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Location: website/www/conservancy/static/copyleft-compliance/firmware-liberation.html

Bradley M. Kuhn
Copyleft Compliance: Minor rewrite of firmware liberation

This rewrite should improve the stand-alone nature of these documents
and allow for better integration with other summary text and
announcements on the website.

Note that they have now drifted heavily from the original formulation
of the items as grant proposals.
{% extends "base_compliance.html" %}
{% block subtitle %}Copyleft Compliance Projects - {% endblock %}
{% block submenuselection %}EnforcementStrategy{% endblock %}
{% block content %}

<h1 id="software-freedom-conservancy-proposal-for-firmware-liberation-project">Firmware Liberation Project</h1>

Conservancy plans to select a class of product in the Linux-based embedded
system space.  For this product, Conservancy will launch, or assist, a
project that creates a functioning alternative firmware for those devices.
The promise of GPL enforcement is only realized through actual, practical use
and improvement of the released software for users.

<h2 id="gpl-enforcement-needs-follow-through">GPL Enforcement Needs Follow-Through</h2>

<p>Simply enforcing the GPL is an important first step, and Conservancy
  <a href="enforcement-strategy.html">continues our efforts in that
  regard</a>. However, We can
  replicate <a href="/copyleft-compliance/enforcement-strategy.html#brief-history-of-user-focused-gpl-enforcement">the
  success found with OpenWRT</a> <em>only by</em> a substantial
  effort <strong>after</strong> enforcement occurs to turn the compliant
  source release into a viable alternative firmware for the platform.</p>
                                           
<p>Conservancy has seen non-compliant Linux-based firmwares on refrigerators,
  baby monitors, virtual assistants, soundbars, doorbells, home security
  cameras, police body cameras, cars, AV receivers, and televisions.  We
  believe that building an alternative firmware for one of these classes of
  devices &mdash; or joining our work with an existing alternative firmware project
  that is struggling due to lack of sources available &mdash; will lead to
  more palatable software freedom for users of these device.</p>


<h2 id="limited-success-of-alternative-hardware">Limited Success of
  Alternative Hardware</h2>

<p>Alternative hardware projects remain an essential component of small
  device freedom. Conservancy supports and engages with communities that seek
  to source and build IoT-style devices from the ground up. We’re excited to
  see deployable boards that allow Maker efforts to create new devices.</p>

<p>Nevertheless, we remain ever-cognizant that FOSS succeeded on servers,
  laptop, desktop, and wireless router computers <em>precisely</em> because
  users could buy commodity hardware at any store and install FOSS
  alternatives to the vendor-provided software.  Throughout the history of
  FOSS, most new users who seek to experience software freedom want to do so
  with their existing devices first.  Many don't even know much about the
  issues involved in software liberation <em>until they've already purchased
  hardware</em>.  Conservancy therefore believes support of alternative
  firmwares for such devices is paramount.</p>

<h3 id="demonstrating-the-power-of-software-freedom">Demonstrating the power
  of software freedom</h3>

<p>To many, the benefits of software freedom are abstract. For less technical
  users, the idea of modifying or even reviewing the software on their
  devices is wholly theoretical. For technical users, there is a limited time
  available to invest in the devices they use for their everyday
  lives. Bringing people together to take collective action for the control
  of their own technology is a powerful proposition that has rarely been
  demonstrated.</p>

<p>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 contribute knowing their efforts will be meaningful.</p>

<p>However, decades of corporate involvement in copyleft have demonstrated
  that without an organized effort, control over one’s own software is purely
  theoretical, even when software has a copyleft license, and
  sometimes <em>even when</em> compliance with the copyleft license is
  acheived. 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.</p>

<h2 id="conservancys-plan-for-action">Conservancy’s Plan For Action</h2>

<p>Conservancy seeks to 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.</p>

<p>Second, depending on what subindustry (i.e., specific class of devices)
  seems most responsive to increased enforcement activity and willing to
  provide compliant source releases quickly, we will launch, coordinate and
  fund an alternative firmware project for that class, or, if appropriate,
  merge our efforts with an existing alternative firmware project for that
  class of device.</p>

<h2 id="leveraging-on-increased-enforcement">Leveraging on Increased
  Enforcement</h2>

<p><a href="enforcement-strategy.html">Conservancy already plans to select a
  specific violation and engage in litigation.</a> Based on past experience,
  we expect that the press and attention to that ongoing litigation will
  yield increased responsiveness by violators throughout the industry. (A
  similar outcome occurred after our BusyBox-related litigation in 2006.)
  This expected change in behavior will open opportunities to replicate the
  OpenWRT approach in another embedded electronic subindustry. Fast action
  will be necessary; most IoT products have an 18 month lifecycle, so we seek
  to quickly identify the right subindustry, gain compliance there, and move
  on to the next phase.</p>

<h3 id="funding-firmware-liberation">Funding Firmware Liberation</h3>

<p>While we’ve long hoped that volunteers would take up compliant sources
  obtained in our GPL enforcement efforts and build alternative firmware
  projects as they did with OpenWRT, history shows us that the creation of
  such projects is not guaranteed and exceedingly rare.</p>

<p>Traditionally, our community has relied exclusively on volunteers to take
  up this task, and financial investment only comes after volunteers have put
  in the unfunded work to make a Minimum Viable Product (MVP) liberated
  firmware. While volunteer involvement remains essential to the success of
  alternative firmware projects, we know from our fiscal sponsorship work
  that 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 our last fiscal year, Conservancy funded 160
  contributors to work on FOSS.)</p>

<p>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.</p>

<p>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. We know that sustaining funding over long
  periods for a grassroots hobbyist activity is quite challenging; we seek to
  bootstrap and catalyze interest and contribution to the project. Ideally,
  Conservancy would run the project with a single full-time staffer for about
  a year, and achieve a volunteer base sufficient to reduce funding to one
  part-time staffer.</p>

<h3 id="criteria-for-device-selection">Criteria for Device Selection</h3>

<p>The IoT device industry moves quickly and we must be prepared to adapt
  based on new information. 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:</p>

<ul>
<li><p>Do most devices in the subindustry already run a known FOSS system
    (such as Android/Linux, BusyBox/Linux or GNU/Linux)?</p></li>

<li><p>In response to our increased enforcement activity, how many existing
    GPL-compliant source releases are available from how many different
    vendors in this subindustry?</p></li>

<li><p>Is there a known userspace application that runs on Maker-built
    hardware that does the task the proprietary userspace software from the
    vendor did?</p></li>

<li><p>What is the excitement level among volunteers for this
    project?</p></li>

<li><p>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?</p></li>

</ul>

<p>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.</p>