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Interview with Shane Coughlan of FSFE's Freedom Task Force, by Sean Daly
Sunday, February 25 2007 @ 05:41 PM EST

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 Cybernetic warfare.

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

Q: What about the enforcement side of things? If you are representing the legal interests of a project, what do you do if there is infringement?

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 foundation.

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 around this.

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.

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