Home opinion-and-analysis Open Sauce SFC director Kuhn reacts to BusyBox flame war

The executive director of the Software Freedom Conservancy, Bradley Kuhn, says that enforcing the GNU General Public Licence is a means of defending software freedom.

Kuhn was reacting to the flame war that has grown out of Linux developer Matthew Garrett's criticism of efforts to develop a replacement for the popular BusyBox program that provides minimalist replacements for the most common utilities usually found on a UNIX or Linux system.

The SFC has been enforcing the GPL on software since around 2008 - it does so for BusyBox - and Kuhn said he had decided to write a post on th SFC blog, restating things he had already said many times, in order that people were clear about the organisation's role in GPL compliance. On his own, he has been doing enforcement since 1999.

Several of those who posted comments on the Linux Weekly News website about the BusyBox replacement issue had mentioned the SFC.

"After all these years of speaking about, writing about, and doing GPL enforcement, I'm occasionally surprised at how much confusion still exists about how and why it's done," Kuhn wrote. "I've focused solely on doing GPL enforcement via 501(c)(3) not-for-profit entities, which means I do it only in the public good."

The primary goal of any GPL enforcement - in this case of version 2 - was to ensure compliance: providing users with source code so that they could copy, share, modify and install improved versions.

"The GPL itself is a copyright license (sic) that does a weird hack on copyright: it uses the copyright rules to turn them around, and require people to share software freely (as in freedom) in exchange for permission to copy, modify and distribute the software," he wrote.

The GPL states that in the event of a violation, then one loses the rights to distribute the program in question for all time - this is known as the "death clause" and is present in version 2 without any further addenda - unless the copyright holder(s) grants it another licence .

The SFC has been granting new licences to violators only on condition that they release the source code to the program whose licence has been violated and, and also the source to all other programs on their device which require source distribution.

Kuhn wrote that the SFC's request for source for all other programs on a particular device being distributed by violators was being done "because violators express a concern that, if they come into compliance due to my efforts, what stops others from coming to complain, in sequence, and wasting their time?"

He had then suggested that if a violator came into compliance all at once, on all FLOSS licences involved, "it would be easy for me to be on their side, should someone else complain".

Apart from this, Kuhn wrote that the SFC, when it undertook cases of enforcing the GPL, generally appointed a compliance officer so that a company which had violated a licence and then been brought into compliance would have a person on staff who had some expertise to deal with any future issues if they did arise.

He wrote that he had been reluctant to charge a violator for the costs of enforcement.

"I struggled for years about whether it was the right thing to do. I avoided it until someone pointed out to me: 'If you're doing GPL enforcement for a non-profit, who should pay the cost of doing enforcement: the folks who send you charitable donations to support your other non-compliance work, or the violators who actually violated the license? Indeed, those who donate probably always comply with GPL themselves, so if violators aren't charged the cost of enforcement, compliant people end up subsidizing (sic) violations with their donations'."

Litigation was annoying, time-consuming and also took very long. "That's why litigation has always been a last resort, and that 99.999% of GPL enforcement matters get resolved without a lawsuit. Lawsuits are only an option, in my view, when a violation is egregious, and multiple attempts to begin a friendly conversation with the violator are consistently ignored," he wrote.

"I've no interest in making license enforcement the primary activity of Conservancy '” indeed, it's but one item on Conservancy's extensive list of services, and Conservancy has 27 (and growing) projects to care for. Many of those projects are GPL'd and LGPL'd, and many of them want Conservancy to handle their enforcement, but that work is always balanced with all the other work going on at this thinly-staffed organization (sic)."



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Sam Varghese

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A professional journalist with decades of experience, Sam for nine years used DOS and then Windows, which led him to start experimenting with GNU/Linux in 1998. Since then he has written widely about the use of both free and open source software, and the people behind the code. His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.






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