GPL Compliance For Advancement of OpenWRT [OpenWRT Summit 2018]

Bradley spoke at OpenWRT Summit 2016 about the history of copyleft and GPL, and how OpenWRT is central to it because it could get started due to a GPL compliance action.

GPL violations have become worse in the years since the start of OpenWRT. For example, maybe someone should sue Broadcom for their proprietary Linux driver. GPL is not very popular. GPL enforcement even has become a divisive issue. In fact, the storm started just two months after Bradley’s previous talk.

GPL today is widely violated: most devices running Linux don’t provide source code. Greg KH lawsuits are not needed because they’ve been successful so far without enforcement. However, Bradley believes that a lot of the success does come from the enforcement that has been done by e.g. Harald Welte from 2004 to 2013. Many of these were against wireless router vendors. Those code releases that he got were probably instrumental in the further development of OpenWRT.

Upstreams, however, really want upstreamable code, and enforcement actions never yield that - in fact, GPL doesn’t require giving anything to upstream. The primary goal has always been to protect the rights of downstream users.

GPL doesn’t just require the source of the executable code, but also the scripts to build and install it. It’s exactly the installation that is interesting for OpenWRT, otherwise you can’t install OpenWRT on the device.

What Linux tends to get upstream is things from large companies, what they want to invest to get upstream, usually for servers. But a lot of people work on Linux because they want to hack on devices, like OpenWRT. The latter is made possible by the GPL. That’s why Bradley claims that enforcement has been instrumental for the advancement of Linux.

It’s impossible to be sure that GPL enforcement has really helped. But it can debunk the FUD that GPL enforcement would hinder advancement, because it has happened, so Linux would have been endangered since 2002.

To resolve the dispute, Bradley developed the Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement principles, to explain what the goal is of GPL enforcement.

However, enforcement actions take years to resolve, and by the time it does get resolved the product is already resolved. Because of this, legal action against bad actors has to be considered.

In fact, Greg KH and Bradley agree on 99.99% of the principles of enforcement. They only differ in opinion on the point of lawsuits. Greg KH claims that it is never useful to go to court, Bradley says there are situations where it does help. Greg KH claims that lawsuits are disruptive, but Bradley says that companies sue each other all the time - that doesn’t mean that they can no longer work together.

Conservancy funded only 1 lawsuit: that of Christoph Hellwig against VMWare. VMWare’s product can’t work at all without the pieces of the Linux SCSI and networking subsystem, and VMWare knows very well what they are doing. The case is now considered for appeal in Germany.

Bradley doesn’t care about GPL per se. What he cares about is long-term software freedom for the users. New developers should be able to hack their devices and join our community. The wireless router world is the only place where this has been successful - on phones and on TVs it’s pretty much hopeless to install a rebuilt-from-source OS. Wireless routers were the canary in the coalmine: the first devices that needed Linux. But there will be more and more devices that are going to follow that route, in IoT.

It looks like companies in the wireless router ecosystem recognise the value of GPL compliance (now), while in the larger Linux community this doesn’t seem to be the case.

Enforcement is more work that it should be. It’s boring. It’s politically dangerous because of the opposition against the principle.

Bradley sees on OpenWRT forums users complaining about perceived compliance problems. Bradley is here to find out if the OpenWRT developers are motivated to do something about it, and if they would like the Conservancy to do something about it.