ZeroPaid Interviews the Free Software Foundation

Open source has been in the media for quite some time whether directly or indirectly. With ACTA leak and the ASCAP letter two big news items that affects open source, we decided to sit down with the Free Software Foundation and talk about these and other things related to the open source movement.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

Update: Please see note at bottom of article with regards to the use of the term “open source”

There are many things happening with open source. There are big news items that effect open source such as clauses in the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) and, what some have called, an indirect attack coming from ASCAP through the ASCAP letter. There are also issues that go under the radar such as open source adoption. With so much happening with Open Source, we decided to sit down with Peter Brown, the Controller and Executive Director of the Free Software Foundation to get his take on various issues.

What is the Free Software Foundation and how is it important to open source?

The FSF is a not-for-profit foundation created in 1985 to sponsor the GNU project and promote the worldwide cause of software freedom.

Free software is about having control over the technology we use in our homes, schools and businesses. Where computers work for our individual and communal benefit, not for proprietary software companies or governments who might seek to restrict and monitor us.

The GNU system that we developed with the help of a worldwide community of volunteers, is in widespread use today in the form of GNU/Linux: a combination of the GNU system and a kernel written by Linus Torvalds.

Open Source is a different idea. The term was created by people in the free software movement that were concerned about appealing to the CEO’s of powerful corporations, who didn’t care to hear about our social movement’s purpose of gaining computer user freedom.

Today, more people know this history and appreciate the values of software freedom. Indeed, many representatives of Open Source organizations point to the Free Software Foundation’s work and recognize that our mission is the core of their purpose.

You can help the cause of software freedom by not participating in the corporate process of hiding the meaning behind this movement. Please call this work free software and not open source. Remember that the system is GNU using the Linux kernel, not just Linux. These are great and simple ways to make a difference and educate others.

When people think of “free”, some might think, “well, that means no one is getting paid and every contribution is voluntary to an open source project.” A lot of advocates of open source I spoke to personally say that this is a big misconception about open source and people, indeed, do get paid while contributing to open source in various ways. Do you agree that free doesn’t equate to no one getting paid from an open source perspective?

Free software is about freedom not price. The FSF itself sells disks of free software. We are perfectly happy for people to make money using free software. So think about your freedom, not about making or spending money.

Free software values mean no spying on your activities. Free software values mean no DRM (digital restrictions). Free software values mean no locked down devices. Free software values means sharing with your friends, making copies and learning about free software from studying the source code of the software you use–if you want to.

A while ago, ASCAP issued a letter attacking various user rights organizations and, curiously, Creative Commons. They said that “copyleft” is undermining their “copyright”. While Creative Commons responded saying that these claims are false and copyleft isn’t undermining copyright because Creative Commons, in fact, is a copyright license. Some people took ASCAPs comments as being an indirect attack on open source, maybe because open source is viewed as part of the copyleft movement. First of all, do you feel that you are part of the copyleft movement? Secondly, do you think ASCAPs attack on Creative Commons was also an indirect attack on open source as well? Finally, what’s your take on the ASCAP letter?

The concept of copyleft was created by our founder and president Richard Stallman. The world’s most popular copyleft software license is the GNU GPL–a software license published by the Free Software Foundation. So in fact we represent the founders of the copyleft movement. But we should be clear about what copyleft is. Copyleft is a technique that Stallman created to prevent free software from becoming proprietary software. It depends on copyright law, and it is composed of a set of permissions that the copyright holder grants to the user. It is not anti-copyright, though the FSF and many other organizations take the position that copyright laws have become to strict and overly broad and need major reform.

ASCAP doesn’t like these views because they conflict with their purpose: making as much money as possible off the back of our shared cultural heritage.

The topic of software patents, as much as I can tell, has always been a very controversial topic for those in the open source movement. How can software patents, in your view, undermine the open source movement and, more broadly, undermine software development and society as well?

Many corporations who represent Open Source love software patents because they own so many of them themselves. The free software movement rejects the very idea of software patents. Please watch the recent documentary film we sponsored Patent Absurdity.

Advocates of software patents might argue, “Hey look, patents allows us to secure jobs and money for various companies and to be against software patents is an extreme position to be in that would hurt jobs.” How would you respond to criticisms such as this?

That the economic evidence doesn’t support that finding. In fact, the evidence makes clear that software patents are a drag on the US economy as a whole and are a deep threat to all other nations if software patents get adopted internationally.

The FSF sponsors a campaign against software patents and we present all the evidence about the harm that software patents inflict, including economic at

ACTA recently made its way in the media with news of its more recent leak. Do you think ACTA could potentially harm the open source movement? If so, in what ways is ACTA in its current form harmful for open source and software development?

Again, many corporations that support Open Source have been silent on ACTA. The Free Software Foundation has spoken out against ACTA and is promoting a petition.

ACTA encourages spying on computer users. It encourages internationalization of DRM schemes and harmful laws like the DMCA. It makes citizens wary of sharing, when sharing is what we want to encourage with free software. ACTA is simply another gift from paid-for law makers to an industry that hates technology that empowers citizens.

Open source has popped up in the news here and there in fairly impressive ways. Different corporate and government organizations have made announcements over the years that they are switching to open source solutions. How positive are these types of announcements for the open source movement? Could you name a few particularly memorable announcements of organizations switching to open source?

Many organizations are wary of announcing their use of free software, because proprietary software corporations like Microsoft show up to threaten and abuse them. They did this in Massachusetts when the State tried to adopt a policy of using Open Document Format. They did this to the One Laptop Per Child program when they were promoting their use of GNU/Linux. But Microsoft’s power is waning, so more news is reaching the public.

CERN’s large Hadron Collider depends on GNU/Linux. The US armed forces have stated their dependence on free software for weapons systems. The NYSE trading platform is GNU/Linux based, and many other trading systems use free software. The White House uses Drupal for its website. And Wikipedia is served up using only free software.

The list of high profile users is getting to be a long list.

I personally have spoken to someone from within government who says that the big dissuading factor of an organization switching to open source is liability. The example I was given was if, say, Microsoft screws something up, a company can be blamed. If an open source product messes up, where does the blame go? How can open source overcome perceptions like that to help get more people to use open source solutions? Are there other perceptions from, say, businesses that you would like to lay to rest?

If Microsoft screws something up it’s just another day in the life of a proprietary software user. Microsoft isn’t about to cut you a check to make it all better again. Having Microsoft to blame doesn’t help you.

Most organizations that use free software use a vendor who offers support and services. Free software makes it possible for anyone to get into the business of offering these services because the software gives you that freedom. It’s great for local economies.

Some people only know proprietary software. An example is someone saying, “hey, I know Microsoft enough to use it, why should I make this big leap to open source when all I want to do is get from point A to B.” Open source, though, isn’t solely tied to operating systems though. What would you say to that person if you wanted them to use more open source technology and where should that person go to find out about open source?

Go to to get an introduction and a pathway to using more free software.

Using free software is great. But understanding and appreciating the values of free software is more important. That’s why you should reject the term Open Source. What the FSF wants to talk about and what we want to pass on to your readers is an understanding of why it matters that you have software freedom. Why it’s important for our society to build its future on a technology that we can control and that serves our interests.

Think about the alternative future where free software doesn’t succeed. Where a hand-full of proprietary software companies thus control all access to the internet. Where spying on your computing activities is assured. Where copying digital media files is prevented by pervasive DRM schemes. Where you’re forced to do your computing on a corporation’s servers: often referred to as cloud computing, or as we know it, complete spying. Where your rights that are lawful cannot be expressed because the software you use prevents you from undertaking those legal activities. And where competition is allowed to be stifled because these same corporations have collected thousands of software patents that prevent anyone else from changing the rules of the game.

These examples may seem extreme, but companies like Microsoft and Apple are busy pursuing these outcomes and lobbying your government to help them.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Keep up to date by subscribing to receive the Free Software Supporter newsletter and alerts.

Volunteer for us. There are many jobs to be done and you don’t have to be a coder.

The FSF receives the bulk of its funding from its Associate Members. You can become a member for $10 a month ($5 students) or donate at

Happy Hacking!

We would like to thank Peter Brown of the Free Software Foundation for taking the time to sit down and answer our questions.

UPDATE – Important Note: This interview was conducted via e-mail where the questions were sent all at once and I received the answers all at once. Up until the interview, I didn’t know the term “open source” was, in and of itself, a poor term for some. So for those concerned that I insisted on using the term “open source”, this wasn’t really meant to come off this way and I apologize for that. This interview was meant to be educational to the general public and it was even educational to me since I’m not as involved with free software as I am with general file-sharing, technology and even free speech. Rest assured, I got the message. For all intents and purposes, this interview is already doing its job of informing. Thank you for your concerns.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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