August 23, 2006

FSF hires new GPL compliance engineer

Author: Bruce Byfield

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has hired long-time volunteer Brett Smith as compliance engineer for the GNU Public License (GPL). Smith replaces David Turner, who has held the position for more than five years. Both Smith and Turner say they expect a smooth changeover, with continued development of existing policies.

The position of GPL compliance engineer is one of the more public faces of the FSF. Overseeing the FSF's compliance lab, the compliance engineer is responsible for investigating reports of violations of the GPL and for bringing violators into compliance. According to Turner, who was the first to hold the position and largely defined it, about half the reports turn out to be true. The rest, in his experience, are "either unverifiable or false." Many involve dealing with a free software project or a company developing GPL software, but a growing number of cases involve standard end-user license agreements that are incompatible with the GPL.

At any given time, the compliance engineer may be dealing with half a dozen violations, with one or two new reports arising every week. "Some of them are simple open and closed things -- one letter and it's solved," Turner says. "Some of the more complicated cases, unfortunately, drag out for months."

For verified reports, Turner helped the FSF to develop what he calls a "low-profile strategy." In other words, rather than having a lawyer write a cease and desist action or threaten legal action or publicity, the FSF prefers to work with violators one on one to help bring them into compliance. "We could maybe get them done a little quicker if we started taking people to court, but we've decided that a more friendly approach is a better way to build a community," Turner says. "We'd rather have companies coming again and using GPL software in the future rather than have them feeling that they're dealing with an organization that's unfriendly toward them."

Turner is moving to New York to live with his girlfriend, and starting a programming job at a free software company in September. Since the FSF prefers employees to work out of its head office in Boston, his resignation is unavoidable. However, he plans to continue to assist the FSF in various ways, including assisting with the drafting of the third version of the GPL.

Looking back, Turner says, "I'm glad I was able to do this job. But I'm tired of being a cop. I know that enforcing the GPL is the right thing to do and that I'm helping people. Still, I have always been inclined towards the side of defending accused criminals, rather than prosecuting them. Perhaps it's my upbringing -- my parents met when they were both public defenders. Anyway, while I've been doing the right thing, I haven't always enjoyed it. So, I'll be happy to get back to programming. And I'm thrilled to leave the GPL compliance labs in Brett's hands."

Smith has been a volunteer with the FSF since 2001, when Bradley Kuhn, then executive director of the FSF, encouraged him to become involved. Since then, Smith has been a webmaster and an intern responsible for shipping merchandise and answering general emails. For the past few months he has been assisting with answering general licensing questions. "He really understands the issues," Turner says. "He's also very committed to the [free software] movement personally."

For the most part, Smith says, he intends to continue the policies started by Turner. Talking about Turner's low-profile strategy for encouraging compliance, Smith says, "It's a policy that works. It's gotten us compliance from a lot of vendors, and we don't mess with a winning formula."

All the same, Smith has already identified areas where he would like to introduce changes. "We'd like to make the compliance lab more visible," he says, "so that people are aware of the work that we do and know that they can come to us with their questions and concerns about all kinds of free software -- and not just the FSF's. This [policy] includes more visibility in the community where people talk about licenses, and more information on our Web site."

Smith would also like to see the process for investigating alleged violations more formalized. He did not elaborate, except to say, "That's one of the goals for my hiring."

Smith began work on August 21. Talking on his second day in his new position, he sounded upbeat about his new responsibilities. "It's exciting work," he says. "I'm definitely happy to be here, and I'm looking forward to doing good work."


Bruce Byfield is a course designer and instructor, and a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge, Linux.com and IT Manager's Journal.

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