Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Why crowdfunding freely licensed documentation is illegal in Finland

On the Meson manual crowdfunding page it is mentioned that the end result can not be put under a fully free license. Several people have said that they "don't believe such a law could exist" or words to that effect. This blog post is an attempt to to explain the issue in English as all available text about the case is in Finnish. As a disclaimer: I'm not a lawyer, the following is not legal advice, there is no guarantee, even that any of the information below is factual.

To get started we need to go back in time a fair bit and look at disaster relief funds. In Finland you must obtain a permit from the police in order to gather money for general charitable causes. This permit has strict requirements. The idea is that you can't just start a fundraising, take people's money and pocket it, instead the money must provably go to the cause it was raised for. The way the law is written is that a donation to charity is done without getting "something tangible" in return. Roughly if you give someone money and get a physical item in return, it is considered a sales transaction. If you give money to someone and in return get a general feeling of making the world better in some way, that is considered a donation. The former is governed by laws of commerce, the latter by laws of charity fundraising.

A few years ago there was a project to create a book to teach people Swedish. The project is page is here, but it is all in Finnish so it's probably not useful to most readers. They had a crowdfunding project to finish the project with all the usual perks. One of the goals of the crowdfunding was to make the book freely distributable after publishing. This is not unlike funding feature work on FOSS projects works.

What happened next is that the police stepped in and declared this illegal (news story, in Finnish). Their interpretation was that participating in this campaign without getting something tangible in return (i.e. paying less than the amount needed to get the book) was a "charitable donation". Thus it needs a charity permit as explained above. Running a crowdfunding campaign is still legal if it is strictly about pre-sales. That is, every person buys "something" and that something needs to have "independent value" of some sort. If the outcome of a project is a PDF and that PDF becomes freely available, it can be argued that people who participated did not get any "tangible value" in exchange for their money.

Because of this the outcome of the Meson manual crowdfunding campaign can not be made freely available. This may seem a bit stupid, but sadly that's the law. The law is undergoing changes (see here, in Finnish), but those changes will not take effect for quite some time and even when they do it is unclear how those changes would affect these kinds of projects.


  1. I don't see how it's illegal? You need to get a charity permit. That this might be cumbersome and so on is a valid point. But the title is entirely incorrect, it's not illegal.

    E.g. if you change your house you usually need to get a permit from the city. If you don't get that permit it doesn't mean changing your house is illegal, just that you need a permit.

  2. I should have mentioned that getting the charity permit is almost impossible to get as an individual given that all the money goes to the organizer (i.e. me). That sort of behaviour is what the law was originally created to prevent.

  3. How about the tangible value being early access to the book, which would be a competitive advantage? Then you could release the book after some period of time.

    1. The problem with all of these kinds of "tricks" is that they are all based on trying to fool the police with a technicality. They all carry the risk that they will consider it "not sufficient" or something and file charges against you anyway.

      AFAICT there is no way to get the police to "pre-approve" some behaviour as legal. Thus the only way to be sure is to follow the law to the letter. Especially since this is a free time hobby project with zero resources.

      It's not really something I want to do, but sadly there are no real alternatives.

  4. How about having someone in another country run the campaign? He can then pay you to do work on the project.