Grant: Software Freedom Conservancy – Strategic GPL Enforcement Initiative

Date of Grant: July 8, 2020
Grant Amount:$100,000

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.

Strategic GPL Enforcement Initiative of the Software Freedom Conservancy

The 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. A substantial part of Conservancy’s strategy in this regard is upholding the rights of software users and consumers under the General Public License (GPL).

The OpenWrt project is a success story of GPL enforcement. Through the process of GPL enforcement by a large coalition, Linksys was compelled to release an almost-GPL-compliant source release for the WRT54G in 2003. A group of volunteers quickly built a new project, called OpenWrt, based on that source release.

In recent years, embedded systems technology has expanded beyond wireless routers to many so-called “Internet of Things” (IoT) devices. Conservancy has seen Linux-based firmwares on refrigerators, baby monitors, virtual assistants, soundbars, doorbells, home security cameras, police body cameras, cars, AV receivers, and televisions.

Conservancy recently completed an evaluation of the industry’s use of Linux in IoT products. The findings are disheartening and require action. Across the entire industry, most major manufacturers almost flaunt their failure to comply with the GPL. In our private negotiations, pursuant to our Principles of Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement, GPL violators stall, avoid, delay and generally refuse to comply with the GPL. Their attitude is almost universal: “If you think we’re really violating the GPL, then go ahead and sue us. Otherwise, you’re our lowest priority.”

Conservancy’s Plan For Action

Using funds from this grant, Conservancy has a two-pronged plan for action: litigation and persistent non-litigation enforcement.


Conservancy has pursued many violation matters during the last year where we expect compliance is impossible without litigation. We are poised to select a representative example and take action in USA courts against a violator who has failed to properly provide source code sufficient for consumers to rebuild and install Linux, and who still refuses to remedy that error after substantial friendly negotiation with Conservancy.

Conservancy, after years of analyzing its successes and failures of previous GPL compliance litigation, has developed new approaches to litigation strategy. We believe this will bring to fruition the promise of copyleft: a license that assures the rights and software freedoms of people who seek full control and modifiability of devices they own. With the benefit of this grant, Conservancy plans to accelerate these plans in 2020 and to keep the public informed at every stage of the process.

Persistent Non-Litigation Enforcement

Conservancy is the primary charitable watchdog of GPL compliance for Linux-based devices. We seek to use litigation as a tool in a broader course of action to continue our work in this regard. We expect and welcome that the high profile nature of litigation will inspire more device owners to report violations to us. We expect we’ll learn about classes of devices we previously had no idea contained Linux, and we’ll begin our diligent and unrelenting work to achieve software freedom for the owners of those devices. We will also build more partnerships across the technology sector and consumer rights organizations to highlight the benefit of copyleft to not just hobbyists, but to the entire general public.

Alternative Firmware Project

Finally, in a separate initiative which also received a grant from ARDC, Conservancy plans to 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.

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