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What is KDE e.V. for?

Little is known or said about the KDE e.V., the registered non-profit organization that represents the KDE Project in legal and financial matters. Created to deal with various problems faced by a young free software project, the e.V. maintains a low profile and tries to merely protect the project, but is faced with demands for a greater role, as well as accusations of it being too closed. This article sets out to disambiguate the e.V.'s role, and what it means for KDE contributors and the wider free software community, from the point of view of a writer who works with the KDE Project but who is neither a member of the KDE e.V. nor a spokesperson for the KDE e.V. in any way.

Since the KDE e.V.'s pages on the KDE web site are relatively uninformative, I took the opportunity to talk to the Treasurer, Mirko Böhm, while attending the KDE World Summit "aKademy". He began by explaining the history of the organisation. It started with three people in 1996 to solve two problems faced by the KDE Project: the need for legal validity when taking donations, and the concerns about the Qt licensing model that, at the time, wasn't Free and could have seriously damaged KDE. To cut a long story short, by late 1997, some German members of the project registered the KDE e.V. with the German Association Registry. In 1998 the KDE e.V. and Trolltech created the KDE Free Qt Foundation whose purpose was "to secure the availability of the Qt toolkit for the development of Free Software".

So from its start the key goals of KDE e.V. were to provide legal and financial representation for the project. But it is more proactive than those simple aims suggest. They provide an avenue for donations, they help promotion efforts, they organise conferences, and just as Linus Torvalds registered the trademark for Linux, so the KDE e.V. took control of the KDE trademark, to protect and promote the identity of the project. For KDE contributors, this means that they can use the legal and financial backing of the KDE e.V. to pursue trademark disputes. For the wider world this means that the KDE Project can force you to remove references to their trademarks from your work from them if they don't like it. Of course the KDE e.V. only intends to attack those who seek to damage the KDE Project through trademark infringement - it isn't going to stop people saying their work is a KDE application for the sake of it - but with this power comes the need for clarity regarding who is responsible and accountable.

Aware of the problems this might cause in a community based upon individual and community freedom, KDE e.V. claims to operate as an open membership organisation. Rather than being run by companies and sponsors, as many other similar organisations are, the KDE e.V. is controlled by contributing members (i.e. contributors, documenters, artists, etc.). The idea is that the organisation is run for free software contributors by free software contributors. Yet the membership process is still not entirely open, requiring that one existing member nominate you, and two further members support your nomination, which the Board of Directors then accepts. Enthusiastic users who feel they have a stake in the KDE e.V.'s decisions are excluded, as may be unpopular contributors. Furthermore the membership mailing list is closed, as are membership meetings, meaning that the free software community can only learn of the proceedings of the KDE e.V. through officially sanctioned channels.

For Rob Kaper, a KDE contributor who claims his views are not uncommon in the community, these closed channels are not always necessary nor useful. Whilst he recognizes that some matters such as financial reports should be kept private, he told me that the KDE e.V. membership should be calling "for a distinction between truly private matters and the aspects of true open source development". In particular he objects to the private-by-default membership mailing list, subscription moderated development mailing lists (he gave the example of khtml-devel) and the closed KDE.News editors, kde-security and kde-packager mailing lists. He sees a trend that he told me "is largely being ignored by the eV membership".'

Both the KDE e.V. Board of Directors, who are elected by the membership with terms of three years, and the membership itself might well reject some of these claims. Each decision to close an area of the project from the public is made by the contributors concerned, not the KDE e.V., and so the closed areas represent the concerns of the contributors. Of course Kaper would contend that contributors should be making things more open, not more closed, but then that becomes a separate matter of how free software projects manage themselves.

As Mirko pointed out to me, it isn't the place of the KDE e.V. to dictate how development and PR efforts ought to be conducted. One of the guiding principles of the KDE e.V. is to separate politics from development, although Mirko acknowledged that this isn't always possible. In this year's membership meeting at aKademy, for example, the membership voted to have the Board of Directors adopt a position on software patents that will allow contributors to stick to their work without worrying that KDE is sitting on the fence on such a crucial issue. And in the matter of closed mailing lists, whilst the e.V. membership can discuss the issue, it is more a matter of pragmatism. For Kaper though "the e.V. should protect KDE from efforts to control that kind of free flow of information", which "it can only do ... when it adopts more open policies itself". Doing this would mean a major expansion in the scope and power of the e.V. over contributors.

These minor disputes put the KDE e.V. in an awkward position. It wants to leave the project to develop according to the regulation of the GPL and their policy of letting the best code decide. Yet there seem to be issues where consensus will not arise naturally, where the project requires a space in which these issues can be debated and consensus can be built. When I asked Mirko about the future of the organization, he admitted that they don't have a clear idea of how it might evolve - that is up to the membership. Whether it is appropriate that the KDE e.V. expand its current role beyond that of protecting and promoting the project is undecided, as is whether or not its current activities and policies properly fulfill that role.

For KDE contributors it is a debate that needs to be engaged, and one that will hopefully result in a democratic vision of the organization's future. All contributors should understand and be part of that process. For KDE users and the wider free software community there is little scope for input, except through public debate that might influence the KDE e.V. membership. It is nonetheless an interesting experiment in running a formal entity that can represent a fairly anarchic community project, and so we will continue to benefit from their experiences.

This article was published by Linux Weekly News (LWN)