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Support FSF's copyleft and licensing work

by Craig Topham Contributions Published on Dec 13, 2019 10:32 AM

The Free Software Foundation’s (FSF) licensing and compliance team is the guardian of the GNU General Public License (GPL), which has brought software freedom to the world for over three decades. As stewards of the GPL and the rest of the GNU family of licenses, we must continue our work to protect and extend computer user freedom, but we need your help.

We launched our annual fundraiser with the goal of welcoming 600 new associate members before December 31st. New members are critical to the cause, and by becoming a member you will stand in solidarity with others who care about computer user freedom. As is the case with any social movement, the numbers matter, and it is a very powerful gesture to make for only $10 a month ($5 if you are a student). Please support the work that gives hope for a future with software freedom: make a donation or – better yet -- join us and become a member today.

The Free Software Foundation is a global leader for copyleft, and the licensing team plays a vital role in disseminating useful knowledge about free software while working to protect it. We accomplish this in part by answering licensing questions from the public and by providing resources like our list of free software licenses. We also increase access to software freedom by managing the Respects Your Freedom certification program, and cataloging free software through our endorsed distributions program and the Free Software Directory. To protect free software, we handle license compliance for the GNU Project, resulting in a stronger community and more respect for the power of copyleft.

We are proud to accomplish this as just two staff working with our executive director, board, and legal counsel. These resources combined make a potent force for software freedom, and your support will ensure our work continues with the aim to do an even better job in 2020. Let us share a bit about the work we did in 2019 and elaborate on why it is so vital that this work continues.

Helping users, developers, and distributors to understand licensing

The FSF, as a recognized authority on free software licensing, along with our team of three volunteers, answered almost 600 licensing questions from all over the world in 2019. The questions can range from the very simple (“Can I sell free software?” Yes, you can!) to the much more complex nuances of free software licensing. Some people write to us trying to understand both established GNU licenses and licenses created by other organizations.

The software licensing landscape is constantly changing, as some projects choose to draft new licenses. We periodically provide updates to our licensing materials to help keep everyone informed and connected to best practices. Even for licenses on which we’ve publicly commented, there can still be questions about what they mean, or how they can interact with one another. In addition to fielding questions directly, we provide resources like our GPL FAQ, with over 170 entries on the GPL and other important free software topics. We also maintain our list of software licenses, with our determinations as to whether each license is free or nonfree.

Software licensing seminars

In October, we hosted a Continuing Legal Education (CLE) seminar on GPL enforcement and legal ethics, and we plan to do another one in 2020. The subject matter is geared towards lawyers, law professionals and students, but is open to and attended by non-law professionals as well. The 2019 edition of our seminar covered the basics of the GPL, court cases that shaped the free software licensing world, ethical considerations important to lawyers working with clients involved in free software, trademarks, and the current spate of license proliferation. These seminars are great for anyone seeking discussion and information about software licensing, and for those attorneys who are seeking CLE credits. The lectures are given by experts and leaders in the field, people at the forefront of advancing copyleft licensing. In 2020, we plan to host yet another CLE, and with your help, we will keep expanding these seminars and increase their frequency in the years to come.

Identifying and supporting fully free GNU/Linux distributions

Through our list of free GNU/Linux distributions, users can find a complete operating system that contains and recommends only free software. We work with maintainers, we help them remove nonfree software, and we point out other potential issues with the distribution. During last year's fundraiser we were excited to announce the latest addition to the list, Hyperbola GNU/Linux-Libre. Although we saw the retirement of Musix in 2019, the list still includes a fair number of choices, with nine standard distros and two small GNU/Linux distros meant for limited devices, but clearly we want to keep providing more options for users when it comes to fully free distributions. Your help will allow us to do just that as we strive for a world where GNU/Linux distributions fully guarantee user freedom, rather than risking becoming platforms using free components just to more efficiently deliver proprietary applications or forcing users into Service as a Software Substitute.

Helping users find freedom-respecting devices

Being able to purchase hardware that only comes with free software takes effort, which is where our Respects Your Freedom certification program comes in. As the only organization doing this unique type of certification, we certified eighteen devices in 2019, with fourteen from ThinkPenguin, two from Vikings GmbH, and two from Raptor Computing Systems.

In a world rife with digital products that disrespect the user, this program is critical. We're seeing an increasing number of people demanding more freedom when it comes to their devices. For this reason, we gave our RYF Web page a major overhaul, transforming it from a single chronological listing of certifications to a standalone site. Not only does it have a sleek modern look and mobile device compatibility, but it is also a robust database for browsing by product type and by vendor. This functionality not only makes products easier to find, but its design will also handle the expected growth in the number of certified devices.

Picture it: a world where people can go into a store or online and easily buy products, without being expert technologists or licensing gurus, that purvey respect along with their technical usefulness! We see this future over the horizon, and with your help, we can exceed our expectations to process (and hopefully approve) more devices for certification in 2020 and beyond.

Helping everyone ethically share free software

When all of our educational resources aren't enough, and someone fails to provide the rights guaranteed under a free license like the GPL, the licensing team takes special care to teach them how to better their ways and find a place in the community. Where necessary, we uphold free software by enforcing the license according to the Principles of Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement, which we co-developed with the Software Freedom Conservancy. Our goal is to educate and guide these distributors into compliance, but we stand firm in our belief that legal action is sometimes necessary to protect user rights.

Helping users find free software

The licensing team maintains the Free Software Directory, a massive listing of over 16,000 freely-licensed packages, which had over 800,000 unique visits in 2019. This is a resource for users to find free software. It also helps maintainers of free software packages discover potential licensing issues with their code, and because it provides exportable data sets, the Directory's usefulness expands to academic researchers as well. You are welcome to join us and other volunteers every Friday via IRC (freenode, #fsf @ 12:00-15:00 EST) to review free software packages for inclusion in the Directory. If there's an issue, we file a bug with the project about the licensing problem. The Directory is a wiki that anyone can edit, and we always welcome more volunteers to participate. In 2019, we brought in quite a few new volunteers, who took on projects to more systematically update and curate entries, and even to improve the functioning of the Directory itself. But while 16,000 free software packages may seem like a lot, there is an entire world of free software beyond the Directory that still needs the sort of licensing review that we provide as part of the process of adding a package to the Directory.

Help us advocate for copyleft!

Besides answering emails and publishing articles, the licensing team also gives talks at conferences and staffs FSF booths at conferences such as CopyleftConf, LinuxFest Northwest, and FOSDEM. We are getting the word out about software freedom! But to continue this work, and do even more in the year to come, we need your support. We hope you'll take this opportunity to help us in this mission in the year ahead.

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