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Bradley Kuhn on Free Software Foundation copyrights
By init64, Section GNU-Friends
Posted on Fri Aug 9th, 2002 at 19:19:44 GMT
In a submission, init64 posed a question about the statutes of the Free Software Foundation and the future of FSF copyrights if the Foundation would get corrupted. We sent the question to FSF Executive Director Bradley Kuhn who was more than happy to answer the question. Read more for both the original question, and the reply from Bradley.


init64 writes:

Hi Folks,

I'm pretty new to the GNU-Friends community and I'm happy to be one of its members :)

The purpose of this short message is to sensitize you to the fact that the Free Software Fundation's legal statutes aren't avalaible on the net yet. As a free software activist, I do find this situation very dangerous because the FSF is actually the holder of the copyrights of the GPL'ed softwares. Then, what would be the issue if the FSF get corrupted by one of its members...

Any comment ?

Bradley replies:

By "legal statutes", I presume the questioner means the various governing documents (Charter, By-Laws, etc.) of FSF. The reasons that these aren't available online are much more mundane than most people know. All our documents were filed with the Commonwealth of Massachusetts back in 1985 when the FSF was founded. As you might guess, they were done on typewriters, and no one has had the time and inclination to type or scan them in, proofread them, and put them up for Internet consumption.

The documents are publicly available from the Commonwealth, and I'd be happy to provide anyone with a copy if (s)he would like to go through the effort to make them electronically available.

Meanwhile, the key point that the questioner raises is concerning something that, in fact, does not have to do very much with our governing documents. The key question seems to be the future of FSF's copyrights on GPL'ed software. The problem is addressed primarily in the agreements in our copyright assignment papers. When someone assigns copyright to the FSF, they enter into a contract with the FSF. As with any contract, both sides make some promises. Here is a quote from our "new program" assignment form that shows some of the the things that FSF promises to do:

The Foundation promises that all distribution of the Program, or of any work "based on the Program", that takes place under the control of the Foundation or its agents or assignees, shall be on terms that explicitly and perpetually permit anyone possessing a copy of the work to which the terms apply, and possessing accurate notice of these terms, to redistribute copies of the work to anyone on the same terms. These terms shall not restrict which members of the public copies may be distributed to. These terms shall not require a member of the public to pay any royalty to the Foundation or to anyone else for any permitted use of the work they apply to, or to communicate with the Foundation or its agents in any way either when redistribution is performed or on any other occasion.

The Foundation promises that any program "based on the Program" offered to the public by the Foundation or its agents or assignees shall be offered in the form of machine-readable source code, in addition to any other forms of the Foundation's choosing. However, the Foundation is free to choose at its convenience the media of distribution for machine-readable source code.

Note that this language looks very much like the Free Software Definition. In each of our copyright assignment contracts, we promise the assignor that we will perpetually, as long as we exist, make that software available as Free Software.

In concrete terms, this protects us from even the worst Science Fiction fantasy future. Suppose a powerful proprietary software company covertly replaces the Board of Directors, senior staff, lawyers, and anyone else with some decision-making power with look-alike clones bent on destroying software freedom. In that case, even if the clones want to, they cannot break all these promises that FSF has made to copyright assignors. If the promises are broken, the copyright assignors could sue the FSF for breech of contract, and they would surely win.

I hope that clears up the questioner's concerns.


Bradley M. Kuhn Executive Director, Free Software Foundation

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Bradley Kuhn on Free Software Foundation copyrights | 3 comments (3 topical, editorial) | Post A Comment
[new] On same subject : FLA system at the FSFE (#1)
by olberger (#217) on Tue Aug 13th, 2002 at 13:45:40 GMT
(User Info)

As presented by Georg Greve at the latest LSM, the FSF Europe is thinking about establishing some new "Fiduciary License Agreement" to enable the transfer of copyright between Free Software authors and the FSFE.

This is specially requested in Europe, because there are differences between copyright and droit d'auteur, which prevents the author from alienating all his rights in favour of a third party.

See more in Georg's slides at : http://gnuhh.org/work/presentations/LSM-2002/index.html and a report from the discussions about that presentation at http://france.fsfeurope.org/news/article2002-07-11-01.en.html

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[new] ...But Ultimately (#2)
by a member of the hurd (#-1) on Tue Aug 13th, 2002 at 20:23:37 GMT

Since most developers don't have the means to sue anybody for breach of contract and probably aren't even aware that it is a legally binding contract, most people will have to settle for trusting the free software foundation.

Personally, I don't think that's a problem. I've read quite a bit about the various people who are in that organization, and I can't think of any other organization that I would trust more to defend the rights of my software if I assigned copyright to them. I also can't really see the FSF letting its board get populated with "open source" apologists who potentially might make compromises on the freedom of the software in exchange for X (for X in { money, popularity, prestige, etc })

I've met some of the people in the FSF - Robert Chassel, RMS, and I've swapped emails with Mr. Kuhn before. They're good people. If you can't trust your software to the FSF, you really can't trust it to anybody, and you better get yourself a good "intellectual property" lawyer and several hundred thousand dollars to deal with any legal challenges that may arise by yourself. In fact, as far as I know the best argument for assigning copyright to the FSF is that they have legal knowledge, and the means to use it, whereas your average hacker doesn't. (I pray I never am up against Eben Moglen in a court.... :)

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Bradley Kuhn on Free Software Foundation copyrights | 3 comments (3 topical, editorial) | Post A Comment
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