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You are here: Home Bulletins Bulletins from 2008 Fall 2008 The work behind the scenes

The work behind the scenes

by Matt Lee Contributions Published on Feb 12, 2009 05:04 PM
by Brett Smith, Licensing Compliance Engineer

A lot of the work of the Compliance Lab involves quiet negotiations, working to convince others to do the right thing for free software. The end results often seem minor--a few paragraphs of legalese here, a change of name there--but they have big consequences, and there's a lot of work that goes into them. There have been a couple of announcements in the news recently that offer good examples.

In late September, SGI released version 2.0 of its SGI Free License B. The terms of this license are identical to the X11 License, but with this release, a lot of software that our community's been relying on was finally turned into free software.

Late last year, it came to our attention that a lot of the core support for OpenGL on common GNU/Linux systems was released under the SGI Free License B version 1.1 and the GLX Public License--both of which were not free software. After discussing the problem with other groups concerned about this, we approached SGI, and began working with them to figure out a good way to release this code under a free software license. The process took over six months, as we figured out who to talk to, explained our concerns about the older licenses, and discussed severable possible solutions before we finally found one that satisfied everyone. Now, thanks to an upgrade clause in older versions of the license, all the code ever released under the SGI Free License B can now be used under these free terms.

Another example came in early November, when we ourselves released version 1.3 of the GNU Free Documentation License. This is a slight modification to the previous version of the FDL: the primary change is the addition of a new section 11, which allows wikis distributing FDL-covered works to relicense those under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike (CC-BY-SA) 3.0 license if certain conditions are met.

We made this change at the request of the Wikimedia Foundation. They wanted to update Wikipedia's licensing so they could make full use of the wide variety of materials people have published under CC-BY-SA. Since they don't hold the copyrights to editors' contributions, they needed another way to make a licensing change, and we have provided it.

Discussions about this change went on even longer than the SGI negotiations. We consulted extensively with board members of the Wikimedia Foundation to find a solution that would give them a feasible transition path, without hurting those users who have come to count on the rights that the FDL provides. The actual license text went through many drafts as well, to make sure that this additional permission would neither be too narrow nor too broad.

It's hard to make hay out of this sort of work in the news -- generally there isn't a story to publish until those negotiations are complete. But this slow, steady work gets us a lot of benefit with a minimum of hassle: just think of what it would've required to rewrite SGI's OpenGL implementation from scratch, or the improvements that can come to Wikipedia now that it can incorporate CC-BY-SA materials. Ultimately, it's well worth the effort. Don't be surprised if you hear about others in the next Bulletin.

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