FSFE reaches out with new Freedom Task Force


Author: Bruce Byfield

In the United States, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) has reached out to the community with advocacy campaigns and the consultation process on the next version of the GNU General Public License. By contrast, the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE) is focusing much of its community outreach on the creation of a group it calls the Freedom Task Force (FTF). Although relatively new, the FTF is already starting to make its mark on free software in Europe in the fields of education and compliance, and with its unique approach to the problems of copyright.

According to Georg Greve, FSFE’s president, the organization came up with the idea for an outreach program in 2004. The FSFE’s general assembly declared its creation a priority soon after, but it was not until November 2006 that the FTF was actually created, in large part due to a €30,000 grant from Stichting Nlnet.

From the beginning, Greve says, the idea of the FTF included “an interdisciplinary approach that would allow technical and legal experts to work together in a flexible way, allowing everyone to pull together and create ad-hoc teams consisting of the best experts for the job.”

FTF is organized by Shane M. Coughlan, a long-time volunteer and member of the FSFE Fellowship, who was hired as coordinator in October 2006. In addition, Coughlan says, “We have a network of 10 legal experts, five of whom are practicing lawyers. We also operate a network of eight technical experts and a mailing list for volunteers.” Among those who cooperate with the FTF in various aspects of its work are Till Jaeger of the Institute for Legal Issues of Free and Open Source Software in Berlin; Lucie Guibault, a law professor at the University of Amsterdam; and Carlo Piana, a law professor at the State University of Milan.

One of the main goals of the FTF is education about free software in general and licensing issues in particular. The group offers consulting for individuals and free software projects free of charge, and for businesses at what its site describes as “competitive rates.” The FTF also plans to offer training, although this initiative is still being developed and no details appear on its site, but the site does provide checklists for both vendors and users who want to ensure that they do not accidentally violate the GNU General Public License.

As well as education, the FTF works with Harald Welte of gpl-violations.org to encourage license compliance. In this area, the FTF follows the approach developed by the FSF’s compliance lab in the United States, with a preference for, in Coughlan’s words, “open constructive dialogues to facilitate education, to resolve issues, and to work for the long-term benefit of free software” — in other words, for working with violators to bring them into compliance rather than treating every violation as a potential court case.

“We understand that many of the current violations are based on ignorance, not malice,” says Greve. “So while we are working to undo that ignorance with our educational activities, we’re also working with violators to resolve issues peacefully and silently.”

So far, the area in which the FTF has been most noticeable is its “fiduciary services” for free software projects. As described in an earlier article, the FTF is encouraging projects to assign copyright to FSFE. Described on the Web site as a means to “consolidate and manage the legal side of things while developers focus on making sure projects accomplish their full potential,” this process has the advantage of simplifying potential copyright problems created by multiple contributors, especially in moral-rights copyright jurisdictions. In the long term, the transfer of rights should prevent problems created by the death or unavailability of contributors, such as the much-publicized inability to change the licensing of the Linux kernel. In addition, Greve says, “Consolidating projects in this way also makes sure that third parties can rest assured the project will remain legally maintainable” and therefore encourage those parties to use free software.

If projects prefer to assign copyright to an organization or individual other than FSFE, the FTF will also offer advice on how to do that.

To aid in such consolidations of copyright, the FTF has released a Fiduciary License Agreement (FLA). As noted in the earlier article, Eben Moglen, the FSF general counsel, cautions against viewing the FLA as appropriate for every project or as a single solution to all copyright issues. All the same, the FLA has already proved popular, with projects such as Bacula and OpenSwarm having already transferred their copyrights to the FSFE.

With all those tasks on its agenda, Coughlan cautiously suggests that the FTF is off to a promising start. “The FTF is a young project. I would not like to attempt to evaluate the success of our activities after such a short period. I can say that we’ve had positive feedback from the parties we interact with. We have open channels of communication with various organizations, and we’re getting the type of engagement we hoped for.”

For now, Coughlan considers that the FTF has “plenty to do” in the areas in which it is already involved. However, he does not rule out the possibility of expanding into other areas if the FSFE’s general assembly decides that it should.

“We want to help people become connected with the information they need and to provide a friendly contact point for businesses in the European arena,” Coughlan says. “If anyone out there wants to talk about their projects, please don’t hesitate to contact us.”

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


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