7 Reasons Why Free Software Is Losing Influence

Tuesday Nov 22nd 2011 by Bruce Byfield
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Why are free software ideals less popular than they were five years ago? The answer's complicated and perhaps a bit controversial.

Five years ago, when most of the Java code was released under the GNU General Public License (GPL), Sun Microsystems took care to enlist the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in the announcement, collecting approving statements from Richard Stallman, the president of the FSF, and Eben Moglen, its legal counsel.

Today, you can hardly imagine any corporation making the same effort. Bit by bit, so slowly that you can only see what happened in retrospect, free software is no longer the influence it used to be the community it created.

In fact, you can no longer refer to FOSS (free and open software software) and expect to be understood. For most purposes, the term "free software" has been replaced by "open source," and is hardly heard at all.

What happened? I have no hard figures, but I can think of at least seven possible reasons. Some were beyond the FSF's control. Others are the results of FSF decisions that might have seemed reasonable at the time, or in isolation, but had unfortunate long-term effects. A few were simply rash decisions:

1. Too Many Causes, Too Few Resources

The FSF relies on a staff of less than a dozen, plus volunteers. Its income for 2010 was $1.23 million. With these resources, it sponsors the GNU Project, assists companies and projects to comply with free licenses, and runs eleven campaigns, ranging from anti-DRM and anti-Windows intiatives to attempts to get people to use free audio formats.

All of these efforts are worthwhile in themselves, and nobody else is even mentioning most of them. But these are far more issues than the FSF tried to address in the past, and it is doing so with only a couple of hundred thousand dollars more than in 2006, when its resources are scarcely adequate to do one of them well. Consequently, the FSF winds up looking ineffectual, and few of its campaigns capture the popular imagination of the community, much less accomplish what they set out to do.

2. Failing to Find New Supporters While Neglecting the Old

In the last five years, the FSF has attempted to move into social activism, and to make its cause more mainstream. This effort was due largely to the efforts of former executive director Peter Brown, and reflects his own activist background. It's a move I wrote in support of at the time, and still think is a good move tactically.

Unfortunately, this move has largely failed -- no doubt another victim of limited resources. At the same time, it has involved making a distinction between the FSF and the technically-based GNU Project. I've heard many developers express dislike of the activist position, and wish that the FSF would start focusing on their concerns again. In other words, the FSF has ended up worse than it was before, having failed to win a new audience and instead alienating its existing one.

3. The Replacement of Debian with Ubuntu

Many people today don't remember, but, five years ago, Debian was one of the standard-setters for free software. It didn't always agree with the FSF -- in fact, Debian was notorious for going its own way, setting its own definition of free software, and making up its own mind on issues such as whether the GNU Free Documentation License was realy a free license (yes, Debian decided after a long debate, in certain circumstances). Yet when the FSF produced the third version of the GPL, it took care to consult and involve Debian representatives.

For all the occasional acrimony, as the largest community-based distribution, Debian gave free software advocacy additional credibility. If nothing else, Debian helped to create the impression of a community large enough to have differences.

Today, however, while Debian continues to be as influential technologically as ever, much of the mindshare it used to enjoy has been captured by its derivative Ubuntu. This is not to fault Ubuntu, but it is a commercial company, and, in search of profit, it has been known to abandon free software principles when convenient.

With the FSF's ally and occasional sparring partner less influential, the free software cause as a whole is weaker. If nothing else, the debates with Debian helped keep advocacy issues fresh in the minds of the community.

4. Failure to Address New Technologies

Although new technologies have been introduced in the last five years, the FSF's main strategy has been to denounce, then ignore them. Over the last few years, Richard Stallman has denounced cloud computing, e-books, cell phones in general, and Android in particular.

In each case, Stallman has raised issues of privacy and consumer rights that others all too often fail to mention. The trouble is, going on to ignore these new technologies solves nothing, and makes the free software movement more irrelevant in people's lives. Many people are attracted to new technologies, and others are forced to use them because others are.

Admittedly, the FSF does offer the Affero GNU General Public License as a free license for cloud computing. However, it is rarely mentioned, and, according to Black Duck's tracking, is used for only 401 pieces of software -- a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of examples of free licensing. By continuing to focus on the traditional desktop, free software is keeping itself from precisely the technologies where it is currently needed most.

5. The GPL Version Split

In June 2007, the FSF released the third version of the GPL (GPLv3). This update tried to take into account new technologies and ways of evading the provisions of the second version of the license (GPLv2). The new version was the product of an extensive, unparalleled consultation with community and corporate stakeholders.

However, this consultation process did include consensus. When Linus Torvalds decided that the Linux kernel would stay with GPLv3, the FSF went ahead with the GPLv3 regardless.

At the time, the decision seemed sensible in the face of a deadlock. But now, GPLv2 is used for 42.5% of free software, and GPLv3 for less than 6.5%, according to Black Duck Software.

Before the license revision, the GPL helped to unify the community, and the FSF, as the creator and enforcer of the GPL, had a strong presence in the community. Now, GPLv2 is viewed as the version favored by open source supporters, GPLv3 as the version for free software advocates -- and not only does the whole free software philosophy looks weaker, but the split between open source and free software is wider than ever.

Moreover, as though that situation wasn't bad enough, there seems to be a trend towards permissive licenses that don't require code sharing, the way that all versions of the GPL do.

6. Not Attending Conferences

Richard Stallman and many other members of the FSF refuse to appear at conferences that don't use GNU/Linux in their name and advertising. In fact, Stallman has been known to refuse to speak to a group or to journalists who don't use his preferred nomenclature.

The main exception that I'm aware of is Eben Moglen, whose work at the Software Freedom Law Center includes many who style themselves open source supporters.

I understand that this refusal is a matter of principle. Yet, despite all the ways to communicate on the Internet, face to face contact remains important in the community. By maintaining their ideals, free software advocates have made themselves invisible, cutting themselves off from the personal networking and other informal associations that spring up when people talk to each other.

7. Richard Stallman's Gaffs

As founder and main speaker for the FSF, Richard Stallman has played a major role in the history of free software. Nothing will ever change that.

But Stallman's stubbornness, which helped the ideas of free software to take hold and flourish, now appear to many as a handicap. Stallman consistently displays a fixation on definition that distracts from his main points about the need for software freedom. These days, too, he never seems to miss a chance to criticize the open source philosophy, even when the criticism isn't relevant to his point.

Even worse, Stallman has a history of making gaffs, then refusing to admit that he was wrong. In July 2009, he created a controversy by refusing to back down after a sexist remark he made at the Desktop Summit in Gran Canaria. More recently, Stallman remarked about Steve Jobs that, "I'm not glad he's dead, but I'm glad he's gone," then expanded on his remarks a few weeks later. The problem was not that he was wrong about Jobs popularizing proprietary technology, but that many people felt that his remarks were tasteless and crass when speaking about the recently dead, and that a leader should have shown more sense than to make them.

Stallman is far from the whole of the free software movement, but many people judge the movement unfavorably because of him.

Turning Things Around

None of the reasons mentioned here is decisive in itself. However, cumulatively, they go a long way towards explaining why the FSF and free software ideals are less influential than before.

As a free software supporter, I can only hope that the loss of influence can be reversed. Five years ago isn't so long a time, and in theory I see no reason why free software can't regain the ground that it's lost. If the FSF and free software advocates would engage current trends (to say nothing of the rest of the community), then in another few years it could be more influential than ever.

The only problem is, will the free software leadership admit the problems and correction them? I hope so, but I'm not optimistic about the answer.

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