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GPL advocates urged told to pay for love

Freedom is just another word for $7,000

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Comment The folks looking after the general public license (GPL) are fond of portraying themselves as the humble shepherds of the free and open source software movement. Their job, among other things, is to provide an open and transparent means for protecting the freedom to review, copy, tinker with and redistribute code.

So fervent is their love of freedom and all that is free they dubbed one of their organizations The Software Freedom Law Center and the other The Free Software Foundation.

So it came as a surprise to learn that the SFLC - the enforcement arm of the GPL - plans to offer a private and pricey seminar designed to give a small group of handpicked legal eagles a head start in untangling the confusion that is sure to result from the first revision to the GPL in more than 15 years. The price for the two-day event: $7,000.

An email advertising the invitation-only seminar promises it will provide a "carefully-selected" group of attorneys with "exclusive insight" into the final wording of GPLv3, its interpretation and "the likely enforcement strategy of" of the Free Software Foundation and other FOSS rights holders.

Media representatives for the SFLC and the FSF declined to comment except to say that the event, originally scheduled for the end of this month, has been postponed to an as-yet undetermined date. (This means your reporter is relying on his informed readers for details about this and other covert activities of the FSF or SFLC. Send your email here - confidentiality assured, free of charge.)

Like plenty of interests in the FOSS community, the FSF and the SFLC have encountered their share of critics over the years. True to form, the detractors wasted no time in mixing metaphors designed to show what's wrong with the groups' hosting of an event as costly and secretive as this one.

"If it were a political invitation-only event, I would say people are buying themselves into the Lincoln Bedroom, especially if they're trying to keep it hush-hush," said Michael Graham, an intellectual property attorney who has taken issue with some of the changes the FSF is proposing for version 3 of the GPL. Attendees "are going to get from the horse's mouth what the horse is going to do to enforce this new code."

Most other FOSS curmudgeons declined to grumble on the record, insisting that their comments would only increase the chances that their clients would be targeted by the FSF and SFLC. With the veil of anonymity, however, they suggested the $7,000 price tag - about five times the going rate of other legal seminars - amounted to little more than protection money.

Large companies professing their love for open source in public will want to go ahead and send a few lawyers to this conference for educational, political and back-rubbing due diligence.

Greg Aharonian, whose best work has always been exposing the more absurd extremes of intellectual property law, was the only other individual we found willing to have his name attached to his rant. "Go rent Goodfellas and use some of that language to describe it," he said.

To be fair, the aspirations of FSF and the SFLC far outstrip their means. Their combined revenue for the most recent years they filed tax returns was a little less than $2.5m, which isn't a lot when you're fighting for truth and justice in the world of FOSS.

But even if the seminar merely amounts to an attempt by two worthy groups to fund their activities, there's another reason to question the fund raiser. The whole point of contract law is to draft documents with little or no ambiguity in them. Charging $7,000 to explain the finer points of a license you've spent years bringing to fruition isn't the best way to convince a skeptical public you are the most competent of stewards. Or the most freedom loving.®

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