Why GPL Compliance Education Materials Should Be Free as in Freedom

Post Syndicated from Bradley M. Kuhn original http://ebb.org/bkuhn/blog/2017/04/25/liberate-compliance-tutorials.html

[ This blog was crossposted
on Software Freedom Conservancy’s website
. ]

I am honored to be a co-author and editor-in-chief of the most
comprehensive, detailed, and complete guide on matters related to compliance
of copyleft software licenses such as the GPL.
This book, Copyleft and the GNU
General Public License: A Comprehensive Tutorial and Guide
(which we
often call the Copyleft Guide for short)
is 155 pages filled
with useful material to help everyone understand copyleft licenses for
software, how they work, and how to comply with them properly. It is the
only document to fully incorporate esoteric material such as the FSF’s famous
GPLv3 rationale documents directly alongside practical advice, such as
the pristine example,
which is the only freely published compliance analysis of a real product on
the market. The document explains in great detail how that product
manufacturer made good choices to comply with the GPL. The reader learns by
both real-world example as well as abstract explanation.

However, the most important fact about the Copyleft Guide is not its
useful and engaging content. More importantly, the license of this book
gives freedom to its readers in the same way the license of the copylefted
software does. Specifically, we chose
the Creative
Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 license

(CC BY-SA)
for this work. We believe that not just software, but any generally useful
technical information that teaches people should be freely sharable and
modifiable by the general public.

The reasons these freedoms are necessary seem so obvious that I’m
surprised I need to state them. Companies who want to build internal
training courses on copyleft compliance for their employees need to modify
the materials for that purpose. They then need to be able to freely
distribute them to employees and contractors for maximum effect.
Furthermore, like all documents and software alike, there are always
“bugs”, which (in the case of written prose) usually means
there are sections that are fail to communicate to maximum effect. Those
who find better ways to express the ideas need the ability to propose
patches and write improvements. Perhaps most importantly, everyone who
teaches should avoid
NIH syndrome. Education and
science work best when we borrow and share (with proper license-compliant
attribution, of course!) the best material that others develop, and augment
our works by incorporating them.

These reasons are akin to those that led Richard M. Stallman to write his
seminal
essay, Why
Software Should Be Free
. Indeed, if you reread that essay now
— as I just did — you’ll see that much of damage and many of
the same problems to the advancement of software that RMS documents in that
essay also occur in the world of tutorial documentation about FLOSS
licensing. As too often happens in the Open Source community, though,
folks seek ways to proprietarize, for profit, any copyrighted work that
doesn’t already have a copyleft license attached. In the field of copyleft
compliance education, we see the same behavior: organizations who wish to
control the dialogue and profit from selling compliance education seek to
proprietarize the meta-material of compliance education, rather than
sharing freely like the software itself. This yields an ironic
exploitation, since the copyleft license documented therein exists as a
strategy to assure the freedom to share knowledge. These educators tell
their audiences with a straight face: Sure, the software is
free as in freedom, but if you want to learn how its license
works, you have to license our proprietary materials!
This behavior
uses legal controls to curtail the sharing of knowledge, limits the
advancement and improvement of those tutorials, and emboldens silos of
know-how that only wealthy corporations have the resources to access and
afford. The educational dystopia that these organizations create is
precisely what I sought to prevent by advocating for software freedom for
so long.

While Conservancy’s primary job
provides non-profit infrastructure for Free
Software projects
, we also do a bit
of license compliance work as well.
But we practice what we preach: we release all the educational materials
that we produce as part of
the Copyleft Guide project
under CC BY-SA. Other Open Source organizations are currently hypocrites
on this point; they tout the values of openness and sharing of knowledge
through software, but they take their tutorial materials and lock them up
under proprietary licenses. I hereby publicly call on such organizations
(including but not limited to the Linux Foundation) to license
materials such
as
those under CC BY-SA.

I did not make this public call for liberation of such materials without
first trying friendly diplomacy first. Conservancy has been in talks with
individuals and staff who produce these materials for some time. We urged
them to join the Free Software community and share their materials under
free licenses. We even offered volunteer time to help them improve those
materials if they would simply license them freely. After two years of
that effort, it’s now abundantly clear that public pressure is the only
force that might work0. Ultimately, like all
proprietary businesses, the training divisions of Linux Foundation and
other entities in the compliance industrial complex (such
as Black Duck)
realize they can make much more revenue by making materials proprietary and
choosing legal restrictions that forbid their students from sharing and
improving the materials after they complete the course. While the reality
of this impasse regarding freely licensing these materials is probably an
obvious outcome, multiple sources inside these organizations have also
confirmed for me that liberation of the materials for the good of general
public won’t happen without a major paradigm shift — specifically
because such educational freedom will reduce the revenue stream around
those materials.

Of course, I can attest first-hand that freely liberating tutorial
materials curtails revenue. Karen Sandler and I have regularly taught
courses on copyleft licensing based
on the freely available materials
for a few years — most
recently in
January 2017 at LinuxConf Australia
and at
at
OSCON in a few weeks
. These conferences do kindly cover our travel
expenses to attend and teach the tutorial, but compliance education is not
a revenue stream for Conservancy. While, in an ideal world, we’d get
revenue from education to fund our other important activities, we believe
that there is value in doing this education as currently funded by
our individual Supporters; these education
efforts fit withour charitable mission to promote the public good. We
furthermore don’t believe that locking up the materials and refusing to
share them with others fits a mission of software freedom, so we never
considered such as a viable option. Finally, given the
institutionally-backed
FUD that we’ve
continue to witness, we seek to draw specific attention to the fundamental
difference in approach that Conservancy (as a charity) take toward this
compliance education work. (My
my recent talk on compliance
covered on LWN
includes some points on that matter, if you’d like
further reading).


0One notable exception to
these efforts was the success of my colleague, Karen Sandler (and others)
in convincing the OpenChain
project
to choose CC-0 licensing. However, OpenChain is not officially
part of the LF training curriculum to my knowledge, and if it is, it can of
course be proprietarized therein, since CC-0 is not a copyleft license.