the (a)gpl, the commons, the means, the ends

hey so i recently forgot that i had eaten an edible and had some really poorly articulated takes about this:

the gist of what is said is that copyright crimes are cool and that nerds should stop calling the cops on people who use their code wrong. i said nerds should “embrace the commons”, without any context. that’s still a take i’m willing to defend, but i obviously need to explain it some more!

fuck florida man

florida man did the wrong thing, he tried to make a mastodon knock-off without opening his source code. this is objectively “uncool”. the guy is also a land baron and general piece of shit.

exploitation of labour

so the very obvious retort to my shitty claim is, “well this millionaire landlord is plundering the commons and exploiting peoples’ labour, why shouldn’t they use the tools at their disposal to defend themselves?”

look, it’s a good point and it’s well made. i do think there’s a couple of things we need to to contextualise to discuss this properly though.


mastodon is Free and Open Source Software (FOSS). this means the code is freely available, for any purpose including commercial sale. it’s hard for me to imagine how anyone’s labour could be exploited under this circumstance, once the code is public.

in the FOSS ecosystem no one is under any obligation to pay you anything, the code is hosted for free on public servers so developers don’t even incur costs when people making copies of their code. you can’t really steal the product of workers’ labour in this circumstance, it’s already being given freely.


mastodon is licensed under the Affero GNU Public License (AGPLv3), which is probably the strictest copyleft license in common usage today.

copyleft is, essentially, a hack of copyright law, usually implemented by copyright holders through licenses like the GPL. copyleft licenses state that you can have the code and do whatever you want with it, but anything you build with that code has to be copyleft as well. functionally this means that if someone forks your project and makes some cool improvements to it you get to benefit from that too! and that is an unambiguously good thing!

what florida man did wrong

the harm that florida man has wrought, in this instance, is not sharing his code with the community. this is rude, and shitty, but i still find it hard to locate the real-world damage to mastodon developers here.

an analogy would be one of those free street libraries you often see: “take one, leave one”. what florida man has done, is take a book and not leave one of his own. except the book is still available to everyone because it was duplicated when he took it. so no harm no foul?

another analogy is piracy, that florida man has done the equivalent of an objectively cool crime: torrenting. but github doesn’t really work that way, the content is already free to take. again no harm, no foul.

so it’s just that florida man didn’t share his mastodon fanfic with the community, that’s what the developers are being deprived of.

does copyleft even work?

i’d say, yes, but only in the sense that the community can enforce it socially. there are however, thousands, if not millions of GPL-violating products in broad circulation today.

the reality of copyleft, in the case of the GPL at least, in terms of forcefully attaining proprietary code from people who violate the community norms is pretty underwhelming.

a ballad of two boxen

rob landley is the author of busybox and toybox, two minimalist implementations of what is often described as “coreutils” by GNU people. things like the operating system shell, basic command line utilities like cp, mv, rm, ln. real nuts and bolts stuff. these utilities are generally shipped in embedded platforms, like wireless routers, smart tvs, android devices etc: applicances with very real memory and processing contraints that can do without a lot of fancy features.

busybox is licensed under the GPLv2 and is one of the most popular shell implementations for companies like d-link, linksys, tp-link, netgear etc when they put together their awful little wifi routers. in 2008 landley was involved in the first ever lawsuit to retrieve code from a GPL-violator, linksys. check out his talk (really rough listening, needs an edit) the rise and fall of copyleft from the 2013 ohio linuxfest (text outline).

after a dozen or so lawsuits landley finally got the super-secret proprietary special sauce from linksys that had been so maliciously withheld. turns out linksys had checked out a bleeding-edge version of the busybox code base with some partially-implemented features they wanted to ship. linksys very sloppily implemented these features and included them on some consumer-grade routers. by the time landley got his hands on the source all of the features had been fully implemented, to a much higher quality, by the project itself. there was not a single line of code he could use.

this is why i refer to florida man’s hidden code as fanfic, there’s an extremely low chance that he’s written anything of actual value that wouldn’t be better implemented by the community.

the linksys lawsuits lead to a rash of copyleft court cases however, as it was now proven that the GPL could be legally enforced. this in turn lead to corporations increasingly refusing to work with copyleft software, as it seemed like a good way to wind up in court for years over nonsense. landley, in response, ended up leaving the project to start work on toybox, a permissively licensed busybox alternative.

people like matthew garrett (who i have a lot of time for) heavily criticised landley for undermining the GPL by starting the toybox project, but his view (which i share) is that litigation was actually the cause itself of corporate avoidance, and that he should be able to “end the lawsuits in any way [he saw] fit”.

the toybox project was eventually relicensed using my personal favourite license, 0BSD, which is pretty much the minimum legalese required to satisfy the berne convention. since then it has been adopted into android and therefore shipped globally on the world’s most popular operating system, something that you increasingly can’t achieve with copyleft projects.

here’s landley at the 2013 embedded linux conference on toybox:

(text outline)

copyleft used to work better

the throughline in landley’s talks about this are that before the lawsuits of the late 2000’s copyleft was synonymous with the GPLv2, it was seen as a “universal receiver”, in that basically you had one license to check compatibility with, and that if you were good on that front then you were good to collaborate! eventually tivo, a DVR manufacturer, won a lawsuit due to the way they packaged the code, and didn’t have to share the changes. this lead to the free software foundation producing a third version of the GPL, which was backwards-incompatible with previous versions of the GPL, specifically to outlaw “tivo-isation”.

this has lead to a massive fracturing of the FOSS scene, and licenses such as the AGPL which require source code to be shared to users even if it is not ever run on their own hardware (the network clause).

all said, far more useable code was shared before the lawsuits, when the enforcement of the license was social, rather than through courts and cops.

i think this line from the rise and fall of copyleft talk sums up the current situation best:

free: preventing uses you disapprove of.

rob landley

well what should we do then?

okay, so if you agree with me up to this point you’ll understand that copyright enforcement is super damaging to the free software scene. so how do we actually get our hands on that good corporate code then?

OpenBSD: The proactively secure UNIX operating system

Only two remote holes in the default install, in a heck of a long time!

OpenBSD project

OpenBSD is perhaps, per-developer, the most influential free software project of all time. Infrastructural staples such as OpenSSH, sudo, spamdm, CARP, LibreSSL and OpenBGPD were all born within or are currently maintained by the OpenBSD project and its developers. for decades OpenBSD has pioneered fundamental security concepts such as process isolation, privilege separation, ipsec, ASLR, W^X, and static-PIE.

whatever operating system you’re running right now, you are definitely running code written in OpenBSD, whether that’s their libc which was ported to android as “bionic”, whether that’s LibreSSL running on your apple products, or OpenSSH running on basically every system you could care to name.

OpenBSD is named as such because after its split from NetBSD in 1995 it became the first free software project to host a publicly available OpenCVS for code checkout and contributions. Instead of waiting for the authors to publish a new version you could see development happen in real time, and contribute changes yourself as part of that process!

OpenBSD also has prided itself on simplifying its licenses, away from the 3-clause BSD, through 2-clause BSD and now the 1-clause ISC license. the only thing you have to do to reuse OpenBSD code is give the developers credit somewhere in your project.

precisely because of OpenBSD’s permissive approach to copyright it’s innovations have become embedded in basically every computer on the earth at this point, which has had an incalculable benefit towards the common good, when it comes to safety, security and interoperability. companies like microsoft and apple don’t hoard important innovations, because OpenBSD is already there for the taking. companies who do want to iterate on top of these projects generally do contribute their changes back, because they get extremely high-quality and thorough code reviews and maintenance from the OpenBSD project for free! externalising costs! (exploitation of labour?)

this is not an isolated instance, the FreeBSD project, which is published mainly under the 2-clause BSD license, has received significant contributions from apple, who use FreeBSD as the basis for darwin which constitutes the UNIX parts of MacOS and iOS. likewise Netflix is a huge consumer of FreeBSD and has made huge contributions to its already world-class networking stack.

the only thing ensuring these contributions is community expectation, and just the obvious reality that common access to this code makes the code better. and it works fantastically well!

embracing the commons

here is where we return to my greened-out shit post from earlier, that nerds should stop suing people and embrace the commons.

i threw up a couple of analogies earlier, the street library and the pirate bay. here’s one that i think we actually should work towards: the free shop.

anarchists for a long time now have engaged in mutual aid, in recent decades through projects like food not bombs, and often using the priniciples of the free shop.

take what you need.

that’s it!

and this is the opportunity that the techno-positivists of the early internet romanticised so sincerely, that the property relations of the 20th century and prior could be circumvented with the emergence of digital production.

goods could be infinitely reproduced for basically no cost, communities of likeminded strangers could take collective stewardship over the entirety of human information.

free software has the opportunity to be an important prefiguration of post-scarcity property relations.

people like the wrong boys talk about library socialism a lot, as a new system of property relations based on usufruct: the idea that you are free to use a benefit from collective property, but that you must not destroy it. such an idea still has to work upon the assumption that some people will do the wrong thing, and use the commons for evil, or be destructive. in such a prefigurative project however, we are obliged to prefigure fitting responses. social and communal enforcement of norms is not only consistent, but it’s practical.

using copyright law to compel people for their shitty fanfic is inconsistent with such a goal, and causes more harm than good in any event.

fuck florida guy, but don’t call the cops to settle this

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