Grant: Software Freedom Conservancy – Firmware Liberation Project

Date of Grant: July 8, 2020
Grant Amount:$150,000

Software Freedom Conservancy is a 501(c)(3) non-profit charity registered in New York. Founded in 2006, Conservancy helps people take control of their computing by growing the software freedom movement, supporting community-driven alternatives to proprietary software, and defending free software with practical initiatives. Conservancy accomplishes these goals with various initiatives including fiscal sponsorship, licensing and project governance policy, and public advocacy. Some of Conservancy’s most important licensing policy work involves defending and upholding the rights of software users and consumers under copyleft licenses, such as the GPL.

Firmware Liberation Project of the Software Freedom Conservancy

For less technical users, the idea of modifying software on their devices is only theoretical. Technical users have limited time to invest in modifying the devices they own. When alternative firmware projects like OpenWrt exist for IoT devices, non-technical users can replace the software on their devices and benefit from custom, community-controlled software. Technical users are more likely to make small contributions to an established project.

Decades of corporate involvement in copyleft have demonstrated that without an organized effort, control over one’s own software remains theoretical, even when software has a copyleft license, and sometimes even when compliance with the copyleft license is achieved. Conservancy recognizes that there is a unique opportunity for charitable organizations to step in and change the power dynamic of the tech industry for consumers.

Conservancy will fund work on liberating firmware for a specific device. This is accomplished with a two-prong approach: first, we will leverage increased interest and tendency toward GPL compliance throughout the embedded industry to more quickly achieve compliant source releases in a particular subindustry. Second, depending on what subindustry (i.e., specific class of devices) seems most responsive to that increased enforcement activity, we will launch, coordinate and fund an alternative firmware project for that class.

Under a separate grant, Conservancy has been funded to select a specific violation and engage in litigation, which will encourage compliance within that industry, allowing Conservancy to replicate the OpenWrt approach there.

FOSS history shows us that the creation of projects like OpenWrt is not guaranteed and exceedingly rare when we rely only on volunteers. Volunteer involvement remains essential to the success of alternative firmware projects, but certain aspects of FOSS projects require an experienced charity to initiate and jump-start some of the less exciting aspects of FOSS project creation and development.

In the initial phase of this grant, Conservancy will select a specific class of device. Upon achieving compliant source releases in that subindustry through GPL enforcement, Conservancy will launch an alternative firmware project for that class of device.

Conservancy will seek to fund the time of project leaders and infrastructure for the project. The goal is to build a firm base that draws volunteers to the project. Ideally, Conservancy would run the project with a single full-time staffer for a about a year, and achieve a volunteer base sufficient to reduce funding to one part-time staffer.

Criteria for Device Selection

The first stage in this work will be to carefully evaluate and select the device on which to focus for this project. Conservancy will evaluate the following criteria in selecting a class of devices:

  • Do most devices in the subindustry already run a known FOSS system (such as Android/Linux, BusyBox/Linux or GNU/Linux)?
  • In response to our increased enforcement activity, how many existing GPL-compliant source releases are available from how many different vendors in this subindustry?
  • Is there a known userspace application that runs on Maker-built hardware that does the task the proprietary userspace software from the vendor did?
  • What is the excitement level among volunteers for this project?
  • What value will hobbyists achieve from replacing the software on their device? For example, would they be able to avoid surveillance or add accessibility features?

Finally, Conservancy will be prepared and willing to recognize temporary failure and setbacks in a particular subindustry and pivot quickly to choosing a different class of devices. This project is ambitious, and we’ll be adept in our approach to ensure success.

A more complete description of the project is available on Conservancy’s website.