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You are here: Home Bulletins 2024 spring What we're up against

What we're up against

by Zoë Kooyman Contributions Published on Jul 08, 2024 04:59 PM

The Free Software Foundation has myriad articles stating that we are up against billions, or even trillions of proprietary software dollars. They use these dollars for marketing that convinces people to use their products; they use it to develop ways to make us believe we want to cede control over software, and they use it to pay the legal fees for expensive lawyers to push the boundaries of what is legal further and further away from what is moral.

I think a financial comparison does a good job of illustrating the magnitude of the force we have to overcome if we are to complete our mission of worldwide computer user freedom. However, what I fear is that the reality of it still does not sink in. We're talking about a reality where free software becomes more and more marginalized, where user rights dissipate into choosing between participating in daily life or standing for your rights, and where copyleft licenses are blatantly violated or read favorably for a malicious corporation to the extent that it challenges the definition of free software. This is something we should avoid at all costs.

Following a subpoena by Vizio, the FSF was recently deposed in the SFC v Vizio case. In this case, SFC is requesting that Vizio provide source code to programs on some Vizio devices that are covered by the GNU General Public License v2 (GPL) and GNU Lesser General Public License v2.1 (LGPL). In response, Vizio has argued that SFC cannot enforce a request for source code if it does not hold copyright to the underlying software. In support of that argument, Vizio has made reference to an FAQ published by the FSF that is captioned "Who has the power to enforce the GPL."

They are using the FSF's own FAQ to argue against what the FSF stands for: each and every person should have access to the source code in order to run, study, copy, modify, and distribute the software. We don't always get to bring attention to the work we do in instances like these because of confidentiality, or because we follow the Principles of Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement, which can make it harder to show what we do and garner support for it.

This deposition is a great way of illustrating the frustration and fear at the root of mentioning the billions of dollars we are up against. Remember, FSF is "merely" a witness in this case. You show up once or twice to answer questions that can be of significant value to a decision that can have a lasting impact on user freedom. In this case, Vizio questioned the FSF's encouragement for the use of any legal mechanism available to users for obtaining complete and corresponding source code, as is their right, and enforcing full compliance with the GNU GPL, which you would think would be a fairly straightforward thing. But after FSF received a topic list, hours and hours of preparation, research, and practice with highly skilled lawyers went into getting ready for it.

Originally, this deposition was supposed to be held remotely, but Vizio did not want to learn to use a new videoconferencing platform other than Zoom, leaving the FSF with a choice of using a proprietary platform, or being physically present for the deposition. Rather than being forced to use a proprietary program, we pushed for doing it in person. The delay that this change caused meant costly additional preparation, after which we also spent roughly ten(!) hours in the deposition itself. As you can imagine, the whole endeavor cost the FSF tens of thousands of dollars (which is nothing compared to the legal cost that would come with actually being a party in the case), a significant amount of money to put down for something you can just be ordered to do.

Vizio's argument is that a reading of an FSF educational resource (remember, we provide no legal advice) provides them with a way out of their responsibility to provide complete and corresponding source code under the GPL. Their argument holds water only because of the money being spent behind the scenes of this case. In any such case, tens of thousands of dollars are being poured into strategizing about ways to get away with not doing the right thing.

The FSF is a small organization with limited resources and one of our major focus points is license compliance. We are always fighting to have the financial strength to be able to take violators to task, but to do that successfully, we have to be extremely selective as to where our money goes. Or, in situations like these, we don't get to choose ourselves, and all we can decide is how we show up. It is worth noting this is not the only subpoena we received these last months. We believe this deposition in SFC v Vizio will help users get a step closer to software freedom, which is why we have made the investment of time and resources for it, and we celebrate a well-prepared and strong testimony. But imagine, if a deposition in a case is such a great investment, clearly we need your help competing against these billions of dollars and use the legal system to work for moral ends.

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