How to approach hardware companies that distribute non-free firmware

Daniel Clark dclark at
Thu Mar 11 04:39:24 UTC 2010

On 03/07/2010 06:03 AM, Felipe Sanches wrote:
> I think that the ideal solution would be to convince the company that
> produces the hardware to properly provide the source code of the
> currently non-free firmwares under a free licence. We must ask for it
> anyways, even if I think that there is a great chance of not getting
> it from them.

In many (most?) cases, the company with its name on the hardware is 
relatively far removed from the actual company that could make this 
decision. So perhaps it would be better to first ask the "obvious" 
company which company(s) could actually make the decision to release the 
firmware(s) under a free license, and if it is not them if they would 
support a community effort to get their upstream to free the firmware, 
or if they would commit to working with and funding the free software 
community to produce firmware for some of their future devices.

Hardware revs / goes out of production so fast and turnover is so high 
in many companies that advocating for current stuff (to us; it's moved 
out of their or their upstream's engineering departments months ago, 
people have moved on to different projects or left etc.) to be freed in 
general seems much less effective to me than getting a company to 
release a device with freedom already included; IMHO that (and/or 
copyleft hardware) is the only long-term way to win, otherwise the free 
software community will always be in the position of searching for 
out-of-date hardware that sort of works with replacement, not shipped 
with the product originally, partially or fully reverse engineered 

The appropriate response to me seems to be to advocate for and 
vociferously support (think apple fanboys at a minimum) companies that 
do ship products that respect your freedom, not to beg companies that 
don't care as much for what usually turns out to be incomplete 
information, and then do their engineering gratis (not that this is bad, 
but if a company is going to pay for firmware anyway, why not convince 
them they should pay free software writing consultants rather than a 
nonfree software company?)

> So we might have to try a "plan B": The second thing that we should
> ask for (in case they deny the first request) would be information
> about the hardware architecture. That is, the specs of the board:
> which processors are used, which bus protocols are used, which
> dedicated chips and FPGA models are available in the device board and
> what are the addresses or ports to which these devices are mapped.
> With this info we can more easily implement our own free alternative
> firmware. (Part of this info might be also figured out by inspecting
> hi-res photos of the device or, ideally, by buying one board and
> inspecting the board itself in case the available photos on the
> internet have too low resolution - which is indeed very common)

In the case that there are no companies producing roughly analogous 
freedom respecting alternative hardware IMHO this may be a temporary 
alternative (although in my experience often not enough information to 
really reach feature parity with the nonfree software is released, and 
this isn't always obvious at all), but as soon as there is a company 
that does, why expend effort helping a company that doesn't?

> For these reason, it would be good to also add company contact info on
> the device wiki-page [1].
> Is there anybody here who have good writing skills to start sketching
> a template of a letter to these companies? FSF should consider
> officially sending such letters to these companies. It would be much
> more effective than individual activists contacting them by e-mail.
> Happy Hacking,
> --Felipe Sanches
> [1]

Daniel JB Clark |

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