The Free Software Foundation Europe has created a resource designed to assist FOSS projects with copyright and licensing. Shane Coughlan heads this project and agreed to answer our questions. The interview was conducted by e-mail on February 23rd. Mr. Coughlan was speaking at FOSDEM in Brussels today [February 24th]. We would like to thank him for responding to our questions.
Q: Thanks for taking time for Groklaw. First off, perhaps you could
tell us a little about yourself?
SC: My name is Shane Coughlan and I am the project coordinator for FSFE's
Freedom Task Force. My academic background is quite diverse. My
undergraduate degree was in English, Politics, Media and Cultural
Studies and my postgraduate degree was based in International Relations.
During my postgraduate research I focused on a type of security called
I've given quite a few talks about security and Free Software in the UK
and Ireland. I became involved in FSFE's projects through the
fellowship of FSFE. I joined as a support of Free Software and became
more active in spreading the word over time. In October 2006 I was
employed full-time to act as the coordinator of the FTF.
You could say that my job in the FTF is to connect technical people with
legal people and to foster a productive dialogue between all parties.
The FTF is the legal hub of Free Software
Foundation Europe. It was created to help collect and share
knowledge about the legal aspects of Free software, to bring together
legal experts and to work with other groups with similar goals.
Our basic mandate is to provide licence support services to individuals,
projects and businesses involved with Free Software. We seek to
positively engage with all types of parties and open constructive
dialogues to facilitate education, to resolve issues and to work for the
long-term benefit of Free Software.
Our primary activities include licence education, fiduciary services and
licence enforcement work. On the enforcement side of things we work in
partnership with gpl-violations.org.
Q: What about the enforcement side of things? If you are
representing the legal interests of a project, what do you do if there
SC: We'd ask the person violating to stop. Many violations are a case of
mistake or misunderstanding and present a great opportunity for positive
licence education. We believe in engagement and constructive dialogue
to help resolve issues amicably.
In a situation where a violation was not an accident or timely measures
were not taken to correct the issue we would ask our lawyers to make it
clear that Free Software can only be distributed according to the terms
chosen by its developers.
Q: I understand several projects have already signed up. Could you
talk about them?
SC: A couple of projects have signed up to FSFE's Fiduciary Licensing
programme. That means that we act as the legal guardian for a project
and allow them to focus on the development goals they have set. We use
a document called the Fiduciary Licence Agreement (FLA) for our programme.
Bacula - a network backup tool - joined the fiduciary programme in
November. Kern Sibbald, the project leader, was keen to underline his
project's commitment to Free Software while also benefiting from the
expertise FSFE could bring to the legal side of things. More recently
an emerging project called OpenSwarm joined. Anastasios Hatzis wrote a
development framework for Python applications and he wanted to foster a
community around it while also maintaining copyright coherency.
It's been a pleasure to work with both projects. It's nice to be able
to provide a tangible service to developers.
Q: The FTF is an offshoot of the Free Software Foundation Europe, a
sister organization to the Free Software Foundation in the USA. Given
the international nature of Free Software development, are there any
issues related to copyright assignment from countries outside of Europe?
How does that work?
SC: The FTF is not an offshoot of Free Software Foundation Europe. It's a
project operating inside FSFE. We are the legal hub of the
Copyright assignment is an interesting field. There are different types
of legal system in different countries. Some countries have what's
called a civil law system and some countries have a common law system.
The idea of authorship and moral rights is a little different in each
system. That being said, there are international copyright agreements
that help to connect systems and to ensure copyright is honoured.
FSFE has a copyright assignment document called the FLA. It's designed
to explicitly provide transfer in both civil law and common law
countries. We use it for our Fiduciary Licensing programme and we also
release it under free documentation licences to allow other projects to
take and adapt it for their own use if they wish.
Q: Let's say I am running a Free Software project and I want to
concentrate on the code and not the legal issues. What does the FTF
offer? Does it cost anything? Do I need to sort out issues with my
contributors first? Do I have to move to GPLv3 if I don't want to yet?
Can I end my agreement with the FTF if my contributors are unhappy?
SC: You can apply to be part of FSFE's Fiduciary Program. If your project
is accepted then what we can do is act as the legal guardian of your
project. You'd use the FLA to assign copyright to FSFE and if any
issues came up we'd be able to act effectively to protect you.
We have a policy that if we accept copyright we don't interfere with
project management. That means decisions like an upgrade of licence
from GPLv2 to GPLv3 - if not automatic - would be made by the project
itself and not us. Our job is solely to act as a guardian.
When it comes to returning copyright, there are two points worth making
about the FLA. Firstly, the assignment of copyright to FSFE also
includes a re-licensing of the code back to the author. That means that
the author retains their right to use that code as they see fit. Also,
the FLA has a clause that if FSFE ever acted against the principles of
Free Software then the assignment would be null and void.
Q: Some developers are hesitant about the GPLv3, in particular some
Linux kernel coders. Part of the problem is that there exists a large
number of copyrights and aligning them to approve the move to GPLv3
seems problematic. Do you think the FTF can help in this regard? Will
the FTF offer services to GPLv2-only projects?
SC: We will support GPLv3. It's going to be a great licence and I think
we'll see a lot of adoption.
Our job is to be there when people have questions. For example, we can
help connect people with the information or advisers that they might
need, we can help people with copyright coherency through our fiduciary
programme and we can lend a hand if projects are using the FLA to
considerate their copyright to another party. Anyone can contact us
through our website, by email or telephone.
Q: How do you see the FTF developing in the next two years?
SC: The FTF's three main objectives are education, fiduciary services and
licence enforcement. That means talking to more developers, project
leaders and companies about their needs and helping them get the
information they require. Quite a lot of our work will be centred
In addition to this, it's important to foster a legal network throughout
Europe that can provide support to developers in each nation. It would
be nice to see an emerging network that ensures that people in any
country with any legal system can get reliable answers easily.
I'd like to see the FTF playing a positive and productive part in
strengthening the legal foundation of Free Software in Europe. I'd like
to stress that everyone can help out with this goal. We have a mailing
list to coordinate volunteers interested in lending a hand and I'd be
delighted to welcome even more participants.