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Licensing Law: Trump Social Media Site Faces Potential Legal Action

By Gary Symons

TLL Editor in Chief

Former US President Donald Trump faces more legal troubles, as the Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) says Trump’s new social media network violates a free and open-source software licensing agreement by ripping off the decentralized social network Mastodon.

The recently formed Trump Media and Technology Group (TMTG) now has 30 days to comply with the terms of the license before its access is terminated. If that happens, TMTG would either have to rebuild the platform or face legal action, which could result in an injunction and/or damages.

The legal saga began as Trump and TMTG launched a special purpose acquisition company fundraising effort, promising investors or donors that it will build a vast social media empire. However, the company’s only product so far is a social network in beta called Truth Social that SFC alleges appears to be largely or entirely based on technology developed by Mastodon.

Mastodon’s code is open source, so it can be used by other organizations, and in fact, the conservative social media network Gab has already done so, building its platform on Mastodon’s code base. However, anyone who uses that code base has to comply with the Affero General Public License (or AGPLv3) that governs that code. Among other things, the Affero license requires the user must offer their own source code to all users, which the Truth Social network has not done.

According to SFC, Truth Social specifically refers to its service as “proprietary” technology, so the social media network has therefore violated the Affero license terms of service. As well, SFC says the developers of Truth apparently tried to hide any references that would reveal the fact the network was based on Mastodon’s code. At one point, the company apparently listed a sighting of the Mastodon logo on the site as a bug.

The SFC is an organization that enforces the terms of free and open-source software licenses, including the AGPLv3 license.

Truth Social doesn’t comply with that license and, in fact, refers to its service as “proprietary,” SFC alleges. “The license purposefully treats everyone equally (even people we don’t like or agree with), but they must operate under the same rules of the copyleft licenses that apply to everyone else,” SFC policy fellow Bradley Kuhn wrote in a blog post. “Today, we saw the Trump Media and Technology Group ignoring those important rules — which were designed for the social good.”

Truth Social hasn’t officially been launched but it was released as a beta test site where users could access a test version of the platform. The site was not intended to be accessed by the public, but the launch of the beta site turned out to be pretty rocky, as hackers found the site, logged in, and created anonymous accounts that flooded the network with phony company announcements and even fake Donald Trump posts.

Trump and the new company also became the target of late night talk show hosts who pointed to a post made under Donald Trump’s own name of a pig defecating on its own scrotum. The post went viral this week, after which the beta site was pulled down. The site currently shows a form where potential users can sign on to a waitlist.

In the meantime, SFC is demanding that TMTG offer all of the site’s users full access to the Truth Social source code. “If they fail to do this within 30 days, their rights and permissions in the software are automatically and permanently terminated,” Kuhn wrote in his blog.

Truth Social could potentially refuse to make that source code available, but if that happened, the SFC could then sue Trump and TMTG for violating the terms of the Affero license for Mastodon’s code base, and it is very likely that would happen.

Earlier this year, for example, SFC sued the electronics firm Vizio for failing to meet the licensing requirements for other open source software code.

“We will be following this issue very closely and demanding that Trump’s Group give the corresponding source to all who use the site,” Kuhn said.

In addition to potential action by SFC, Mastodon founder Eugen Rochko also say is seeking legal advice.

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