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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.

Lc: Is SFC achieving those goals? Can you give an example?

BK: I think the Conservancy is very much on target. One of the best examples is how much organizational burden is taken off the shoulders of lead developers.

The same story repeats over and over with FLOSS projects: they get popular, and lots of developers start contributing. A single leader or team of leaders continues to shepherd the project in great directions. Eventually, for-profit businesses get interested in it, and begin to use and rely on the software. These businesses want to show their appreciation, and the easiest way for a company to do that is with a financial donation.

Well, this puts the project founders and leaders in a tough position. They don't want to take the money for themselves, because they know that the work is only possible with the great collaboration among the many developers. They usually have heard about doing a nonprofit, but don't have time for the work.

Time and time again, I've seen the Conservancy solve this problem for projects. Once they join, they have an easy place to route donors, and the donations usually start flowing in quickly. The Conservancy keeps each projects' directed donations earmarked, and allows the project to spend the money in any way that fits with the overall nonprofit mission.

Since our inception, we've coordinated donations of funds that have then, in turn, reimbursed developers' for travel to conferences and meetings. We've handled the funds for member projects' conferences, such as the BoostCon 2008 that is coming up. We've made sure that Web hosting facilities fees are paid. We even helped one project pay a translator so that a key piece of academic research written in German could be available to English-speaking developers.

These things that organization infrastructure provides are admittedly boring, but they are really essential and missed terribly when they aren't taken care of well. The Conservancy is trying to eliminate this work by aggregating it together for many projects and giving developers a "no fuss" way to get these things done.

Lc: Do you see your work with the SFLC and now the SFC as an extension of the work you did with FSF, or is it a different direction?

I wholeheartedly see my work today as an extension and expansion of what I did at the FSF. The services that the SFLC and the Conservancy provide to the FLOSS world as a whole are very similar to what the FSF was doing internally for the GNU project. On the SFLC front, we're providing copyright provenance assistance, nonprofit corporate governance assistance, legal policy analysis, GPL enforcement, and other legal services. On the Conservancy front, we're providing fiscal and administrative management and asset stewardship. These were all the things that Dan, Eben, and I helped do for the GNU project through the FSF; now we're helping do this for everyone we can, FSF and GNU included.

I think that the GNU project is one of the most important and influential Free Software projects ever undertaken. That's due in a large part to the organizational backing of the FSF, which made sure that the GNU project had the best legal advice and organizational oversight possible. I see my current work as extending that benefit out to the larger FLOSS world, while still providing a good amount of support to the FSF itself (as the FSF remains an important client of the SFLC for legal services).

Lc: It's interesting that the organizations you are associated with now use the phrase "Software Freedom." Is that different than "Free Software"?

BK: I actually coined the phrase "software freedom" while I was at the FSF, and I was using it quite regularly from around late 2002 on. I think the term is different in only one area: it completely avoids the confusion about "free as in freedom" vs. "free as in price": that age-old and annoying debate of our community. Indeed, that issue was the main argument by those who coined the term "Open Source" of why we shouldn't say "Free Software" anymore.

Meanwhile, I think that the term "Open Source" has just as much ambiguity as "Free Software," but in a different direction. Namely, if you just get the source code to something (i.e., "the source is open"), it doesn't necessarily mean you get the rights to copy, share, modify, and redistribute that source. Microsoft, for example, realized this early, and ever since Jason Matasow's "Shared Source is Open Source" campaign back in 2002, Microsoft has often promulgated licenses that let you see the source but give you no freedoms other than the freedom to study.

Thus, I prefer the term "software freedom" -- particularly in names of organizations -- because it's the only unambiguous English term I've ever come up with that describes our community accurately.

Lc: Do you think there's more of an enterprise focus on the label "Open Source" than on "Free Software"?

BK: I think the phrase "Open Source" has indeed been adopted by for-profit enterprises as the term they prefer for what we do. I'm not terribly surprised; the second agenda item (after "price" vs. "freedom" confusion) of the original proponents of the "Open Source" terminology was to market FLOSS to businesses that were threatened by freedom. They designed the term "Open Source" with an eye to business-friendliness.

However, I never thought that pandering to businesses was particularly important, and, anyway, the world has changed so much since the term "Open Source" was coined over a decade ago. I certainly don't think now that most businesses are going to be scared away merely because of the word you use for FLOSS. Some clueless ones will, but all of the key for-profit innovators are already heavily invested in FLOSS now; they aren't going to run screaming when they hear that their customers "get freedom with their software".

You'll note that I usually write the term "FLOSS" when referring to the software itself. That term was coined by Rishab Ghosh, who is probably the most important socioeconomics researcher in our community. I like "FLOSS" because it treats all "camps" of our community equally, and also has "libre" in the name. "Libre" is the word often used outside of the USA to describe "software freedom," and I feel that many of the most important things happening for software freedom occur outside the USA. I therefore give a nod to the international nature of our community by saying "FLOSS".

Anyway, having said all that, I must point out that I'm not terribly concerned with what people call things. I'm more concerned about what people do to advance the cause of software freedom than the words they use to describe what they do.

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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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