How FSFE is organised

Harald Welte laforge at
Wed Oct 16 14:24:37 UTC 2019

I'm both a participant of the FSFE legal network since its very first incarnation
as well as a member of the FSFE legal team.  I've also been sitting on the programme
committee of the annual legal network conference. I am not a formal member of FSFE GA,
I don't represent FSFE formally, but I do care deeply about FOSS and

On Thu, Oct 10, 2019 at 02:04:29PM +0200, Paul Boddie wrote:
> > The people participating in the legal network are not necessarily members
> > of FSFE (association and social group). FSFE provides a space for them to
> > exchange, while at the same time FSFE can participate, which is a bit of
> > influence. So we get a bit of influence without costs about what legal
> > experts that have an interested in Free Software are talking about and what
> > their organisations (if they represent them) are taking a focus in.
> > To me this sounds like a good thing.
> It could be, yes. But what are the motivations for the other participants? For 
> example, there is some controversy about licence enforcement and there are 
> various commercial interests who probably do fairly well offering services to 
> companies around releasing software that complies with the obligations in 
> various Free Software licences.

As somebody with a strong interest in license compliance and license enforcement
and somebody who has been participating the FSFE Legal Network, let me share my

The FSFE LN is amazing.  I am certain there is no other community on this planet
that brings together legal experts around FOSS from all different backgrounds.

It is very clear that some of those people attending (or their employers) have
completely different interests and motivations as those with a strong "pro community"
or "pro copyleft" point of view like myself, or like the FSFE position would be.

But it's great that people can exchange their different points of view in a professional
and respectful manner, and engage in relatively open discoures [facilitated by the Chatham
House rule].

Not only is there a mixture of different positions and agendas, but it's also a mixture
of people with [formal] legal background with people from the developer communities,
including some very high-profile developers from the Linux kernel community.

The FSFE hosting the legal network, and organizing the related annual
events puts it in a very good position to not only observe and watch,
but to actually influence (whether formally or informally) the discourse
in the world-wide FOSS legal community at the highest level.

In fact, those members with "adverse" or "controversial" agendas
perceive the fact that the FSFE runs the LN as a problem.  I've seen
rumours about some behind-the-scenes scheming to remove the FSFE from
the equation.  Alternative groups and events hosted by less community-based
and more industry-friendly organizers have meanwhile been established,
although AFAICT of still lesser significance/profile.

Having the FSFE hosting the netowrk and the related event is a
strength from the point of the community.

> It appears that some of those commercial interests might not entirely welcome 
> initiatives to make licence compliance more obvious and transparent, 

I think that's a myth.  I think the only group that *might* have an
interest in that direction are vendors of [proprietary] tools for
license compliance checking.

> mostly because their businesses are predicated on the idea that such
> stuff is difficult to get right, that professional help is necessary
> to get it right, and that companies can be offered services to make
> some kind of "threat" disappear.

The participants of the legal network are mostly lawyers on staff of
various for-profit and non-for-profit entities.  They are not service
providers earning money off consulting.  I'd argue you wouldn't find
anyone among the LN who would intentionally want to keep license
compliance less obvious or less transparent.  To the contrary (see
initiatives such as SPDX or openchain, etc.

Your accusations sound like "You cannot trust software developers
attending a technical conference, because their main motivation is to
sell their own software development services, so they will perpetually
make software more complex to sell even more software development
services".  While for some sales/business people that might be true, the
actual experts in this area for decades (whether engineers or legal
experts) are the ones that want to simply stuff, whether it's license
compliance or code architecture.

> What are the rest of us to make of an event where the proceedings are not 
> readily available and where the participants discuss topics directly connected 
> to their business models that depend on limited transparency?

The fact that legal counsels of major corporations come together to meet
with both their peers at the competition as well as formal and informal
community representatives is worth a lot.  It will be quite obvious that
they cannot join discussions if they have to fear that every word they
say can an will be used against them.

I do think that more information about the LN could be published, in terms of
statistics (like number of members from corporate legal counsels, independent
lawyers, software engineers, geographic distribution, etc.), but I am
confident it can only work if the actual discussion content can be
kept private to that group, guarded by the Chatham House rule.

> reason for the FSFE being indifferent about possibly the most significant 
> licence compliance case in Europe in recent years? (One that was only 
> "settled" by the defendant coincidentally deciding to rewrite the offending 
> code.)

It is new to me that the FSFE is being indifferent about license
compliance.  In fact, for many years virtually everyone there have been pushing me
to resurrect - which I still have not and cannot due
to time constraints.  I work 60-80 hours per week on FOSS as it is, and
I have to set priorities.

I've been attending court hearings of GPL compliance related lawsuits in
Germany (not referring to those I was involved as a plaintiff or side
intervener, but merely watching/observing), and often Max or Matthias
(or others) were present, too.  At no point during the conversations I
ever had any doubt that they are against license compliance or against
enforcement.  The thought seems absurd to me.

> And what are we to make of an event that is presumably sponsored by an 
> organisation who was - maybe still is - in a frivolous legal conflict with 
> another Free Software organisation operating in the same realm (who presumably 
> does not participate in this event)?

Maybe the process/structures of the LN could be made more public.
During my time at the programme committee I never have seen any
influence from sponsors in terms of the agenda of the event.   So if
you're worried about sponsors being able to set the agenda: I have no
concerns there.

> Ultimately, the danger here is that people supporting an organisation end up 
> also supporting counterproductive or harmful behaviour, all because it is not 
> possible to scrutinise what people are saying and doing.

I guess you will have to have some level of trust for the people who are
actually involved with the related activities.

- Harald Welte <laforge at> 
"Privacy in residential applications is a desirable marketing option."
                                                  (ETSI EN 300 175-7 Ch. A6)

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