It Matters Who Owns Your Copylefted Copyrights

Choice quote:

After I’d explained some of issues above, the developer stated: “Well, is any of this really an issue for GCC? When was the last time there was a GPL violation on GCC?”. I glibly answered: “Well, I haven’t heard about one for about a week, but I’ll surely hear about another one soon.” The developer was flummoxed to learn that part-and-parcel to nearly every embedded Linux GPL violation (which have been, for years, innumerable) is a companion violation on GCC. Specifically, most system-on-chip (SoC) vendors not only have a stock Linux build given to the OEMs, but also include a toolchain. More often than not, a GPL violator who has what we call an “incomplete Complete, Corresponding Source (CCS)” violation on Linux will also have a “no-source-or-offer” or “incomplete CCS” violation on GCC.


It’s fine to point out how little devs are aware of license violations. But how are they supposed to know in the first place, when organizations like SFLC and FSF, which are nominally in charge of GPL enforcement, hobble themselves with self-imposed “enforcement principles” that require soft hands and confidentiality? Moreover, how are other potential violators supposed to know there will be consequences, if they never see or hear about others getting caught and having to pay?

People ask me to give short courses on compliance with copyleft licenses all the time. I regularly get follow-up questions to the basic effect of “yeah, but does any of this even get enforced?” The realistic response to that is basically that a lot of companies do flaunt licenses like GPL and get away with it. If you get hauled in by one of the foundations, you can just slow-play them, apparently for years at a time, because they’re “ethically” averse to actually hitting you. So your real concern is copyleft projects backed by companies.

The foundations are all private carrots, no public stick. They paint all other approaches as “not community oriented”, “trolls”, and profiteers who just swing clubs for dollars. But those companies create news stories by suing on the public record. Then they settle in private.