12 Years of Copyleft License Compliance: A Historical Perspective

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Since working on his first GPL enforcement effort in 1999, Bradley M. Kuhn has carefully tracked and followed the state of compliance with the GPL, LGPL, and other copyleft FLOSS licenses. In this talk, Kuhn surveys the types of FLOSS compliance problems that were and are encountered, and how they have changed historically.

Initially, GPL violations were uncommon and often involved major derivatives of the software. Violators sought to avoid the copyleft obligations and hide improvements. After these early “tests” of the copyleft and its scope, those aware enough to understand copyleft requirements simply either cooperated with the community, or avoided copylefted software entirely. Therefore, such violations remain today, but are a small minority and quite rare.

Meanwhile, counting by volume, there are today more violations of the GPL and LGPL than ever before; GPL violations have increased in an order of magnitude in the last decade. Embedded developers have widely adopted BusyBox /Linux and Android/Linux systems. Embedded product lifecycles are shorter and less diligence is taken in constructing the products. This brazen carelessness led to a massive increase in copyleft violations that continues to expand.

Kuhn will discuss how our community can and does meet these challenges to make progress in improving worldwide compliance with copyleft FLOSS licenses. In particular, Kuhn will present the process and requirements of not-for-profit, community-oriented GPL enforcement and how that process benefits both individual developers and commercial entities (even those that violate!).

Photo of Bradley Kuhn

Bradley Kuhn

Software Freedom Conservancy

Bradley M. Kuhn is the president and distinguished technologist at Software Freedom Conservancy, on the board of directors of the Free Software Foundation, and editor-in-chief of Copyleft.org. He’s been a part of the software freedom movement since 1992. Previously, he worked as a system administrator and software developer for various companies, taught AP computer science, served as executive director of FSF, led FSF’s GPL enforcement, launched its associate member program, invented the Affero GPL, was president of the Software Freedom Conservancy, and has been a primary volunteer and full-time staffer at the Conservancy. He earned his BS in computer science from Loyla University in Maryland and an MS in computer science from the University of Cincinnati. His master’s thesis discussed methods for dynamic interoperability of free software programming languages. An excerpt from his thesis won the Damien Conway Award for Best Technical Paper in 2000. Bradley also received an O’Reilly Open Source Award in 2012 in recognition for his lifelong policy work on copyleft licensing. He has a blog, is on pump.io, and cohosts the audcast Free as in Freedom.