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Doha and the Supreme Court of DFSG Free

Hi,

I am in two minds of what to write about Doha. My job has been vastly simplified by a friend when he shared with me https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LdrAd-44LW0 . That video is more relevant and more closer to the truth than whatever I can share. As can be seen it is funny but more sad the way Qatarians are trying to figure out how things will be and as can be seen it seems to heading towards a ‘real estate bubble’ . They would have to let go of the Sharia if they are thinking of wealthy westerners coming to stay put. I am just sad to know that many of my country-men are stuck there and although I hope the best for them, I dread it may turn out the way it has turned out for many people of Indians, and especially from Kerala in Saudi Arabia. I would touch about the Kerala situation probably in another blog post as this time is exclusively for legal aspects which were discussed in Debconf.

A bit of backgrounder here, one part of my family is lawyers which means I have somewhat notion of law as practiced in our land. As probably everybody knows, India was ruled by the British for around 150 odd years. One of the things that they gave while leaving was/is the IPC (Indian Penal Code) and is practiced with the common law concept. The concept means precedence of any judgement goes quite some way in framing rulings and law of the land as time goes on besides the lobbying and the politics which happens in any democracy.

Free software would not have been there without the GPL – The General Public License. And the license is as much a legal document as it’s something that the developers can work without becoming deranged, as it is one of the more simpler licenses to work with.

My own understanding of the legal, ethical and moral issues around me were framed by two-three different TV shows, books (fiction and non-fiction alike) apart from what little news I heard in family. One was ‘M*A*S*H* (with Alan Alda and his frailness, anarchism, humanism, civil rights), the ‘Practise’ and ‘Boston Legal’ which does lay bare the many grey areas that lawyers have to deal with (‘The Practice’ also influenced a lot of civil rights understanding and First amendment, but as it is a TV show, how much of it is actually practiced for lawyers and how much moral dilemma they are can only be guessed at.) . In books it is artists like John Grisham, Michael Connelly as well as Perry Mason – Agatha Christie. In non-fiction look at the treasures under bombayhighcourt e-books corner and series of Hamlyn Lectures. I would have to warn that all of the above are major time-sinks but rewarding in their own way. Also haven’t read all of them as time and interests are constrained but do know they are good for understanding bit of our history. I do crave for a meetup kind of scenario when non-lawyers can read and discuss about facets of law .

All that understanding was vastly amplified by Groklaw.net which made non-lawyers at the very least be able to decipher and understand what is going on in the free software world. After PJ (Pamela Jones) closed it in 2013 due to total surveillance by the Free World (i.e. the United States of America, NSA) we have been thirsty. We do get occasionally somewhat mildly interesting articles in lwn.net or arstechnica.net but nowhere the sheer brilliance of groklaw.

So, it was a sheer stroke of luck that I met Mr. Bradley M. Kuhn who works with Karen Sandler on Software Conservancy. While I wanted to be there for his presentation, it was just one of those days which doesn’t go as planned. However, as we met socially and over e-mail there were two basic questions which I asked him which also imbibes why we need to fight for software freedom in the court of law. Below is a re-wording of what he shared .

Q1. why do people think that GPL still needs to be challenged in the court of law while there are gpl-violations which has been more or less successfully defended in the court of law ?

Bradley Kuhn – the GPL violations is basically a violation of one or more clauses of the GPL license and not the GPL license as a whole and my effort during my lifetime would be to make/have such precedents that the GPL is held as a valid license in the court of law.

Q2. Let’s say IF GPL is held to be valid in the court of law, would FSF benefit monetarily, at least to my mind it might be so, as more people and comapnies could be convinced to use strong copyleft licenses such as GPLv3 or AGPLv3 .

Bradley Kuhn – It may or may not. It is possible that even after winning, that people and especially companies may go for weak copyleft licenses if it suits them. The only benefit would probably would be to those people who are already using GPLv3 as the law could be used to protect them as well. Although we would want and welcome companies who would use strong copyleft license such as the GPL, the future is ‘in future’ and hence uncertain. Both possibilities co-exist.

While Bradley didn’t say it, I would add further here it probably would mean also moving from being a more offensive mode (which GPL-violations is based upon where a violation occurs and somebody either from the victim’s side or a by-stander notices the violation, brings it to the notice of the victim and the GPL-volations team.) to perhaps it being defended by the DMCA people themselves, once GPL is held as a valid license in the eyes of law. Although should you use the DMCA or not is a matter of choice, personal belief system as well as your legal recourses.

I have to share that the FSF and the GPL-violations team are probably very discerning when they take up the fight as most of the work done by them is pro-bono (i.e. they don’t make a single penny/paisa from the work done therein.) and hence in view of scarce resources, it makes sense to go only for the biggest violators in the hopes that you can either make them agree to compensate and agree to the terms of license of any software/hardware combination or sue them and take a bigger share of the reward/compensation awarded by the Court to help the defendant and maybe some of the proceeds donated by the defendant and people like you and me to make sure that Conservancy and the GPL-violations team is still around to help the next time something similar happens.

Bradley Kuhn presenting at #Debconf 16

Bradley Kuhn presenting at #Debconf 16

Now, as far as his presentation is concerned, whose video can be seen at http://meetings-archive.debian.net/pub/debian-meetings/2016/debconf16/The_Supreme_Court_of_DFSGFree.webm , I thought it was tame. While he talked about ‘gaming the system’ in some sense, he was sharing that the system debian-legal works (most-of-the-time). The list actually works because many far more brilliant people than me take time to understand the intricacies of various licenses and how they should be interpreted through the excellently written Debian Free Software Guidelines and whether the license under discussion contravenes the DFSG or is part of it. I do agree with his point though that the ftp-master/s and the team may not be the right person to judge the license in adherence to the DFSG, or her/is not giving a reason for rejecting a package to not entering into the package archive.

I actually asked the same question on debian-legal and while I had guessed, it seems there is enough review of the licenses per-se as answer from Paul Wise shows. Charles Pessley also shared an idea he has documented which probably didn’t get much traction as involves more ‘work’ on DD’s without any benefit to show for it. All in all I hope it sheds some light on why there is need to be more aware of law in software freedom. Two Organizations which work on software freedom from legal standpoint are SFLC  (Delhi) headed by the charming Mr. Eben Moglen  and ALF (Bangalore). I do hope more people, especially developers take a bit more interest in some of the resources mentioned above.

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