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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: Are you fulfilled in these roles that are, at least in some part, executive?

BK: I've grown into executive work, somewhat by fire, and got a liking for it. With the support and training of the Board of Directors of the FSF at the time (in particular Henri Poole and Eben), I was able to acclimate myself to the position and I eventually became pretty good at management and executive work. One of my happiest moments was when I was addressing a concern an employee had about FSF policy, and we stayed late and worked it out, and at the end of it, he said: "You know, I've been thinking for the last hour, bkuhn is an awesome boss." That was probably my proudest moment as a manager. I was glad to make the FSF a good place to work where people could help the Free Software community in their day jobs rather than merely as volunteers. I think Peter Brown has done an excellent job continuing that tradition that I started.

But the important thing to understand about me is that often, what I actually work on and my current title or job description are but a means to an end. My lifelong goal is to help build a world where people are treated fairly and justly, and in particular, I've chosen to focus on one specific part of that: to help make a world where all users have the inalienable right and freedom to copy, share and modify the software that they use. I do whatever is asked of me at any given time to help advance that primary goal. Anything else I do are merely discardable tactics.

When I was at the FSF, the Movement needed me to be a good manager, fundraiser, public speaker, and executive, so I learned how to do those things well. At the Conservancy, the Movement again requires that I be a good executive, administrator and organizational coordinator, so I transitioned my FSF experience for that. At the SFLC, the Movement requires a translator between hacker-ese and lawyer-ese, who helps the lawyers understand the FLOSS community, and who teaches the FLOSS community how to value and use good legal advice, so I do that, too.

The details of what I do all day are not constant; I do what the Movement needs from me right now. I go to bed each night satisfied if I feel I've done everything I can that day to advance the cause of software freedom, and I have trouble getting to sleep if I feel I've failed some way in that goal. What's fulfilling is knowing that I've made a positive impact on the cause of software freedom, not whether or not I got to work on what interested me most. The latter seems selfish to me, and I try to avoid it.

Lc: Do you still get to just be a hacker?

BK: The other half of my SFLC role is Technology Director; I'm the executive in charge of all software and technological decisions from an operational perspective. In the for-profit world, this would be called the CTO. I firmly believe that FLOSS nonprofits should "eat our own dog food" and use FLOSS for all our operations. The Technology Director part of my role helps make it possible for SFLC to use only FLOSS in our operations.

After seven years in nonprofit management, I've got a real and clear sense of what FLOSS is needed to make a nonprofit run, technologically speaking. I give a few hours a week to this problem, and I'm mentoring a few Google Summer of Code projects through the Conservancy to help build some software that I think nonprofits need. Everyone keeps reinventing the wheel for nonprofit management software, and I'd like to help in the creation of a system that can last and serve the needs of more than just one organization.

Also in this vein, I served as the project manager and co-designer (with Orion Montoya) of the system called stet that was used to collect comments on the GPLv3 drafts (deployed at http://gplv3.fsf.org/comments/). We've had interest from multiple US Congressional offices about using stet for participatory government via public legislative comment. Sadly, no funding is coming from the federal government at the moment for it, and stet doesn't run easily "out of the box" (which is what Congressional staffers are looking for), but it's clear there is ongoing interest in this type of interactive network software. Stet also has the unique distinction of being the only software in history to be meta-licensed -- that is, it was used as a tool in the production of its own license. It helped produce the AGPLv3, and stet was the first software to be officially released under the AGPLv3.

By the way, while I continue to believe the AGPLv3 is a major and essential component for the freedom of network services, it's not a panacea for this problem and there are other issues to consider. Lots of users now rely heavily on network services that don't contain any FLOSS code anyway (they are written from scratch by the network service company). Such systems are the equivalent of large proprietary operating systems, and have the same exact threat that RMS identified back in the 1980s. In fact, it's actually worse because not only is your software completely controlled by someone else, but your data often is as well. I urge users to avoid using network services that lock up their data and their software with someone else.

Finally, I also end up doing any of the harder-core sysadmin things around the office at SFLC. We don't have any sysadmin team here, so I sometimes have to get my hands dirty just like the old days. Good nonprofits are that way -- everyone pitches in to do what needs to be done. We leave strict hierarchy for the for-profit and military types.

Oh, and I suppose I should mention my hobby (of sorts) since it now relates tangentially to FLOSS development. I've been an avid poker player for even longer than I've been into software freedom. Lately I've merged my FLOSS interest and my poker interest by helping Loic Dachary, a dear friend of mine, who has been working for the last few years on a system called pokersource. I've mostly been doing some grunt work for the project when I'm too tired to do anything else at the end of the day -- writing test coverage for the poker-network code. (Writing tests is great TV-watching work, for those who are looking for a way to contribute to FLOSS while watching their favorite shows.) It's not glorious hacking, but I'm glad to be learning some Python and Twisted. (Twisted is, in an amusing link-up to my day job, a member of the Conservancy!)

Lc: What do you see yourself doing over the next several years?

BK: I'm going to work on whatever I perceive as the most urgent need for the advancement of software freedom. It's hard to know what that will be several years from now. I'm doing what I'm doing now because there aren't enough providers of organizational infrastructure for FLOSS projects, so my work at Conservancy is serving an urgent need. The FLOSS community has legal questions that need answers, and both the legal and FLOSS communities need better communication between them, so SFLC is serving an urgent need. Network services are the biggest threat to the freedom of users today, so the FSF Network Services committee and AGPLv3 are urgent needs. And few people are working on good FLOSS software for nonprofit management, so writing or improving such software is an urgent need.

If all of these needs get filled or solved in the next several years, I can imagine I'll be looking to see where I can put my talents to work for whatever seems most urgent for software freedom. Beyond that, I plan to remain agile and open-minded about what I do.

I suppose the only part that I'm pretty strongly decided on is this: I believe that the most positive and central impact for software freedom happens in the nonprofit, not the for-profit, space. Ultimately, all for-profit entities are going to favor their bottom line over the advancement of software freedom. Therefore, I doubt that I could ever work a full-time job again in the for-profit computer industry; I've considered "selling out" a few times and never been able to go through with it. I'm pretty sure that I'm a 501(c)(3) guy, through and through. Our Movement (and our society in general) needs all types of people, so I'm glad that there are FLOSS business people out there. It's just not who I am.

Tina Gasperson writes about business and technology from an open source perspective.

 

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Bradley Kuhn makes a better world through software freedom

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 87.78.117.198] on April 20, 2008 05:45 PM
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