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Bradley Kuhn makes a better world through software freedom

By Tina Gasperson on April 19, 2008 (2:00:00 PM)

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Bradley Kuhn is one of the founding team members of the Software Freedom Law Center, and a longtime advocate for the cause of Free Software. Many consider him one of the most influential voices in the worldwide FLOSS community. Kuhn, formerly the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, took some time recently to catch us up on his latest work. What have you been doing lately?

Bradley Kuhn: Much of the work I focused on at the FSF related to the licensing issues around the GPL. In particular, I instituted (with the help of my colleagues, Eben Moglen and Daniel Ravicher) FSF's GPL Compliance Lab, which was the first formalized GPL enforcement team in history. The FSF went from handling about three or four GPL enforcement cases a year to between 30 and 50 each year.

It became clear, however, that there were a lot of other copyright holders and projects that needed legal assistance around the GPL and other FLOSS (Free, Libre and Open Source Software) licenses. Some needed GPL enforcement assistance (such as BusyBox); others needed more general copyright inventory help. Nearly all of them needed nonprofit organizational structure and assistance, but not everyone could join the GNU Project (which receives such organizational assistance from the FSF, and was at the time the only 501(c)(3) actively taking new projects under its auspices).

RMS, Eben, and I discussed various ways that we might provide that menu of services to the whole FLOSS world from inside the FSF. However, it became clear that the FSF needed to remain a small and agile advocacy organization; it couldn't take on such large amounts of additional work. Eben was able to secure funding to begin a new organization, which we named the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC), to provide legal services to FLOSS projects.

SFLC was incorporated in early 2005, and I left the FSF in March 2005 to join the founding team here at SFLC, along with Eben and Dan. My role at SFLC has two components: first and foremost, I am the liaison between the lawyers and the hackers. My academic training is in computer science and not the law, but, for many years, I've had a foot in both the software development/computer science world and the legal world. I represent the halfway point between the lawyer and the hacker, and I speak both languages fluently. Therefore, I can help our lawyers at SFLC acclimate themselves to the highly political and complex world for FLOSS, and also help SFLC's clients understand where legal issues intersect with their software development projects. In essence, I'm the force inside the SFLC that keeps us rooted in the FLOSS community.

Lc: Tell me the impetus behind the creation of the Software Freedom Conservancy and some of the goals of that organization.

BK: One of the oft-overlooked areas of FLOSS project management is the organizational side. There's tremendous overhead in running a nonprofit day-to-day. Many FLOSS projects have therefore had challenges keeping their nonprofit entities going. In general, the kind of administrative skills needed are not easily found in the volunteerism that is typical in the FLOSS world. You can find excellent coders and documenters, but the volunteer administrative folks are hard to find.

When we started SFLC, this was one of the first questions we got: lots of projects were asking how they could incorporate as a 501(c)(3) and receive charitable donations to do their software development work for the public good. We hired Karen Sandler, an expert on corporate law, to research options and help us figure out how to best solve the problem.

We came up with a myriad of solutions, but the solution I think is most innovative is the Software Freedom Conservancy. It's a separate organization, with its own 501(c)(3) status, that works closely with the SFLC. The Conservancy is designed to be a nonprofit home for FLOSS projects that don't have the resources, knowledge nor the time to create their own nonprofit entity.

Member projects join the Conservancy, and then operate their project under its organizational auspices. They get the benefits of the 501(c)(3) status and nonprofit organization, but the administrative, financial, and other related work is taken care of by the Conservancy. We can aggregate that work for all the different projects, thus adding efficiencies, and taking burdens away so hackers can focus on writing the software, documentation, and other things that are their forte.

We set up each relationship so the Conservancy doesn't interfere with the technical decision-making and direction of each project; their ability to develop FLOSS is not impeded. Meanwhile, they save themselves the resource-draining effort of putting together their own board of directors, filing their own incorporation, 501(c)(3) application, and annual form 990s.

We also provide fiscal oversight, making sure that the funds each project has in its earmarked account are spent in a way fitting the nonprofit mission of advancing FLOSS and the public good.


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Bradley Kuhn makes a better world through software freedom

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on April 20, 2008 05:45 PM
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