The Free Software Foundation is one of the longest-running missions in the free software movement, effectively defining it. It provides a legal foundation for the movement and organizes activism around software freedom. The GNU project, closely related, has its own long story in our movement as the coding arm of the Free Software Foundation, taking these principles and philosophy into practice by developing free software; notably the GNU operating system that famously rests atop GNU/Linux.
Today, almost 40 years on, the FSF is dying.
Their achievements are unmistakable: we must offer them our gratitude and admiration for decades of accomplishments in establishing and advancing our cause. The principles of software freedom are more important than ever, and the products of these institutions remain necessary and useful – the GPL license family, GCC, GNU coreutils, and so on. Nevertheless, the organizations behind this work are floundering.
The Free Software Foundation must concern itself with the following ahead of all else:
- Disseminating free software philosophy
- Developing, publishing, and promoting copyleft licenses
- Overseeing the health of the free software movement
It is failing in each of these regards, and as its core mission fails, the foundation is investing its resources into distractions.
In its role as the thought-leaders of free software philosophy, the message of the FSF has a narrow reach. The organization’s messaging is tone-deaf, ineffective, and myopic. Hammering on about “GNU/Linux” nomenclature, antagonism towards our allies in the open source movement, maligning the audience as “useds” rather than “users”; none of this aids the cause. The pages and pages of dense philosophical essays and poorly organized FAQs do not provide a useful entry point or reference for the community. The message cannot spread like this.
As for copyleft, well, it’s no coincidence that many people struggle with the FSF’s approach. Do you, dear reader, know the difference between free software and copyleft? Many people assume that the MIT license is not free software because it’s not viral. The GPL family of licenses are essential for our movement, but few people understand its dense and esoteric language, despite the 16,000-word FAQ which supplements it. And hip new software isn’t using copyleft: over 1 million npm packages use a permissive license while fewer than 20,000 use the GPL; cargo sports a half-million permissive packages and another 20,000 or so GPL’d.
And is the free software movement healthy? This one gets an emphatic “yes!” – thanks to the open source movement and the near-equivalence between free software and open source software. There’s more free software than ever and virtually all new software contains free software components, and most people call it open source.
The FOSS community is now dominated by people who are beyond the reach of the FSF’s message. The broader community is enjoying a growth in the diversity of backgrounds and values represented, and the message does not reach these people. The FSF fails to understand its place in the world as a whole, or its relationship to the progressive movements taking place in the ecosystem and beyond. The foundation does not reach out to new leaders in the community, leaving them to form insular, weak institutions among themselves with no central leadership, and leaving us vulnerable to exploitation from growing movements like open core and commercial attacks on the free and open source software brand.
Reforms are sorely needed for the FSF to fulfill it basic mission. In particular, I call for the following changes:
- Reform the leadership. It’s time for Richard Stallman to go. His polemeic rhetoric rivals even my own, and the demographics he represents – to the exclusion of all others – is becoming a minority within the free software movement. We need more leaders of color, women, LGBTQ representation, and others besides. The present leadership, particularly from RMS, creates an exclusionary environment in a place where inclusion and representation are important for the success of the movement.
- Reform the institution. The FSF needs to correct its myopic view of the ecosystem, reach out to emerging leaders throughout the FOSS world, and ask them to take charge of the FSF’s mission. It’s these leaders who hold the reins of the free software movement today – not the FSF. If the FSF still wants to be involved in the movement, they need to recognize and empower the leaders who are pushing the cause forward.
- Reform the message. People depend on the FSF to establish a strong background in free software philosophy and practices within the community, and the FSF is not providing this. The message needs to be made much more accessible and level in tone, and the relationship between free software and open source needs to be reformed so that the FSF and OSI stand together as the pillars at the foundations of our ecosystem.
- Decouple the FSF from the GNU project. FSF and GNU have worked hand-in-hand over decades to build the movement from scratch, but their privileged relationship has become obsolete. The GNU project represents a minute fraction of the free software ecosystem today, and it’s necessary for the Free Software Foundation to stand independently of any particular project and focus on the health of the ecosystem as a whole.
- Develop new copyleft licenses. The GPL family of licenses has served us well, but we need to do better. The best copyleft license today is the MPL, whose terse form and accessible language outperforms the GPL in many respects. However, it does not provide a comprehensive answer to the needs of copyleft, and new licenses are required to fill other niches in the market – the FSF should write these licenses. Furthermore, the FSF should present the community with a free software perspective on licenses as a resource that project leaders can depend on to understand the importance of their licensing choice such that they understand the appeal of copyleft licenses without feeling pushed away from permissive approaches.
The free software movement needs a strong force uniting it: we face challenges from many sides, and today’s Free Software Foundation is not equal to the task. The FOSS ecosystem is flourishing, and it’s time for the FSF to step up to the wheel and direct its coming successes in the name of software freedom.