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Feature: Free Software

2006: The year the FSF reached out to the community

By Bruce Byfield on December 29, 2006 (8:00:00 AM)

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At the start of 2006, the Free Software Foundation (FSF) was largely inward-looking, focused on the GNU Project and high-level strategic concerns such as licensing. Now, without abandoning these issues, the FSF had transformed into an openly activist organization, reaching out to its supporters and encouraging their participation in civic campaigns often designed to enlist non-hackers in their causes. Yet what happened seems to bemuse even FSF employees.

The list of the community-based actions the FSF has taken in the past year is a long one. It begins with an expanded role for some of its longstanding institutions. Throughout the year, the FSF's high-priority list seems to have exerted some influence on such items as the open source release of the Java code and the growing interest in LinuxBIOS by chipset manufacturers. Similarly, the FSF's compliance lab, although now more than five years old, enlisted five volunteers to answer licensing questions using a ticket system, and now fields more than 75 questions each week, according to compliance engineer Brett Smith. In the last couple of years, too, rather than maintaining just the GNU Project Web site, the FSF has also started a non-developer site that Peter Brown, executive director of the FSF, describes as carrying "more of a mainstream message."

Even more importantly, during 2006, the FSF initiated public discussions about the revision of the GNU General Public License, as well as several public campaigns, ranging from the recent BadVista campaign against the anti-freedom tendencies of the latest version of Windows to an effort to interest mainstream activist media to start covering free software issues. It also launched the Defective By Design campaign against digital rights management (DRM) technologies in May. These actions have had mixed success, and some, especially the GPL revision process, have been widely criticized, but the point is that a few years ago, nobody could have guessed that the FSF might one day undertake them.

However, if your perception hasn't caught up with the new reality, you're not the only one. Many members of the FSF are not fully aware of the change in direction. Although he is one of the main organizers of the FSF's activities throughout the year, Brown says that he became aware of the trend toward action only after NewsForge raised the idea and he discussed it with those in the FSF's office.

Reasons for the change

John Sullivan, program administrator of the FSF, suggests that part of the reason for the change may be a more activist leadership in the FSF. Referring to people like Brown and professional activist Henri Poole, who is also an FSF director, Sullivan says, "We have a group right now that like interacting with the community, and that want the FSF to be more involved in organizing and having free software recognized outside the regular community."

Brown paraphrases an unnamed FSF staffer, saying "the FSF has historically been concerned with dealing with individual projects and maintainers, typically through Richard [Stallman]." More recently, Brown suggests, the focus has shifted away from Stallman, as some of the FSF's key issues, such as DRM, have become more mainstream and more of the FSF has had to become involved if the issues were to be addressed. "What we see right now is a lot of success for free software," Brown says. "At the same time, we also see some major threats. What we've done is respond to the strategic situation that we see. If our work is strategically more outward, more community-oriented, that's because we believe that's what we need to be doing at the moment."

Sullivan agrees. Talking about the increased media attention for some of the FSF's issues, Sullivan says, "What we've been doing is responding to that."

Perhaps surprisingly for an organization that has often been accused of being authoritarian, Brown traces the start of the change to a grassroots organization whose members attended the FSF's general meeting in 2005. "We were inspired by a free software group that was self-initiated in New York State," Brown says. "At the members' meeting, its members got up and described their work. All the board members were there, and we were absolutely stunned by their efforts. It was the ideal that we were striving for, with local groups not talking about open source or about Linux vs. Microsoft but really caring about freedom issues and how they tied into their local environment and society. There they were, talking about how they were reaching out to the schools, and they were telling people about the issues of freedom. That was a real eye-opener for us."

Since then, Brown says, "There's been a higher expectation for us to deliver in these areas." One sign of this change occurred at the 2006 member's meeting, when the FSF ran a feedback session for its members for the first time. "We realized that we had to give a forum to make sure that we weren't blinkered and [to learn what members] considered were the important issues."

Evaluation and next steps

Brown acknowledges that the FSF's activist activities have not been universally successful. He notes, for example, that, although the Defective By Design campaign's phone-in action against the Record Industry Association of America was immensely popular, against all expectations, a similar action against Sony managed only a lukewarm turnout.

Even more importantly, the GPL revision process may have widened the gap between the free software and open source movements. However, he attributes the tension more to "pent-up anger about what the FSF has done" among open source advocates than to the process itself, and still hopes that current talks about the content of the revision drafts will resolve the problem.

At the same time, Brown is philosophical about such low points. "In anything you do, there'll be good and bad things," he says. "And you learn from your mistakes."

At any rate, he suggests, some things need to be done simply for principle. "We are, at the end of the day, not trying to be the most popular organization in the world. A lot of organizations look at a situation and say, 'What's the best way to get ahead? How do we have to compromise our beliefs to achieve something, to become more successful?' But when you have a leader like Richard Stallman, those considerations are just never there. There's none of this short-term stuff."

Looking ahead to 2007, Brown sees only more of the same activism for the FSF. Both the BadVista and Defective By Design campaigns will continue, and he suggests that other campaigns in the coming year will probably focus on hardware drivers for GNU/Linux and software patents.

"It's going to be a busy year," Brown predicts. "2006 was great, but 2007 is going to be huge."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for NewsForge,, and IT Manager's Journal.

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for

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on 2006: The year the FSF reached out to the community

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He's right; you live and learn

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on December 30, 2006 04:32 AM
Nobody's perfect, and that includes pioneers like Stallman, von Neumann, Linus, the Curies, etc. For example, had Marie Curie known of the harmful effects of radiation (nobody did back then), she probably wouldn't have carried a lump of radium in her pocket all those years to demonstrate to people. We now know better. The FSF, including Stallman, is learning and growing like all of us. That their work for software freedom over the last 22 years has benefitted us immensely cannot be denied.


Great article

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on December 30, 2006 10:25 AM
I really hope 2007 is going to be huge.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:)

I think we should have a website similar to, it appears to have been very successful.

What people can do;
* Join or donate to the Free Software Foundation (FSF).
* Join the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF).
* License the stuff you make under a free software license, such as the GNU General Public License (GPL).
* In your software, put a note in the about dialog, the website and the documentation about being free software.
* Put "I like free software" or something, your forum signature, e-mail signature, on your blog, on your website, etc.
* Link to FSF from your blog, website, etc.
* Chat/hang on the Freenode IRC network.
* Contribute to free software projects, if you cant code, then donate money, write documentation, do translation to your language, volunteer as a forum moderator, write FAQ, contribute to the wiki, etc.
* If you are member of a social-networking website (such as MySpace *yuck*), put "I like free software" on your profile, or list free software as one of your interest, use the "free software" tag, or join the "free software" team/group/thing if such exist, if it doesn't, then create it.
* Use your right to free speech and don't just be an reader on the web, be a writer too, get a website, get a blog, write about free software.
* If you own an computer store or something, put a Linux poster on the wall.
* Put "Powered by Linux" in the footer of your website.

We need competitions and campaigns such as "make the best free-software-themed desktop wallpaper", etc.

If you use Wikipedia, then put the free software infobox {{User free software}} on your userpage.

Put a GNU poster on your wall.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:D
Put a GNU emblem on the front of your computer case.

Mod your computer case, with a laser-cut GNU on the sidedoor.



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on December 30, 2006 10:32 AM
I would like to thank the Free Software Foundation for their wonderful work they have done, I am very thankful for everything they have done.

Donate to the free software foundation, wear a GNU t-shirt.

Recommend good free software like Mozilla Firefox,, 7-Zip, Blender, FileZilla, Gaim, Mozilla Thunderbird, Audacity, Celestia, Stellarium, etc to your friends.

About hardware drivers, they are sites like;
* <a href="" title=""></a>
* <a href="" title=""></a>
* <a href="" title=""></a>



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on December 30, 2006 12:10 PM
^Damn lameness filter.


Please stop using "GPL" or "GNU GPL" to stand for "GNU General Public License". It leads to errors such as the one in this article:
Even more importantly, during 2006, the FSF initiated public discussions about the revision of the GNU Public License

"GGPL" would work best. (People tend to ignore the "GNU" at the beginning of "GNU GPL", so don't use that.)




Posted by: Anonymous Coward on December 31, 2006 01:05 PM
oh goody, another pointless rant that detracts from the important issues. Hey, let's launch a GGPL campaign, and not worry about silly stuff like DRM and the MAFIAA and locked hardware and so on. Even RMS doesn't say "GGPL".



Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 01, 2007 02:40 AM
Why can't those coexist?



Posted by: nanday on December 31, 2006 03:45 AM
Actually, it's just a typo -- which I've corrected.

Thanks for pointing it out.

- Bruce Byfield (nanday)


Trying to become relevant

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on December 30, 2006 01:44 PM
I don't feel that the move towards activism has been a good idea. The FSF has been most valuable when it's been purely about software, and largely kept its' opinions to itself.

The one single thing that the FSF needs to accept is that by and large, its' perspectives are not considered desirable by the majority. The FSF is a fringe organisation, which frankly appeals primarily to fringe individuals in my observation.

I also strongly believe that the FSF, its' fanaticism, its' other cultic tendencies, and its' ability to alienate people is the single main element slowing Linux's mainstream progress. Technical user interface issues can be worked around...The kinds of social and political problems which the FSF causes however are a lot more difficult to solve, and they seriously hinder Linux's continued uptake. People do not want or need the kind of controversy and division that Stallman and his followers create; especially when said controversy is based around issues that non-autistic individuals frankly do not care about. The likes of Bradley Kuhn attempting to dictate how people should think and which licenses they should be allowed to use also is extremely unwelcome, and reveals Kuhn as the facist that I believe he genuinely is.

Stallman did some good and made some positive contributions many years ago...I do not seek to deny that. However, I wish for the sake of both Linux and his users that he and a number of other people within the FSF were willing to honestly look at whether or not the organisation is now doing more harm than good. I believe that it is, and that the single most beneficial action that it could take at this point would probably be to disband.


Re:Trying to become relevant

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on December 30, 2006 02:58 PM
I think it would be terrible if FSF disbanded. I think FSF has done a lot good.

What would Linux be worth if it wasn't free?


Re:Trying to troll

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on December 31, 2006 02:50 AM

Nonsense. The FSF has always been about activism and never purely about software. Indeed, they have always advocated simultaneous development of free software and of educating users about software freedom. The educating part is way behind, hence their focus.

Your post is not just ignorance; it is simply an attempt to spread lies. Be ashamed, sir.


Re:Trying to troll

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on December 31, 2006 11:57 PM
I think that you are closing eyes in front of the problems. I am a freelance developer and I own a small business. I am doing Java apps mostly. In the past I was met with a suspicion in a quite a few places when I booted my notebook with Red Hat and later Fedora installed. I think that I was written off as some kind of “activist”, “hacker”, “unprofessional” or something, and even lost some deals. Now I have FreeBSD, and when people ask me what it is I say just “UNIX”, and nobody pays attention any more.

There are many people that don't share political views of FSF, and don't want to be identified as followers. Some are probably even hostile to those views. They would, most likely, reject Linux because they are “infidels”.



"I know this"

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 01, 2007 01:12 AM
I say just “UNIX”, and nobody pays attention any more.
They've seen Jurassic Park, too.


Re:Trying to troll

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 02, 2007 08:58 PM
I'd rather be ignorant and deluded on an individual basis than be that way on the basis of groupthink.

Be ashamed? I laugh.<nobr> <wbr></nobr>;)


MCSE Alert!

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on December 31, 2006 09:30 AM
Looks like we've got another live one, folks! Sounds to me like an MCSE whose scared that his expensive classes/certs might not be worth so much anymore...ah, if only we'll just ignore the FSF's message of freedom, then he'll still be valuable!<nobr> <wbr></nobr>:-D

Look, kid, I used to be just like you--pro-Microsoft, even a Microsoft employee. Yep, I Was There. I left that world in the late 1990's when I started to understand what direction it was taking. My use of GNU/Linux and OpenBSD isn't nearly as much for technical reasons as it is about my freedom. That matters *A LOT* more to me.

Go back to your Microsoft world, kiddo, and have a great time. The rest of us *do* care about freedom and will fight for it. When you wake up, we'll still be here and will welcome you in, just as the Free Software world welcomed me in years ago. Until then, have fun at your TechNet meetings.


Re:Trying to become relevant

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 01, 2007 12:12 AM
I think you are crazy.

(Just my self-considered relevant opinion, no harm done to the general public.)


I think what FSF is doing is applausible

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 01, 2007 12:37 AM
I like free software, its price, its content, its openness, and its philosophy.

I solute to their efforts and what they try to achieve, whether they succeed or fail, because after all they are against giants like Microsoft.

I hope FSF will still keep what they have while "changing directions". Their past is applausible, and what they have done has benefitted all of us.

I wish that FSF will always be consistent in principle, and creative in policy. My own experience has taught me that it's good efforts and dedication that are profitable, and mistakes that are fatal, therefore, I wish FSF will always be consistent, for all of us, and for themselves.

I like FSF.


Other factors

Posted by: Anonymous Coward on January 02, 2007 01:47 AM
I believe that this is a natural action/reaction sequence. The FOSS community has been living in a non-threatening environment (frustrating yes, threatening no) for a fairly long time.

But I have been saying for the past couple of years (JJS on LinuxToday) that those who are opposed to FOSS will, at a minimum, try to create obstacles for users and developers. There is enough money involved that it could drive some to try to eliminate it completely. FUD, software patents, and DRM are examples of the range of real threats. The FSF members (I just sent in my check this week<nobr> <wbr></nobr>;) are now recognizing the threats and reacting to them.

The question is, will the threats become more powerful, and should the FOSS community try to become more proactive, or is our reactive approach sufficient?

Later . . . Jim


2006: The year the FSF reached out to the community

Posted by: Anonymous [ip:] on September 06, 2007 07:23 PM
you to be able to publish this article in spanish because I am to work in my thesis about intellectual property in internet


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