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FSFE and GPL-Violations.org Release Guide to Handling License Violations
Tuesday, December 09 2008 @ 09:33 AM EST

Free Software Foundation Europe's Freedom Task Force (FTF) and GPL-Violations.org have just formed a partnership that has released a guide to reporting and fixing license violations.

"The best way to solve compliance issues is to prevent them happening in the first place", says Shane Coughlan, FTF Coordinator. "We work to support this by educating the community at large. When problems do occur, we want people to be able to share information and resolve them effectively."

Of course, the ideal is for there to be no license violations, but when they happen, it's good to know how to handle it without making things worse. I notice that they suggest being careful about posting a suspected violation on a public message board. When I took a course in the GPL from the FSF some years back, from the US perspective, they said exactly the same thing. For one thing, most violations are not intentional, so why make it harder to resolve it by branding someone in public? There are better and friendlier ways. So what should you do instead? And if you are a business accused of such a violation, what are some tips to resolving it quickly and effectively? One, I see, on the top of the list is do acknowledge quickly receiving word of the allegation. Read on for the rest of their advice, based on their experience handling such matters.

************************

FTF: Reporting and fixing license violations

This guide presents some practical tips for solving common Free Software license compliance issues. It is not legal advice, and if in doubt, you should contact a qualified lawyer.

Reporting a violation

Be careful when reporting a violation. Accusations and suspicions voiced on public mailing lists create uncertainty and do little to solve violations. By checking your facts you can help experts resolve violations quickly.

Useful violation reports to companies about a potentially infringing product should contain:

  • The name of the product affected
  • The reason why a violation is believed to exist
  • The name of the project code that may have been violated
  • A statement regarding what licence this code is under
  • A link to the project site

Useful violation reports to organisations like gpl-violations.org or the FTF should contain:

  • The name of the project code that may have been violated
  • A statement regarding what licence this code is under
  • A link to the project site
  • The name and website of the party who may be violating the code
  • The reason why a violation is believed to exist

Additional tips:

  • Please do not forward long email threads. They make it difficult to assess the situation.
  • If you have clear evidence of a violation it is a good idea to tell the copyright holders. They can take legal action if necessary.

You can send violation reports to:

Handling a violation report

It is important to handle violation reports carefully. Free Software development focuses on community engagement and clear communication. That means it is important to respond to issues reported, even if your reply is initially brief. This helps prevent escalation.

Here are some useful steps:

  • Confirm you have received any reports sent in and inform the reporter you are looking into the case
  • If the report was made on a public forum try to move the discussion to a non-public space as soon as possible
  • Isolate the precise problem. If you don't already have the information, ask the reporter for:
    • The name of the product affected or the exact code causing a problem
    • The reason why a violation is believed to exist
    • The name of the project code that may have been violated
    • A statement regarding what licence this code is under
    • A link to the project site
  • Send updates to the reporter when they are available

Please bear in mind:

  • Not every reporter understands licences fully and there may be mistakes in their submissions
  • Compliance with the terms of the licences is not optional and lack of compliance can have serious consequences
  • You can hire compliance engineers or purchase compliance services from third parties if necessary

You can get more information about best practice in this field by contacting:

You can obtain compliance engineering support by contacting:

Preventing a violation

The best way to fix violations is to prevent them occuring.

Useful tips:

  • Read the licences you will use
  • Check out the websites explaining these licences
  • Get advice from experts

Useful tips for supply chain management:

  • If third parties supply you with code, ensure you have licence compliance stipulated in your contracts
  • Ask suppliers to bear the cost of resolving violations

For more information you can contact:

Copyright note

Copyright (c) 2008 Armijn Hemel, Shane Coughlan

This work is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported licence.


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