The Free Software Foundation shows us how to handle copyright infringement

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) alleges that Cisco, famous for making equipment used to route data around the Internet, has infringed on the FSF’s copyright in numerous programs used in their Internet routing equipment marketed under the Linksys brand (read the complaint and more background about the case).

It’s important to note some differences between how the FSF handles copyright infringement and what the FSF does in their everyday work from other famous copyright infringement litigators:

  • Not jumping into litigation lightly. The FSF tried to work with Cisco for 5 years but new copyright infringement issues came to the FSF’s attention faster than Cisco would resolve old infringement issues.
  • The FSF was initially silent about the issue. No press release, nothing aimed at embarrassment as far as I can tell; the FSF knows that you can often gain compliance with an inquiry about the issue and some advice on how to comply with the license. The FSF aims to fix practical problems and they have a strong record to point to should anyone question their sincerity. The FSF knows they have the courts to fall back on, but why take that long and expensive route when being nice will do the job?
  • No threats of suing Cisco into insolvency. Unlike the RIAA and MPAA which seek maximum penalties against poor individuals regardless of the actual value of the alleged infringement, the FSF first seeks license compliance in their copyright infringement cases. And Cisco is a multinational corporation worth billions of dollars, not a person!
  • The FSF builds on strengths by licensing to share. This means the FSF is helping distribute copyrighted works that don’t promote a culture of separation and helplessness like proprietary software distributors do. Anyone who infringes copyright of works intended to be shared and improved immediately gains sympathy because infringers are working against building a better world and treating nice people harshly.
  • Get your facts straight before you litigate. Don’t risk coming off as a jerk by treating serious litigation frivolously and suing the wrong people as the RIAA has done.

A few years ago at Roger Ebert’s “Ebertfest”, a movie festival in Urbana, Illinois, I was proud to tell Jack Valenti, former head of the Motion Picture Association of America, and the assembled crowd that copyright infringement can be handled differently; one can work with alleged infringers to help build a mass of public support ready to stand by the copyright holder instead of the alleged infringer. I specifically noted how the FSF and other free software advocates handle allegations of infringement because nothing is stronger than a working example (“running code” as Eben Moglen points out). I don’t think these points were lost on the late Valenti or on the crowd; the public is increasingly aware of ordinary people being pushed into insolvency by RIAA/MPAA lawsuits. Fueling public anger, some of those lawsuits are filed without regard to the facts on the ground.

I’m still proud of the FSF’s behavior. I hope you will join me in helping the FSF by becoming a member and by running more free software.

One thought on “The Free Software Foundation shows us how to handle copyright infringement

  1. And you know that the FSF doesn’t bring legal action unless they are nearly certain of the outcome. It’s a shame that Cisco let it come to this, when compliance is extremeley easy. As Eben Moglen is fond of saying: “Now I will show you how to make that ice in the winter time.”

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