On SCO, Global Free Software, and GPL Enforcement

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Brian Jepson
Jan. 27, 2004 10:27 AM
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I sat down at LinuxWorld Expo with Bradley Kuhn, Executive Director of the FSF. Bradley and I worked together some time back on fun experiments with creating a JVM backend for the Perl Compiler. Bradley got a lot farther than I ever did. At LinuxWorld Expo, I found Bradley and the FSF stuck in an out-of-the-way corner of the expo floor, while all the big corporations were front and center. Bradley caught me up on a lot of what's going on with the FSF these days, including the SCO situation, non-corporate globalization, and GPL enforcement.

SCO

Bradley talked about the stance that the FSF takes on the SCO situation, as well as what the current situation means for the future. The way he sees it, SCO either "intended to release all of their trade secrets and copyrights that are implemented in the kernel called Linux under terms compatible with the GPL or they were in GPL violation," that they would have "violated the license of all the copyright holders except themselves." Even though Bradley feels that no one in the community expects SCO to succeed, he figures that "now that there has been something like SCO, there will always be something like SCO" and sees this as part of Microsoft's campaign against free software, "subcontracting that work out to somebody like SCO."

Free Software Globalization

When it comes to free software circling the globe, he told me that "outside the US, they are switching to free software," and that he expects to see applications based on free software imported from countries with emerging economies. I could see how that might happen; whether you expect all the jobs in America to end up in India or not, they are building up a skilled workforce with an excellent grasp of English. Could the next killer app come from somewhere other than the US? Could it run on a free operating system first? Exclusively? Who knows? Maybe someday, we'll see Windows users running free operating systems under emulation so they can run the coolest apps.

Whether that seems far-fetched to you depends on how you look at the software ecosystem. Here's how Bradley sees it: "Software that comes out of a global effort is better than software that comes out of a proprietary company in the United States." But right now, he finds that non-native English speakers get frustrated easily when trying to work with people who only speak or write English. So "we've got to be prepared to work with people who don't necessarily understand English... Non-corporate globalization is a chance to be in a global community. I wouldn't have friends around the world if it was not for free software."

GPL Enforcement

Bradley also took some time to give me his angle on GPL enforcement, which is something he says the FSF is getting a lot flak about. He explained how GPL enforcement works: when a company gets a letter about copyright infringement, their first assumption is that the FSF is trying to collect royalties, so they reach for their checkbook. In most cases it's an innocent mistake (perhaps a programmer added GPL'd code and "didn't explain it to their manager"), and they want to fix it in the way that they understand.

The FSF explains that it's not about money, but compliance. The first option they offer them is to stop using the free software. Because they've violated section 4 of the GPL, they've lost all their rights that the license grants. If the company fixes the violation, the FSF works with the copyright holder to restore those rights. Since the engineers invariably tell management that it's impossible or extremely undesirable to rip out the GPL'd code, the company will usually work toward compliance.

Bradley's says that this works out well most of the time (he says there's only been one case of a company proceeding in bad faith) because the business of most the companies in this position are either service-based rather than license-based. The others are selling embedded devices, "People aren't buying the software, they are buying a device." He went on to say that complying with the GPL works out to the benefit of the vendor: "you can increase sales to the geek community by making the source available." Even if geeks aren't the majority of their customers, they can bring a lot of good publicity.

I got curious about whether they keep this stuff confidential. Although the FSF maintains the confidentiality of GPL violators, they will cite case studies of GPL violation resolution, but never mention a violator by name, nor do they give people enough information to figure out who the company is. Bradley told me that there has only been one case where a GPL violation was made public, and that's because the FSF "felt they were negotiating in bad faith."

Before he got back to his booth, Bradley left me with a thought that's pretty cool: "we believe free software provides an opportunity to teach people. The freedom to study is essential. The next generation of programmers is going to be learning from their toasters." And I couldn't agree more. I just wish I'd seen more devices at LinuxWorld Expo that were powered by the Linux kernel; maybe a cell phone or something...

Brian Jepson is an O'Reilly editor, programmer, and co-author of Mac OS X Panther for Unix Geeks and Learning Unix for Mac OS X Panther. He's also a volunteer system administrator and all-around geek for AS220, a non-profit arts center in Providence, Rhode Island. AS220 gives Rhode Island artists uncensored and unjuried forums for their work. These forums include galleries, performance space, and publications. Brian sees to it that technology, especially free software, supports that mission. You can follow Brian's blog here.