CopyleftConf 2020: quick rewind

CopyleftConf 2020: quick rewind

CopyleftConf 2020 took place on Monday, 3 February, 2020 in Brussels, Belgium:

This will be the second annual International Copyleft Conference. Participants from throughout the copyleft world — developers, strategists, enforcement organizations, scholars and critics — will be welcomed for an in-depth, high bandwidth, and expert-level discussion about the day-to-day details of using copyleft licensing, obstacles facing copyleft and the future of copyleft as a strategy to advance and defend software freedom for users and developers around the world.

This event will provide a friendly and safe place for discussion of all aspects of copyleft, including as a key strategy for defending software freedom!

Official conference website

This was my first time attending CopyleftConf. I attended on behalf of RIT LibreCorps to represent the sustainability efforts at the RIT FOSS@MAGIC initiative. However, I also represented myself as an individual in the Free Software movement. For CopyleftConf 2020, I arrived hoping to learn more about where we, as the Free Software community, are going. I also hoped to gain a deeper ethical perspective about our digital society.

Me excitingly looking up to the main stage, holding my CopyleftConf 2020 schedule, after having bought my ticket earlier that same morning.
Me excitingly holding my CopyleftConf 2020 schedule after having bought my ticket earlier that same morning.

Event reports take many forms. Since CopyleftConf 2020 is structured in a unique format, my event report is structured as follows:

  • At a glance: structure and key takeaways: High-level overview of what CopyleftConf 2020 was like. What the biggest ideas on my mind were at the end of the day.
  • Copyleft adopt curves: what drove copyright adoption then (or now?): Musings on the history of copyleft and movement building.
  • Free Software, but for kids: Children and teenagers are already building open source communities. How do we include the next generation?
  • Where are we going?: Software ethics and copyleft licensing.

At a glance: structure and key takeaways

If you’re here for the quick overview, this is it.

CopyleftConf 2020 is one of the best conferences I have attended. I bought my ticket the morning of the conference. Karen Sandler and Bradley Kuhn fired me up the day before in their FOSDEM 2020 talk. My initial reluctance to go was because I assumed it was a conference for FOSS lawyers. While it definitely includes that group, it isn’t exclusive to that group. CopyleftConf 2020 collected people from a diverse range of experiences and backgrounds in the open source world.

However, I also realized the “movers and shakers” in the Free Software world have been around a while. Many people there are embedded in this ecosystem for the last 10, 20, or even 30 years. I think I was the youngest person there. I realized Free Software has not done an excellent job of including my generation. This left me with interesting reflections on the future of copyleft and its ability to transfer lessons and values on to the next generation.

Structure: Dialogue and discussion

The best way to describe the format of CopyleftConf 2020 is “dialogue and discussion”. The first half of the conference started with traditional sessions, with speakers and slide decks. The end of the conference moved towards open panels with stronger audience participation. Most panels centered around topics or ideas addressed in the morning sessions.

I attended these sessions:

I came up with three key takeaways from CopyleftConf 2020 as a whole (not including the detailed sections further below):

1. Open source is in an identity crisis.

Many people are confused. The confusion is simultaneously indecisive and divisive. I believe the identity crisis stems from that early decision in 1997 about what we call this particularly different way of developing and collaborating on software and technology. Free Software or open source? One is politically charged and historically exclusive, while the other is more neutral and business-friendly, and more inclusive to people who believe in compromise. Today, we are seeing a similar divide emerge between Free/Open Source and Ethical Source.

There are several emotions. It is deeply personal. For some, the promises of free/open source failed our collective humanity. For others, open source is a vastly successful turn of events to make the closed world more open. Yet for others still, it is both. CopyleftConf 2020 took a highlighter to this tension between what we consider right and wrong. It also questioned what the role of Free Software is in all of this.

I don’t think anyone has the answer yet. Surely some people left CopyleftConf 2020 with a more clear view if they think licensing is a viable approach or not. But CopyleftConf 2020 did not have this answer. It just made it clear that most of us are still wrestling with this.

2. Millennials are underrepresented.

Most of the time I was at CopyleftConf 2020, I had massive imposter syndrome. This is no fault of the conference or the great steps the organizers took to make it inclusive, but wow. There were so many people there who I have seen all across Twitter. People who are moving and shaking in different realms of the open source world.

Yet as I looked around the room, I started to wonder what the average age demographic of the room was. Being in my early 20s, I felt like I was in a room of Free Software giants. Many people there have been pushing the conversation forward and definitively fighting for Software Freedom for a decade or more.

And then there was me. I don’t know what my role or higher calling is yet in this great big movement we call Free Software. While I was glad to be in the room, I felt sorely underrepresented in age.

Born digital

I couldn’t help but find it unusual though. My generation and those after me are the first generations who were born into the digital society, built by those who came before us. When I was four years old, I was privileged to have my own computer. By six, I was connected to the Internet (even if it was dial-up). By fourteen, I was in a Linux command line running my own Minecraft server with thousands of players.

While my perspective is rooted in some privilege, there is something interesting in my experience. I was born into a world where I didn’t make the choices of what hardware or software I used. In the beginning, everything was handed to me or provided for me.

For kids and teenagers today, this couldn’t be more of a reality. Before COVID-19, when you went out to a restaurant or public place, how often would you see a small kid clutching a tablet, provided by an exhausted parent? Adolescents today grew up in the always-online worlds of Google and Snapchat.

Today’s teenagers and young adults I know are often keenly aware that they are the prey in a complex digital world they are already so deeply embedded in. So, why resist at all? To them, there is little point in resisting because all the technology decisions made for them early in life locked them deeper into this “predator-prey” ecosystem.

Is Free Software ready for the millennials?

So, I felt like an imposter at this conference of people who are wise to the role of Software Freedom in our new digital society, but never grew up in the kind of world I did. A lot of the people in the room at CopyleftConf 2020 developed their worldview, ethical perspectives, and software preferences as the world changed around them. Me and other people of my generation were born into this world.

It makes the conversation around Software Freedom very different, and also challenging, because the next ten and twenty years of Software Freedom will have to include today’s youth to be truly sustainable.

3. The world is changing. Will Free Software?

Related to the identity crisis and under-representation of youth, the theme of change begins to emerge. Stallman and other Free Software leaders in the 1980s and 1990s were ahead of their time to realize the importance of Software Freedom in respecting and protecting user freedom. Some of those same people were also in the room at CopyleftConf 2020.

But today’s world is changing. Software became the commodity in the 1970s and 1980s. Free Software was the resistance. Today, data is the new digital commodity. Software is just one piece of a bigger puzzle. Software Freedom may protect one aspect of our digital lives, but it would be nonsensical to assume the digital world would stay the same. Why should Free Software?

The 2020s will be definitive

So, CopyleftConf 2020 made me realize that the next ten years will be definitive. The 2020s will determine whether open source becomes yet another cog in strengthening our capitalist society and enthroning corporations as a great benefactor to technology, or if Software Freedom undergoes some sort of transformation to meet the new demands of freedom in our digital world.

No matter your political leanings, read any news site that isn’t a tech journal and tell me honestly that there are not some scary trends in our technology world. COVID-19 is just the latest example, with our data privacy and digital rights being on the sacrificial alter for our “safety” and “protection”. This line is all too common. I have heard it as a justification of many things across my life since September 2001.

So, what will Free Software do?

Copyleft adoption has changed significantly over time, for better and for worse. This talk will survey the many factors that drive adoption, with particular focus on GPL v2 and Affero GPL v3. While some factors are obvious and reasonably well-understood (particularly the shift towards SaaS economics) many other nuanced factors play in as well.

Luis Villa

What I highlighted in my notes from Luis’s talk was his history lesson on adoption. While the history of Free Software wasn’t new to me, nor most people in the room, Luis took it in a different way. His history lesson was a reflection on “why?” and not just “what?”

Whether you think Free Software “won” or not, open source is here to stay. So, how did we get to where we are today? How did a famous software company go from calling open source an “intellectual property cancer” in 2001 to investing billions of dollars into open source and open source companies by 2020?

Add more chairs to the table

I loved this quote that Luis dropped: “Movement building is the only way to influence political change.” Luis gave examples from the 1990s of how evangelism and education were part of the building blocks of open source. There were “leading apps” that brought new people to the Free Software (or open source) table. Mozilla was the first browser that brought common lawyers in. A focus on education for lawyers, such as the F.S.F.’s 22,000 word F.A.Q., converted a motivation to learn into practical knowledge used for compliance work.

Luis Villa on copyleft adoption curves. Slide reads: "tl;dr (positive version): if you build a movement, maybe you won't need a license!"
Luis Villa on copyleft adoption curves.

However, I think Luis’s goal was to define, not to prescribe. He implied that building a movement doesn’t start with writing a license, based on his personal experiences (he did lead drafting of the Mozilla Public License). My takeaway from Luis is that we need to think about how we build a movement that includes people who aren’t at the table today to build a strong foundation for what comes next.

Free Software, but for kids

There was a panel on copyleft expansion and what should and shouldn’t be at the table. At some point, the role of “the next generation” came up in heralding the values of copyleft licensing forward in light of the popularity of permissive licenses.

This was personal. My first experience in the open source world was as a community member and later a volunteer staff member of the largest open source Minecraft server software project. In my time in that community, I learned a lot. I saw a major breakdown of the GPL for a community of hundreds of thousands of young adults, teenagers, and children. So, indeed, how is “the next generation” going to herald these values of copyleft licensing?

Talk with us, not at us

It is interesting to be present in these conversations about “the next generation” because it usually feels like people are talking at me instead of with me. It took some reflection time to realize this after CopyleftConf 2020, but I feel like some older folks like to imagine that younger folks will come on board and just start steering the ship in the same course it has always traveled. Some younger folks may be fine with that.

But I also think a lot of younger people will ask more of Free Software because of our collective experiences with Free Software licenses. From my hey-days in the Minecraft community, there is bad blood towards the GPL and copyleft licensing because of the scars it left on the community, even if it was really because the GPL should never have been used in that context.

But the demands for more also stem from the collective treatment by those senior to us in traditional “FOSS circles.” Even at my university, I also see how students become bitter and frustrated in instances where senior faculty and older community members insist on a Free Software-first, no-compromises approach. As if it were so simple for my generation.

I already explained the perspective of younger folks earlier in this blog post. But the way some senior folks treat us in the proper Free Software world is sometimes exclusionary and off-putting, even if that isn’t the intention. It discards great opportunity for guidance and mentorship. There is an innumerable amount of times an older person completely dismissed my decision to use a proprietary or mixed-source platform for a community, yet they lament about not having the patience to troubleshoot the Free Software tools they rely on when they fail (mailing lists and email spam filters, I’m looking at you).

Teach early and teach often

But that point aside, let’s bring it back to the panel. I think it was Allison Randall and John Sullivan who emphasized the importance of early education around the concepts of Software Freedom. The average middle school student interested in STEM will not comprehend the GPL. However, the Four Freedoms (by design) are easy to comprehend. The freedoms to Read, Run, Remix, and Redistribute are not that difficult to understand. Perhaps part of the answer lies in how we think about messaging to younger folks and keeping foundational concepts like the Four Freedoms at the forefront.

I still lament over the way that Free Software built itself in a technology-centered way instead of a people-centered way, but I digress.

Where are we going?

The hottest discussions I participated in were from The Rising Ethical Storm in Open Source (Coraline Ada Ehmke) and Software Ethics and Copyleft Licensing, emceed by Karen Sandler. Coraline dropped absolute fire in her talk, even knowing that the essence of her talk would alienate some people. But it was a call-out to us folks in tech who consciously or unconsciously live these values that our Free Software movement is built upon: the freedoms of personal liberty, as it lends itself both for justice and harm.

Coraline Ada Ehmke on the Rising Ethical Storm in Open Source. Slide reads: "Software freedom must not come before human freedom."
Coraline Ada Ehmke on the Rising Ethical Storm in Open Source.

I won’t spend a lot of time summarizing these talks and sessions, but one interesting thing to look up that Coraline mentioned was the Parable of the Locksmith.

During Karen’s session, I penned what ended up being a short speech in my notebook. When I was eventually passed the mic, I tried to fit too much into too little time, and I was not fully respectful of other folks who also had something to contribute to the discussion. So, instead, I will recap the full essence of what I wanted to say in my blog post.

Our software freedoms are not enough

The Four Freedoms, the foundation of all copyleft licenses, is not enough.

On the Saturday before CopyleftConf 2020, I presented at FOSDEM 2020 with my colleague and dear friend Mike Nolan on three new freedoms for AI that go beyond software. In our talk, we analyzed the history of how Free Software began as a social movement. It roughly flowed as follows:

  1. GNU Project, 1983: Establishment of values
  2. Free Software Foundation, 1985: Establishment of organization to champion the values
  3. GNU Public License, 1989: Establishment of license to enforce and protect the values

In today’s complex and changing world, we need more than Free Software’s Four Freedoms. This libertarian base was susceptible to the co-opting of its values as “open source.” It was always inevitable, because Free Software was built from the strengths and biases of those who founded the movement (i.e. Richard Stallman).

Free Software was designed with technology at its center, not people. This is to say, it was poorly designed.

Now, we have an ethical dilemma that was always possible because Freedom means freedom to do as you wish, not the freedom of all people.

Some context for discussing legal issues is key, but we need to push the conversation forward beyond semantics. We need to identify whether unethical uses of our software is something we will tolerate. We can’t continue to ignore or delegate social responsibilities for what we do.

So, now what?

On one hand, we need to be ready to have these conversations about real effects and the impact of what we do on people. Look at the Facebook news feed and the Myanmar genocide. Legal semantics is where we are stuck since we defined the Four Freedoms. But these freedoms are no longer enough.

There is not one answer of where we are going. There are only multilateral answers. We have to be intersectional and inclusive for where we go from here. Free Software needs to turn to its allies not only in law and licenses, but also in labor organizing and regulation authorities.

One direction on my mind is continuing to support D&I initiatives like Outreachy. Outreachy interns do awesome things during their internships, and many continue to do awesome things even when their internships end. Bringing more diverse perspectives to the table, especially from underprivileged groups, is key to giving those perspectives equitable power and influence.

We do have the power.

But everyone in that room at CopyleftConf 2020, and you, the reader, have some power. We all have some room to influence change for good. But we cannot avoid the discomfort. We can not keep turning away our eyes.

So, what will you do?

For me, I am wrestling with that question actively as I continue to make my way out into the world.

Thanks folx!

To wrap up this CopyleftConf 2020 report, a few thank-yous are in order:

  • Stephen Jacobs: For always being supportive for yet another trip abroad and helping me push my career forward in a number of ways (and footing the bill!)
  • Mike Nolan: My co-conspirator, partner in FOSS, and comrade in arms
  • Software Freedom Conservancy: For creating and holding this important space.

CopyleftConf 2020 continues to give me a lot to think about and consider. I’m fortunate to have attended. I hope this event report gives additional visibility to some of the conversations held in Brussels this year.