Exposed: FSFE, Legal & Licensing Workshop (LLW), Legal Network & Modern Slavery

In most non-profit voluntary organizations, every volunteer and the public at large are informed about the annual events and invited to participate. For example, in Debian everybody is invited to the annual DebConf.

Yet in the FSFE, the biggest event, which is also the biggest item on the budget, is run behind closed doors. This is the Legal & Licensing Workshop (LLW) which is held in Barcelona each year. One of the emails below helps us see the size of the FSFE financial commitment to this lawyers' picnic. The event budget well over €75,000, while the total revenue for 2018 was €498,407. Given that Fellows contribute a lot of that money, why were we blocked from attending?

In addition to running this secret event, FSFE operates a secret mailing list called the legal-network. FSFE claims to be committed to transparency but they don't allow the community to participate in the Legal Network mailing list. Even the Fellowship representatives elected by the community were obstructed from joining the Legal Network mailing list.

The Legal Network members are not members of the FSFE e.V. They can be seen as a separate group that is exploiting the resources of the FSFE. For example, FSFE operating costs are subsidized by donations from individual supporters and Fellows. FSFE's servers are maintained by the volunteer system-hackers. FSFE sysadmins go around the community events asking for free help from developers in other projects.

Yet the FSFE is simply a facade for a bunch of highly paid corporate lawyers who are freeloading.

Using a non-profit organization to recruit unpaid labour in this manner is far worse than astroturfing, it puts FSFE and the lawyers into the domain of modern slavery.

Not only are the Legal Network participants freeloading, some of them are even plotting against the very principles and philosophy that encouraged people to donate or volunteer in the first place. In the third email below from Max Mehl, we can see that LLW / Legal Network participants see the GPL as an inconvenience. This is the mindset of people who want to obfuscate code so we can't see what the code is really doing.

In the first message below, we can see the nature of the LLW Barcelona budget and the burden this creates on FSFE's finances.

Subject: [GA] Interim report: LLW budget 2018
Date: Mon, 22 Jan 2018 14:27:25 +0100
From: Jonas Oberg <>

Dear all,

First of all, my apologies for not sending you our proposed budget for 2018
yet. We've yet to agree on the whole budget proposal in the council.
(And apologies for sending you so many mails on a Monday!)

However, I would like to bring your attention to the cost of organising the
LLW 2018. This has been discussed in our legal team, but the team asked us
to also brief the GA about it.

As you know, the Legal and Licensing Workshop is our premier legal event.
It's a high profile event which contribute greatly to the FSFE activities.
The budget for the LLW has increased in line with the event growing, and
in most cases the income generated from participation fee and sponsorships
have surpassed that increase.

For this years LLW, there was a decision to contract an external event
coordinator to carry out some of the activities in preparation for, and at
the LLW, to offload work from Matthias and Polina.

Unfortunately, this has lead not only to an increase cost for the
event coordinator, but also to an increased cost for the LLW location, owing
to the contracted event coordinator failing to secure the venue agreed

This means the new budget requested by our legal coordinator for the LLW
2018 is ca €74,000. This is a significant deviation from our previous
calculation of €63,000, and much above the 2017 budget of €57,000. At
this point, we are not certain if the income generated from the event will
in fact surpass the increased costs, but the feeling is that it will.

However, unlike previous years, this means that the income generated from
LLW sponsorships, or in relation to the LLW, will likely not cover the costs
of maintaining the legal network.

To mitigate this, the legal team has recommended the contract with the event
coordinator is terminated, but we feel that any other changes right now, so
close to the event itself, would only be detrimental to the success of the

Rather, the intention is to go ahead with the plannning and costs as they
are, organise a successful event, and then do a proper analysis of this
after the event, such that the risk of this repeating 2019 can be avoided.

Best regards,

Jonas Öberg
Executive Director

FSFE e.V. - keeping the power of technology in your hands. Your
support enables our work, please join us today
GA mailing list

In the next email, we can see that as Fellowship representative, I repeatedly asked to be included in the Legal Network so I can report back to Fellows about how these lawyers are siphoning off our resources:

Subject: request to join legal network (again)
Date: Mon, 11 Jun 2018 14:25:53 +0200
From: Daniel Pocock <>
To: Matthias Kirschner <>

Hi Matthias,

I'm re-sending my request to join the legal network.  I would kindly
request that the application to join be acted upon promptly so I can
fulfil my duties as fellowship representative.


Here is an email from FSFE employee Max Mehl. Max is not a developer. Max is telling us that LLW participants see the GPL as an inconvenience and they are plotting against it. How many people would stop donating to the FSFE is they knew about this?

Notice the comment that Copyleft (CL) "gives power to individual developers who can turn out being nasty". The implication is that developers should be docile slaves.

Max's conclusions talk about "corporate freedoms". In other words, corporations that want to download stuff they didn't pay for and bully the authors into giving them unlimited rights to use it. "corporate freedoms" is clearly equivalent to modern slavery.

Subject: [LLW] Workshop on Copyleft
Date: Fri, 27 Apr 2018 11:29:41 +0200
From: Max Mehl <>
To: FSFE Team <>

Hi all,

I've attended a workshop at the recent LLW about "Reforming Copyleft".
During these 2 hours in a large group with people from a lot of IT
companies and communities we've had a very interesting discussion which
made me think a lot. As I wanted to organise my notes and thoughts
anyway, I think you might be interested in the outcomes, too. Please
excuse if the notes may be a bit unorganised.

We started by summarising some goals/advantages of copyleft and also its

- Maximisation of freedoms (esp. strong copyleft)
- Capture and protection of (own) innovation for good
- Preserve and grow commons
- Protection from monopolists in a project and its development.   - Example: What if Google just made Kubernetes proprietary software?
- When GPL has been created, it has been urgently needed. Not anymore?

- Compulsory sharing (under its conditions) often seen as business
- CL gives power to individual developersLawyers vs developers
  - Nowadays, developers may be more important when it comes to the
    selection of the license than lawyers. They just make the decision
    (except in large companies of course, but even there they have quite
    some power just by deciding which libraries under which licenses
    they choose)
  - Devs often don't know the licenses in details, that's a problem
  - Devs choose what they are used to. They often just copy their last
    used license
- GPL has been very popular because Linus and RMS have been role models.
  - This isn't valid anymore today. Projects by Google, Amazon, Apple
    are the hot shit, most of them anti-CL companies
  - There's no newly emerged large popular project under GPL etc
  - MIT highly popular because it's short and easy to read
    - BUT: Also issues with MIT (and BSD), e.g. patents and no
      interpretation by MIT (and Berkeley)
- Corporate devs are often not allowed to work on CL-licensed projects,
  increases problem
- Shift in views: Romantic ideals -> business ethos
- LGPL, weak copyleft isn't really popular because broad knowledge about
  it is missing
  - "LGPL probably is the only more complex license than GPL"
- GPL + clarifications/modifications create even more complexity and
  license diversity and possible incompatibilities   - BUT: the criticised "blurry boundaries" can be solved by these
- GPL is hard to advocate for in companies because of fear of

## On misconceptions

- permissive licenses are often perceived as less risky than (strong)
  - "CL perhaps not needed anymore since we had a cultural change?"
  - The whole system only works as long as everyone behaves. But what if
    large contributors change their mind?
  - CL is a tool to prevent the worst case, but today permissive
    licenses work
- "Linux isn't GPL but in fact LGPL because of numerous exceptions"

## On enforcement

- "Enforcement is useful, but nobody wants to take the blame"
  - Companies often anonymously contact individual rights holders or SFC
    asking them to fight for them

## On future and leadership

- "There's no one to "lead" the pro-CL movement. FSF is no leading force
  anymore."   - pro-CL role models urgently needed
  - How will the technology look like in 20 years? Will we still/again
    need CL?
- Public Administrations are different than business sector: They favour
  (A)GPL to protect publicly funded software and innovations, and vendor
- We need more data on license choice by developers. Current data is
  often biased and incomplete
- "Probably we need a whole conference on Copyleft, but we shouldn't
  invite FSF"
  - FSF perceived as "maximalists" and people one cannot argue with
- Do we need a new CL license, the best of Apache, MPL, GPL?

# My thoughts and conclusion

As I said, I still think about the workshop a lot, especially in
combination with the whole LLW. I'll again try to sort a bit to perhaps
start a discussion somewhen.

- Opposite to my expectations before the event, there were many, often
  corporate, people in favour of the GPL and Copyleft in general.
  Permissive licenses are easier to advocate for and quite popular among
  young developers, but they also contain risks. Perhaps, the fear of
  gigantic, anti-CL companies worries them
- Do we need to create and find new role models for Copyleft? Perhaps
  it's the public sector that renews the thinking about CL by demanding
  a long-term protection of innovation and public investment?
- What role should we as FSFE play? Shall we engage more in licensing
  issues? Should we replace FSF as a more rational pro-CL advocate? What
  would that mean for our relationship to anti-CL companies (like
  Google) and the whole industry? Should we focus on bringing together
  CL advocates from different fields to not leave its development and
  support up to the rather unpopular FSF?
- "Freedoms" are still important, but should we extend their meaning?
  Not only individual freedoms and those of a society could be meant,
  but also corporate freedoms in the sense of acting on the same level
  with competitors and a fair market.


PS: Please note that the conference and discussion took place under the
Chatham House Rule. Please do not cite me with the summary and
conclusions, they are incomplete.

Max Mehl - Program Manager - Free Software Foundation Europe
Contact & information: | @mxmehl
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