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GPL bodies in bizarre trademark fight

Senior Linux kernel developer Greg Kroah-Hartman has claimed he asked the Linux Foundation to withdraw funding from the Software Freedom Conservancy back in 2016, because he was unhappy with the way in which the SFC went about enforcing compliance with the GPL, the licence under which the Linux kernel is published.

Kroah-Hartman's claim was made as part of a long discussion about a spat between the SFC and the Software Freedom Law Centre, a body provides pro-bono legal services to developers of free, libre, and open source software, in which the SFLC has asked a court to cancel the trademark of the SFC due to what it claims is "priority and likelihood of confusion" to its own trademark.

The bizarre aspect of the legal fight between the two bodies, both of which are involved in activities around the GPL, is that the SFLC launched the SFC in 2006 to carry out GPL enforcement.

There have been unconfirmed suggestions that the spat has resulted because of differences between the head of SFLC, Eben Moglen, and the head of SFC, Bradley Kuhn.

Kroah-Hartman's unhappiness with the SFC's method of GPL enforcement appears to spring from the fact that companies who are part of the Linux Foundation — his employer — have been on occasion the target of enforcement. One of the most recent cases of an attempt to enforce the GPL was against VMware which is a member of the Linux Foundation; the SFC funded the kernel developer Christoph Hellwig who launched the case which he lost in August last year.

VMware is headed by a former prominent open source personality, Dirk Hohndel, who was, prior to that, the head of Intel's open source efforts.

Anger over more forceful efforts at enforcing the GPL have been brewing for some time. Last year, when then SFC head Karen Sandler suggested that the Toronto Linuxcon conference include a session on GPL enforcement, a call which was backed by former kernel developer Matthew Garrett, the suggestion came in for severe criticism from Linus Torvalds.

A large number of contributors to the Linux kernel recently agreed on a method for enforcement, whereby those who were suspected of infringing the GPL would be given extra time to come into compliance. When this agreement was published online, the SFC issued a statement backing it.

There have been accusations made by some that the Linux Foundation, the non-profit that funds the development of the kernel and employs some top developers, including Torvalds, could be behind the SFC-SFLC spat, but that has been strongly denied by the editor of Linux Weekly News, Jonathan Corbet, who does some work for the Foundation.

In the same discussion referred to above, one poster alleged that the Foundation could be playing a role in the spat because of the enforcement agreement that kernel developers had agreed upon.

But Corbet denied this, saying he had been a part of drafting the enforcement agreement right from the start. "...remember that this statement was originally put together by the LF TAB (technology advisory board), with help from the LF lawyers, and was put out with the LF's full support. Why would the LF somehow get the SFLC to do this weird thing if the SFC comes out in favour of it too?" he asked.

Another prominent open source figure, Bruce Perens, says that while the Foundation has had no role in this spat, the VMware case is linked.

According to Perens, in 2015 when the VMware suit was filed in Germany and funded by SFC, the Foundation retaliated by pulling funding for the SFC. The SFC responded with a fund drive and new supporters.

Perens says in early 2016, Sandler suggested she might run for the Linux Foundation community board representative position. "The LF board meets in a panic and does away with the current community representative and the position." he said.

According to Perens, later the same year, Moglen had begun to lobby against GPL enforcement at Foundation events and elsewhere. 

"(The) Free Software Foundation fires Moglen, who has been their general counsel for, oh, I think about 40 years. (FSF head) Richard (Stallman) and friends are reported to be heartbroken."

And then, Perens claims, the SFC-SFLC spat was initiated this year.

iTWire has contacted Perens for further details.

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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.