back to article Open-source defenders turn on each other in 'bizarre' trademark fight sparked by GPL fall out

Two organizations founded to help and support developers of free and open-source software have locked horns in public, betraying a long-running quarrel rumbling mostly behind the scenes. On one side, the Software Freedom Law Center, which today seeks to resolve licensing disputes amicably. On the other, the Software Freedom …

  1. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    "Having given the world our software on the most liberal of terms..."

    Most liberal of terms? The GPL is proudly, brashly and forcefully an illiberal license.

    Which is probably at the root of this. It's a miracle such a corporate-dominated project has thrived as it has under the GPL. Would a project launched today, with today's developers, do the same? I suspect, were we to do this all again today, Linux would be under an Apache or MIT license.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      'GPL - proudly, brashly, forcefully illiberal license'

      I get bored and switch off reading about the subtleties of all the different licensing systems. Anyone know a site that breaks it all down into easy-bite-like-chunks. To have a working knowledge on the differences from GPL to the likes of Creative-Commons etc...

      1. tmz

        Re: 'GPL - proudly, brashly, forcefully illiberal license'

        Try this - http://www.gnu.org/licenses/license-list.html

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Facepalm

          Re: 'GPL - proudly, brashly, forcefully illiberal license'

          @tmz: "Try this - http://www.gnu.org/licenses/license-list.html"

          A link to the Free Software Foundation sites gets three down votes :]

          1. whatevs...

            Re: 'GPL - proudly, brashly, forcefully illiberal license'

            Because it’s a partisan source...

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Facepalm

              Re: 'GPL - proudly, brashly, forcefully illiberal license'

              @whatevs... “Because it’s a partisan source”...

              Yea sure, it's not as if they explicitly state their purpose right there on the main page:

              Our mission is to preserve, protect and promote the freedom to use, study, copy, modify, and redistribute computer software, and to defend the rights of Free Software users.” ref

    2. s2bu

      Re: "Having given the world our software on the most liberal of terms..."

      Or a good ol’ 2-cause BSD or ISC license (which granted is pretty much the same as the MIT).

    3. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: "Having given the world our software on the most liberal of terms..."

      That's rather a lot of downvotes for:

      1) A statement of fact, that the GPL is intentionally illiberal, in that it forces contributors to redistribute under the same terms, with no value judgement on this fact

      2) A statement of opinion, that commercial open source developers today probably prefer Apache/MIT for its simplicity and compatibility with *aaS business practises (cf. VMWare's woes).

      Neither of which strike me as particularly controversial. I guess the FOSS crowd just are irrationally angry sometimes.

      1. Raumkraut

        Re: "Having given the world our software on the most liberal of terms..."

        1) A statement of fact, that the GPL is intentionally illiberal, in that it forces contributors to redistribute under the same terms, with no value judgement on this fact

        Well that depends on your personal definition of "liberal", and the implied connotations of the phrase "illiberal".

        While permissive licenses do attempt to maximise personal liberty, copy-left licenses are liberal in the sense that, though they do make some small sacrifices to personal liberty, it is to the end that liberty is maintained for all.

        I would certainly classify copy-left as "illibertarian" though.

        2) A statement of opinion, that commercial open source developers today probably prefer Apache/MIT for its simplicity and compatibility with *aaS business practises (cf. VMWare's woes).

        Correction: Copy-left and permissive are, with the exception of AGPL, of equal utility in a *aaS environment. This is because copy-left licenses such as the GPL only apply on distribution. If you're operating purely as a service, and not distributing the software itself, the GPL confers no meaningful additional requirements over using Apache.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: "Having given the world our software on the most liberal of terms..."

          Shirley though, aside from splitting hairs over American neologisms, you'd agree that describing it as "the most liberal terms" is, well, silly, given it is intentionally and explicitly designed to be more restrictive than other licenses?

          As for *aaS, I'm talking about the whole business practice, not just the physical act of distribution. Almost no one builds software to either sell or to run any more. Most software companies now fully intend to shift their software through some combination of perpetual licensing, subscription based on-premise licensing and cloud-based subscription licensing. Aside from the obvious copyleft requirements in the "distributive" modes, it's not even that well established where those requirements end (e.g. define "distributing"). And it's impossible to say that just because you're not "distributing" the software today doesn't mean you won't tomorrow.

          That's part of the reason why the GPL has fallen so out of favour with newer projects, which is kind of my point - today's devs don't like the GPL, so it should come as no surprise those people paid to contribute to GPL projects are uncomfortable with their own employers being sued over it.

  2. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge
    Trollface

    Linus Torvalds...[said]: "Lawsuits...would destroy all the goodwill we've built up over the years by being nice."

    Irony is for fucking morons.

    1. Jonathan 27 Bronze badge

      It's all relative, he means nice for Linus Torvalds.

      You don't want to see angry Linux Torvalds.

  3. Jonathan 27 Bronze badge

    "Software Freedom" is such a genertic term that I find it really hard to believe that anyone would consider it a legally defensible term as part of a trade mark. The way trade marks work, someone could open a business selling "Software Freedom Law Center" dish soap and their trade mark wouldn't apply because their corporation isn't a dish soap and no one would reasonably mistake the two. A slight similarity, based on common terms isn't defensible in the least.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I think one key point in this case, which was strangely not mentioned in the article, is that the day before they filed the trademark dispute, the SFLC announced that they were getting into the same business as the SFC - ie. acting as an umbrella organisation for free software projects.

      The SFLC's statement pretty much propositioned/threatened SFC projects, in a very "it'd be a shame if something unfortunate happened, why not come talk to us?" manner.

  4. Terry 6 Silver badge

    Personalities

    Hmm. Maybe it's just that these various organisations, in the Open Source and similar spheres, are full of people who are motivated by ego.

    1. Orv Silver badge

      Re: Personalities

      Linux and the GPL aren't even the worst of it. The OpenBSD community is an amazing clash of egos.

      1. Charlie Clark Silver badge

        Re: Personalities

        The OpenBSD community is an amazing clash of egos.

        Possibly, but at least you don't have to worry about that when you read the licence.

    2. Donn Bly

      Motivated by ego

      You have, of course, hit the nail squarely on the head. Ego is their only true currency.

      Ego in and of itself isn't a bad thing. It is what drives a person to do their best and instills a pride in their work. In the beginning people and organizations started out providing code and services to and for the public at no charge. They did it because they wanted to do it, because it made them feel better, and because they felt that someone had to do it and if they had the ability it might as well be them. Their selflessness made themselves feel good, and that was all that mattered. This is when Ego was good.

      From that benign, altruistic beginning many projects and organizations have since evolved (devolved?) into an ego contest, demanding accolades because of the good they were doing, or beyond that, into a "mine is better than yours" mentality. Ego is their currency, just that now it is no longer as good as it once was.

      1. Terry 6 Silver badge

        Re: Motivated by ego

        Donn Bly

        That's a nice point. In effect is ego fed by approbation for what they produce or by power and control. And are there different groups- producers and controllers- within the orbit of these organisations being fed differently?

      2. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Motivated by ego

        "In the beginning people and organizations started out providing code and services to and for the public at no charge."

        MMmm...yes, back in the days when people released stuff into the Public Domain. Until some greedy bastard realised they could make a few minor mods, claim the work as their own and patent/trademark/copyright the work and effectively steal it from the Public Domain. The reaction was for the altruistic people to invent various license such as GPL, Apache, BSD etc in an attempt to keep the work available to all in a way that the greedy bastards could not then appropriate it for themselves.

        1. Mark Wallace

          Re: Motivated by ego

          @ John Brown

          True enough, but I fear that the problem is becoming more one of self-aggrandising organisations trying to control access to and use of "free" software, when it is the developers of the software who should have the loudest voice.

          I.e. they should ask the devs whether they want to pursue a case, before trying to up their personal kudos prosecuting it.

  5. frobnicate

    "three years of being unable to arrange a meeting"

    Ah, so Golgafrincham's B Ark and its ablution-happy captain did land softly.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    <== freedom is that'a way ==>

    Which one is more closely associated with mister "Freedom as in *my* definition!" ?

  7. steelpillow Silver badge
    Facepalm

    No shit!

    "We spent three years avoiding a meeting -- and now, what he has to say to us comes as a complete surprise!"

    No shit!

    But seriously, you know what they say about FOSS, "Enjoy the choice". They sometimes forget that that goes for their lawyering too.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I don't like the tone of the article

    Thomas tries to make it sound like people are at war or something. From his own article, it is a couple of those American foundations of minor importance handbagging each other on what appears to be more an interpersonal than a philosophical or legal dispute.

    As for the rest of us, there will always be more or less vigorous discussions about all aspects of a project, including licensing. And that is good and part of the openness of the FOSS paradigm.

  9. handleoclast

    A plague o' both your houses!

    1. tfewster Silver badge
      Thumb Up

      Re: A plague o' both your houses!

      The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers.

  10. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This is why sensible people choose Windows...

    ...because Microsoft looks us square in the eye before shafting us.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: This is why sensible people choose Windows...

      Six downvotes?

      The Yanks really don't get sarcasm.

      1. Anonymous Coward
        Anonymous Coward

        Re: This is why sensible people choose Windows...

        My American cousin's response to that is that they understand sarcasm, but not irony. But then she's a lawyer.

    2. Mark Wallace

      Re: This is why sensible people choose Windows...

      Exactly!

      What has Microsoft ever done for us?!?

  11. thames
    WTF?

    Someone ought to look in the mirror.

    So organisation 'A' is unhappy about organisation 'B' for being too litigious when the intellectual property rights of the people they represent are infringed.

    And A's response when they think their own intellectual property rights are even slightly infringed by B? Sue! No hypocrisy there whatsoever I'm sure.

  12. Red Ted
    WTF?

    Oh good grief!

    L. T. cannot really have said "They would destroy all the goodwill we've built up over the years by being nice."

    He is only as nice as <insert your favourite dictator here>. He is nice, as long as you agree with him. He is very, very clever, but not nice. You can't make a statement like that and not include yourself in the "we".

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Oh good grief!

      > He is only as nice as <insert your favourite dictator here>

      So you know him personally? I don't, but I've been told by people who do that he's actually a great bloke.

  13. TVU

    ""What's the point of the GPL if you're never going to enforce it?" Perens asked".

    There's even less point if you abandon talks in favour of hasty and ill-conceived litigation that you have little chance of winning and then go on to lose that case because it's misguided efforts like that which really helps to erode GPL licensing.

    Congratulations on the supreme own goal, Software Freedom Conservancy. There are times when it's actually better to live with a bit of ambiguity rather than have a definite negative result which is what happened in this VMware case.

    1. gobaskof
      Facepalm

      "hasty" litigation

      SFC started trying to negotiate with VMware in 2011, and were instantly directed to the lawyers. They tried to negotiate without litigation for over 3 years, then eventually filed suit in 2015. If this is too hasty, what do you want? Should we wait until everyone who wrote the copyright has been dead for 70 years, that would solve the problem.

      1. TVU

        Re: "hasty" litigation

        "If this is too hasty, what do you want? Should we wait until everyone who wrote the copyright has been dead for 70 years, that would solve the problem".

        1. Go look at the actual result of this case - it was a lost case which actually damages GPL licensing.

        2. The tiny little fundamentalist minds at the Software Freedom Conservancy should have looked at the bigger picture and they should have got more creative. That can be done by a mixture of legal opinions, threats to litigate, applying pressure, adverse publicity for the company and parent company, targeting shareholders and so on. All that can lead to bad PR image and lower stock prices and no sane company wants that.

    2. Warm Braw Silver badge

      What's the point of the GPL if you can't enforce it, is a more interesting question.

      Although the busybox example has been heralded as a "win" for GPL, as far as I can gather there hasn't actually been a judgment (except in the case of Westinghouse which was bankrupt and did not defend itself), merely a succession of "settlements" - in other words it was cheaper to comply with the terms of the licence than to pay lawyers to pursue the case. There have been some cases in Germany, but it's very difficult to find out what actually went on.

      The real problem with the GPL is that the loss suffered by the copyright owner is largely intangible: the infringer may profit from misuse but that is not money that would otherwise go to the rights owner - it would still go to the infringer provided they complied with the licence terms. Getting real damages in an actual case that made it through the judicial process would, I think, be quite difficult. And we will probably never know, because it's unlikely to be worth anyone's time or money to take a case to a legally-certain conclusion.

      If the only contribution these lawyers are making is to threaten companies with legal costs fighting suits that may or may not have any merit, in the hope that people will simply settle for a quiet life, how exactly are they any better than Prenda Law?

  14. John Savard Silver badge

    Standing

    The GPL, unlike the MIT license, protects against people adding a small thing to an open-source program that might become necessary to use it - thus taking it out of being usable in its open-source form. So the GPL is a good thing.

    However, to sue someone for violating the GPL, one has to have "standing"; that is, some basis on which to claim that one is the injured party. While potential users of software covered by the GPL could indeed have standing, a much stronger basis for legal action would be if one was either the authority responsible for the GPL - Richard Stallman and his organization - or the author of the GPL software in question.

    A random law firm, even if acting in the public interest, but not actually representing someone specific who is affected directly by a GPL violation... would seem to lack standing. So this issue suggests itself based on the events described in this news item.

    1. gobaskof

      Re: Standing

      Christoph Hellwig sued VMware not SFC. He is a key linux dev who wrote the code and owns the copyright. SFC, supported and financed the lawsuit.

      1. This post has been deleted by its author

    2. Charlie Clark Silver badge

      Re: Standing

      The GPL, unlike the MIT license, protects against people adding a small thing to an open-source program that might become necessary to use it - thus taking it out of being usable in its open-source form. So the GPL is a good thing.

      This is completely untrue. Anything that's MIT/BSD/Apache licensed keeps stays that way when code is contributed to it. What those licences don't try and enforce is whether somebody tries to embed the code in a proprietary product. This means more coding, less lawyering.

    3. HandleAlreadyTaken

      Re: Standing

      >The GPL, unlike the MIT license, protects against people adding a small thing to an open-source program that might become necessary to use it - thus taking it out of being usable in its open-source form.

      What are you talking about? If party A releases something under a MIT license, and party B adds some small thing to it, do you honestly believe party C can't use A's code anymore? If so, you have absolutely no understanding of how things work.

  15. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

    Splitters!

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      I was surprised how long it took for that to appear.

      We're losing our touch folks!

  16. Woodgie

    People’s front of Judea..?

    Etc.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Haven of peace and tranquillity

    Dear oh dear oh dear.

    The Windows world appears to be a haven of peace and tranquillity compared with the FOSSers!

    Thus autocracy is a great improvement on democracy - and considerably less effort for all concerned

  18. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    This isn't about FOSS at all

    The main issue is that money does strange things to people, it always has.

  19. rtb61

    ALL FORUMS

    You might think the conversations seems at little at odds with FOSS but you have to keep in mind PR=B$ trolls infest all forums, they are paid to be dickheads pushing a corporate agenda, what ever flavour that corporate agenda might be and FOSS is the enemy of for profit proprietary code and the companies that promote it's practices.

    They will always strive to attack FOSS as long as they exist.

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