of the End Software Patents wiki and lawyer Panos Alevropoulos.

Now that you know who we are and what we do, let's explore the more reciprocal benefits of sharing knowledge. The Lab fields a wide variety of questions. Some questions have already been answered and are listed on our Frequently Asked Questions about the GNU Licenses page, with over 160 entries. However, we frequently get new questions which call on the collective knowledge of the Lab. These questions are often pushing at the boundaries of what is at play in the free software world. It is these questions which also provide us with special value; by receiving feedback and questions on real-world interactions with free software and the GPLs, it enables the FSF to keep up with the ever-adjusting free software landscape. When a question is novel, a review process starts that involves collaborative research from the volunteers and staff, sometimes leading to a new entry in the FAQ being created. These questions help challenge us, the Licensing and Compliance Lab, to find answers to unique questions brought to us by the questioner, and the answer ultimately helps everyone.

Another reciprocal benefit comes from the activity of answering a licensing question. The work done by licensing volunteers not only helps free software developers and others use a GNU license with more confidence. It also exercises staff and volunteers' knowledge and understanding of free software licensing, much like a "licensing for free software fitness gym" for the mind. With every request, the Lab leaves the transaction a little more knowledgeable than when we went in. When we share questions, research, and knowledge this way with one another, everybody wins.

I am overflowing with gratitude and I am honored to have been working with such gifted and generous volunteers for over four years now. I look forward to the future as we all grow together and share the knowledge we have with each other.

Can you join the effort to support developers in the choice of a software license as an FSF associate member? You can start for as little as $10 per month ($5 for students), or $120 per year. With your support, the Licensing and Compliance Team can continue sharing their knowledge and answer your requests. Besides that, your membership gives strength to the idea of free software and to the GNU GPL. Plus, your membership will count towards achieving our goal of 455 new associate members before January 20, and you will be eligible for this year's snazzy and secure webcam cover when you join as an annual associate member at $120 or more. You'll also be able to enjoy all the member benefits, which include merchandise discounts, a 16GB bootable membership card, and use of our associate member videoconferencing server.

Already a member? Sharing your reason to believe in free software can inspire others just like you to take important steps towards software freedom. Remember that you can conveniently buy a membership to someone else in your life, and give them the gift of freedom. If you can do a little more yourself, any extra donation you make will enable us to have an even wider reach.

The Licensing and Compliance Team is eager to answer your questions. If you can't find what you need on or, just email

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