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You are here: Home Bulletins Bulletins from 2009 Fall 2009 Life in the Licensing Compliance Lab

Life in the Licensing Compliance Lab

by root Contributions Published on Dec 18, 2009 03:19 PM
by Brett Smith, Licensing Engineer

Initially, the Free Software Foundation staff wrote software for the GNU operating system. Since the early 1990s, much of this work has been done by non-FSF staff, thanks to the increasing popularity of GNU. Some of our work has then shifted to writing and maintaining the GNU General Public License (GPL), a copyright license which protects free software by allowing people to run, modify and copy software, but on the condition that anyone else receiving the software have the same rights. The FSF's Free Software Licensing and Compliance Lab works to protect these rights, and to help update the GNU licenses when needed to deal with the ever-changing free software landscape.

The past few months have been exciting ones for us in the Lab. Just reviewing the news from the past few months demonstrates how we work on many different fronts to protect software freedom for everyone.

Shortly after we published our last Bulletin, we settled the lawsuit we had brought against Cisco over their violations of various free software licenses. As part of that agreement, Cisco appointed a Free Software Director for its Linksys subsidiary to oversee the company's compliance work. It also took various steps to notify its previous customers that they had the right to share and change some of the software they received. That finally put an end to a case that had been open for more than five years.

Adoption of GPLv3 and the Lesser GNU General Public License version 3 (LGPLv3) continues apace--we've even handled a couple of compliance cases that involved GPLv3-covered software. Most GNU projects have had multiple releases under the latest licenses now. The few that haven't generally need new exception text, and we've been working on getting those updated, slowly but surely. We released new exception text for Autoconf in August, and we're still drafting more.

In September, we filed an amicus curiae brief in The Authors Guild, Inc., et al. v. Google Inc.--more colloquially known as the "Google Book Search case." This case began when a group of authors sued Google for scanning books for their Google Book Search product, alleging that such use infringed their copyrights. As the case progressed, the parties proposed a wide-reaching class action settlement that would generally grant Google permission to display and sell all books--including out-of-print works and orphan works whose copyright holders can't be found--under the condition that they pay royalties to the authors, who can opt out of the program if they wish. One consequence of the settlement that was proposed was that it would grant Google permission to publish works released under the GNU Free Documentation License, and other copyleft licenses, without following those licenses' terms. They would not have to provide the work in a form that people could modify; they could distribute the work wrapped in a Digital Restrictions Management (DRM) format if they wished; and more. All they would need to do is pay royalties to the authors. We suggested to the Court that the settlement would do better to require license compliance when the work is already free, rather than royalty payments. Since then, the parties in the case have announced that they are working on a revised settlement, which hasn't been released yet. We're still following this case, and hopeful that the negotiating parties will take our suggestions into account.

And of course, there's still all the work that goes on behind the scenes. In order to pursue violations, we need to stay on top of our copyright assignments and registrations. Donald Robertson, our copyright administrator, has been working to beef up our registration process to make sure that we're always on completely solid legal ground when we handle these cases. We continue to resolve most violations cooperatively, and work to raise awareness about the licenses' requirements.

As the stewards for some of the most popular licenses in the free software community, and legal guardian for the GNU Project, we have unique opportunities to educate people about free software and make sure that others respect the terms of our licenses. Your support makes it possible for us to do that work.

You can find out more about the FSF Free Software Licensing and Compliance Lab at its website, and questions about our licenses can be sent to Brett, Donald and the licensing volunteers also have a blog, and are always on the lookout for interns interested in licensing.

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