The Importance of Community-oriented GPL Enforcement

The Free Software Foundation and Software Freedom Conservancy have released a statement of principles on how GPL enforcement work can and should be done in a community-oriented fashion. The president of the Open Source Initiative, Allison Randal, participated as a co-author in the drafting of the principles, together with the leadership of FSF and Conservancy.

The Open Source Initiative’s mission centers on advocating for and supporting efforts to improve community best practices, in order to promote and protect open source (founded on the principles of free software). While the OSI’s work doesn’t include legal enforcement actions for the GPL or any of the family of licenses that conform to the Open Source Definition, we applaud these principles set forth by the FSF and Conservancy, clearly defining community best practices around GPL enforcement.

The vast majority of users, modifiers, and redistributors of free software and open source comply with the licenses of the software they consume, a task that has been greatly simplified in recent years thanks to the wide availability of tools and data resources to help with compliance, available under free software, open source, and open content licenses. Compliance failures that do occur are frequently honest mistakes, which can be repaired with some gentle guidance and an offer of education. Litigation around free software and open source license compliance is very rare, as it should be. But sometimes, litigation is necessary to protect free software and open source, not only for the benefit of current users, but also to support our communities in their chosen means and mode of collaboration, and for the long-term preservation of our principles in legal systems around the world.

When GPL enforcement (or any free software and open source license enforcement) is done in a way that isn’t community-oriented, that action can be actively harmful to freedom-focused communities, and to the relationship of trust between our projects and their individual, organizational, and corporate users. That relationship of trust is absolutely essential to the success of free software and open source. Clearly defining the principles of community-oriented GPL enforcement, and what redistributors can expect if they are contacted by one of these organizations about a potential GPL violation, is an important step of progress in community best practices, and helps make it clear that free software and open source is the safest choice for collaborative software development. This statement of principles for GPL enforcement is also a valuable example of the kind of principles that should apply in community-oriented enforcement activity across the entire family of free software and open source licenses, with some variation in detail for the specific terms of other copyleft licenses and permissive licenses.

For more information, see FSF’s announcement and Conservancy’s announcement. A copy of the principles document will be hosted both on Conservancy’s website and on FSF’s website.