EOF - The Free Software Foundation at 20

by Peter Brown

This year we celebrate the 20th anniversary of the birth of the Free Software Foundation (FSF). You might think that we would be satisfied that free software has become so popular during that time. Indeed, many of us now can use an operating system and software tools that are free. But there is much work to do and many threats to defend against—threats posed by software patents, treacherous computing, hardware with secret specifications and attractive but non-free software development platforms such as Sun's Java.

Much of what the FSF does today is based on the fundamental principle that freedom is the most important goal we seek. Having good software, as the advocates of “open source” say they aim for, is not enough.

The FSF ethos, engendered by its founder Richard Stallman, has been to call upon developers and users to demand freedom. This has inspired many in our community to achieve tremendous things, and the FSF today is surrounded by a strong community of support.

The FSF receives the bulk of its funding from its Associate Membership. You can become a member of the FSF for an annual sum of $120 US or $60 US if you're a student. As a member you receive an FSF membership card, which is a credit-card-size bootable CD-ROM distribution. You also receive an annual membership gift, the FSF news bulletin, e-mail forwarding and the knowledge that you help fund our core work.

The FSF is the home of the GNU Project, which is the project to build a UNIX-like operating system that is free to all its users. The creation of this GNU operating system, commonly using the Linux kernel, was possible thanks to the creative and ethical hackers that we refer to as the GNU Maintainers and GNU Developers. Today, much work continues to develop and maintain the GNU Project and document its constituent parts. The FSF provides the framework and resources for this ongoing effort.

Beyond the GNU Project, the Free Software community has developed a vast array of free software tools and applications. To promote this software and make it available to anyone for free, we maintain the FSF Free Software Directory (see the on-line Resources). The Directory is a complete listing of all the stable free software programs and now contains more than 4,000 entries. The Directory is the de facto portal for the distribution of free software worldwide, and it was built without commercial advertising.

The FSF holds the copyright on major parts of the GNU/Linux operating system. We carefully collect and process contributers' legal paperwork and register our copyrights with the US Library of Congress' Copyright Office. We hold these copyrights so that we can take action to keep GNU/Linux free. We undertake this work through what we call the FSF Licensing and Compliance Lab. As the author and guardian of the GNU General Public License, the FSF provides detailed resources about free software licensing and takes action when we receive your reports of license violations. So, if you are developing free software and need some help with your licensing, check out our resources. If you see a GPL violation, please read our reporting guidelines. If you still have questions, you can contact us at licensing@fsf.org.

The FSF seeks to encourage the adoption of free software and not exclude anyone in the process. We encourage businesses to use and develop free software and contribute back to the community. Many corporations now develop free software and have profitable business models based on it. That is good, but it is important to remember that only human beings can be trusted to value the ethics of free software—we mustn't depend upon business interests to look after us.

Organizing for free software is one of the major elements of the work of FSF President Richard Stallman. Richard travels constantly with a busy schedule of speaking engagements in an effort to educate and warn people of the threats of proprietary software. Freedom has to be fought for, and one of the major problems we face is the fact that so many still do not perceive the threats.

FSF's message and insistence on freedom over the practical is hard for some to agree with and is controversial in an age when many believe freedoms are for sale. Therefore, we depend heavily on those that do get it to join us and help fund our work.

You also can help by working on our high-priority projects: GNU Compiler for Java, GNU Classpath, LinuxBIOS and GPLFlash. Or, make your voice heard in Europe against software patents and in the US against the extension of the reach of the Hague Treaty.

Happy anniversary and happy hacking to all who got us this far!

Resources for this article: /article/8409.

Peter Brown has worked at the FSF since 2001 as manager of the FSF Licensing and Compliance Lab. He became the Executive Director in 2005 and previously worked as a director of New Internationalist Magazine.

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