Organizational Proliferation Is Not the Problem You Think It Is
byon July 9, 2020
I've been concerned this week about aggressive negative reaction (by some) to the formation of an additional organization to serve the Free and Open Source (FOSS) community. Thus it seems like a good moment to remind everyone why we all benefit when we welcome newcomer organizations in FOSS.
I've been involved in helping found many different organizations — in roles as varied as co-founder, founding Board member, consultant, spin-off partner, and “just a friend giving advice”. Most of these organizations fill a variety of roles; they support, house, fiscally sponsor, or handle legal issues and/or trademark, copyright, or patent matters for FOSS projects. I and my colleagues at Conservancy speak regularly about why we believe a 501(c)(3) charitable structure in the USA has huge advantages, and you can find plenty of blog posts on our site about that. But you can also find us talking about how 501(c)(6) structures, and other structures outside the USA entirely, are often the right choices — depending on what a FOSS project seeks from its organization. Conservancy also makes our policies, agreements, and processes fully public so that organizations can reuse our work, and many have.
Meanwhile, FOSS organizations must avoid the classic “not invented here” anti-pattern. Of course I believe that Conservancy has great ideas for how to help FOSS, and our work — such as fiscal sponsorship, GPL enforcement work, and the Outreachy internship program — are the highest priorities in FOSS. I also believe the projects we take under our auspices are the most important projects in FOSS today.
But not everyone agrees with me, nor should they. Our Executive Director, Karen Sandler, loves the aphorism “let a thousand flowers bloom”. For example, when we learned of the launch of Open Collective, we at Conservancy were understandably concerned that since they were primarily a 501(c)(6) and didn't follow the kinds of fiscal sponsorship models and rules that we preferred, that somehow it was a “threat” to Conservancy. But that reaction is one of fear, selfishness, and insecurity. Once we analyzed what the Open Collective folks were up to, we realized that they were an excellent option for a lot of the projects that were simply not a good fit for Conservancy and our model. Conservancy is deeply steeped in a long-term focus on software freedom for the general public, and some projects — particularly those that are primarily in service to companies rather than individual users (or who don't want the oversight a charity requires) — just don't belong with us. We regularly refer projects to Open Collective.
For many larger projects, Linux Foundation — as a 501(c)(6) controlled completely by large technology companies — is also a great option. We've often referred Conservancy applicants there, too. We do that even while we criticize Linux Foundation for choosing proprietary software for many tasks, including proprietary software they write from scratch for their outward-facing project services. We know that large for-profit companies and their employees generally don't mind using proprietary software (even to develop FOSS), so we don't hesitate to refer those kinds of projects (with our activist caveats) to Linux Foundation.
Of course, I'm thinking about all this today because Conservancy has been asked what we think about the Open Usage Commons. The fact is they're just getting started and both the legal details of how they're handling trademarks, and their governance documents, haven't been released yet. We should all give them an opportunity to slowly publish more and review it when it comes along. We should judge them fairly as an alternative for fulfilling FOSS project needs that no else addresses (or, more commonly are being addressed very differently by existing organizations). I'm going to hypothesize that, like Linux Foundation, Open Usage Commons will primarily be of interest to more for-profit-company focused projects, but that's my own speculation; none of us know yet.
No one is denying that Open Usage Commons is tied to Google as part of their founding — in the same way that Linux Foundation's founding (which was originally founded as the “Open Source Development Labs”) was closely tied to IBM at the time. As near as I can tell, IBM's influence over Linux Foundation is these days no more than any other of their Platinum Members. It's not uncommon for a trade association to jumpstart with a key corporate member and eventually grow to be governed by a wider group of companies. But while appropriately run trade associations do balance the needs of all for-profit companies in their industry, they are decidedly not neutral; they are chartered to favor business needs over the needs of the general public. I encourage skepticism when you hear an organization claim “neutrality”. Since a trade association is narrowed to serving businesses, it can be neutral among the interests of business, but their mandate remains putting business needs above community. The ultimate proof of neutrality pudding is in the eating. As with multi-copyright held GPL'd projects, we can trust the equal rights for all in those — regardless of the corporate form of the contributors — because the document of legal rights makes it so. The same principle applies to any area of FOSS endeavor: examine the agreements and written rules for contributors and users to test neutrality.
Some Work-At-Home Tips for FOSS Contributors
byon June 23, 2020
The global COVID-19 pandemic has changed everyone's lives, and taken the lives of so many of our family members and friends. For those of us that have been spared, our lives must continue, and this is particularly true for those who work in Free and Open Source Software (FOSS), since so many of us already worked from home. Doing so when our world faces so many simultaneous crises is undoubtedly difficult. I share below a few ideas that I've had that might be able to help my fellow FOSS contributors.
We have a weekly meetup of FOSS contributors where I live, which once upon
a time met at a restaurant for late breakfast, but now meets weekly on a
Jitsi instance installed by one of the members. During a recent session,
one contributor complained about a real problem she faced, as she put
All my non-FOSS friends keep asking me ‘Teach me how you work
from home; I'm doing it for the first time and failing’. The
answer she gave them was that what is happening now is not the
“working from home” that she had trained herself for all this
Specifically, she meant that most of us who already work from home have built quite easy routines of having the home to ourselves. Roommates, children, life partners, and family who live in the house often have at least some of their day when they're away. Now, everyone is staying at home, so the personal procedures and systems that those of us who stay while the others go have simply evaporated.
My colleague's observation was quite salient. I've seen plenty of articles talking about how to work from home, but few have tips for how to handle the unique situation where everyone in the house and must all work from home together. I have a few ideas that I thought might help in this regard. Admittedly, some of these tips are likely FOSS-specific, but if you've found this article and don't work in FOSS, there might still be a hint or two that helps. Here's a list of changes that I've made that have really worked for me:
Hour-shift if you can. If you're able to, attempt to try new times of day. For me, I've been attempting to wake up earlier than everyone else in the house and get a few hours of work before others in the home start their day. Our Executive Director, Karen Sandler, has been working late in the evening after her children are in bed. Of course, shifting to inconvenient times is difficult and annoying, but we've found it can help to fit in a few hours of focused work during these difficult times.
Reorganize rote tasks for right time of day. When lots of people are around the house, some times of the day are inherently going to be louder and more chaotic than others. Keeping that in mind, I often try to plan out a day so that tasks that require serious concentration are scheduled for the most quiet moments and rote tasks are saved for those moments when it feels like nothing else can be done. For example, if I have to write complex correspondence with FOSS project leaders, I try to do that early in the morning, and save the Git repository reorganization project — which is mostly waiting for long rebases to finish and cherry-picking changes from other branches — for those times when my quarantined neighbor is power-washing his driveway.
Mix housework with conference calls. My colleagues at Conservancy already know this, but for those of you who have been on the phone with me now may be in for a shock: if you've had a conference call with me recently, I was probably loading or unloading my dishwasher, cleaning the kitchen, or doing laundry while I spoke with you. The amount of housework for all of us has gone up now that we're all going nowhere else, and it's tough for all of us to fit it in. Most of our work in FOSS is at a keyboard, but for those moments when I don't need the keyboard and screen in front of me, I look for tasks that need attention that I can easily do while wearing a headset. Of course, I recommend the double-mute button solution to really ensure that your colleagues don't hear the kitchen sink spigot on the line!
Not everything needs a video chat. Video chat is now mainstream and everyone seems to want to use it. Of course, I (and all of us at Conservancy) encourage use of FOSS solutions, such as Jitsi and Big Blue Button. However, not every meeting needs a video chat, and, fitting with the previous point, being tied to your desk for a long video chat at a time when you're in a crowded house can be difficult. Encourage your colleagues to use a simple phone call when it will do for a meeting. Use a mobile or cordless phone so you can take a walk while talking, even if it's just wandering around the house. Furthermore, being cognizant to the increased noise levels in all our homes — be it from children playing, or that power washer next door that I mentioned — consider meetings on IRC, XMPP or other forms of FOSS online chat. This also allows folks the flexibility to step away for an emergency and come back to catch up.
Keep working on context switching skills. I admit that I envy people who can truly multitask and keep clear attention on two complicated things at once. It's a skill that I've never been able to develop, but there's another skill that can be equally valuable: the ability to switch between two tasks quickly. Those of us that program know that speeding up context switches on a computer speeds just about everything up on the computer. It's also (at least a bit) true with a person. If you can handle a surprise issue that someone in your house is asking you about, and quickly return to work without losing too much time to re-acclimate yourself, it really helps to keep work efficient during these tough times. Like any skill, it requires practice to develop. I find the best way to practice is be very mindful about what I'm working on at any moment and why, and when a distraction comes along, I evaluate it carefully by sub-vocalizing, and then note down something about where I was with the task I'm on before switching. I find that even the briefest of notes (3-5 words) makes a huge difference when I attempt to swap the task back into my mind.
Finally, keep in mind that one good fact in the sea of bad things in our world is that all of humanity is facing COVID-19 together. Those of us who are fortunate enough to do our jobs from relative safety in our home owe it to do our best to work efficiently and keep going, while the essential workers who are caring for the sick, searching for a vaccine and shelving our grocery stores take risks on our behalf to help our society survive the pandemic. I try to have empathy for all the others facing challenges that are greater than mine during the pandemic, and do the best I can in my own work to honor their sacrifices.
Supporting Software Freedom with Your Time through Conservancy
byon May 7, 2020
The current global pandemic has affected everyone, but the experience of essential workers couldn't be more different from the experience of remote tech workers. Even within tech, many people have found themselves with no free time at all while they work to balance child-rearing, care-giving and remote work, while some of their friends, siblings and peers have found that they suddenly have a lot of extra time.
This post is for free software enthusiasts who find themselves with extra time. Conservancy and its member projects have a variety of different ways that you could meaningfully volunteer your time -- remotely, of course.
Translation is great way to help spread free software. MicroBlocks needs help with translation to help them make their fun projects available to more new coders, all over the world. The contact email is: email@example.com. Etherpad, a key tool for remote collaboration, is also currently seeking translation help.
In a few weeks, we will need help with some of the bits and pieces associated with our upcoming migration to Bean Count. Moving ten years of financial records is a big undertaking. Folks who are python savvy and/or have experience with Bean Count should drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org with "Bean Count Help" in the subject.
Many of our projects could use more technical volunteers, here are two that have nice specific lists of tasks they could use help with. Reproducible Builds has a handy list of technical tasks that they could use help with on their site. Inkscape has a thorough list of both coding (and non-coding) tasks that they could use help with on their site.
Compliance is more important than ever. As more and more people come to rely on their digital devices and applications, we want to ensure that these tools empower, rather than spy on, the user. Compliance is big part of how we make sure there is source code that folks can examine -- and alter if necesary.
At a high level, this is how Conservancy's compliance process works:
- People like you tell us about products or services they use where the source code for GPLed parts isn't provided or is incomplete
- We investigate and contact the company if we can't find complete build and installation instructions
- We work with the company to get the complete source - in rare cases we file a lawsuit (only when all other avenues fail)
We're specifically interested to hear from people who are able to check their devices (TVs, smartphones, tablets, et.c) to see if they contain any GPLed software. Here's how to do that:
- If you think the device uses Linux, BusyBox, Android, etc., or the manual mentions "open source" then ask the manufacturer for source code
- If they don't reply, or refuse to provide it, please report this to us
- Or, if you can't build their source code or install the result on your device for some reason, let us know
- We will start the process to resolve it (so you can get the source!), following up in a few days
We're always interested in talking to FOSS-savvy folks who want to write for our blog. A robust free software movement includes lots of voices. Some topics we'd like to see include; stories about driving free software adoption at your work or school, ways to improve governance or work-flow at community-driven free software projects, how your company embraced copyleft or sharing strategies for growing and/or diversifying free software communities. If writing about free software sounds exciting to you, email us at email@example.com with "Guest Blogging" in the subject.
Some of our projects have also put out calls for help with writing. Selenium could use help answering questions, writing documentation, and updating information on their website. Inkscape has a thorough list of both non-coding (and coding) tasks that they could use help with here.
This one's a little specialized, but if you are at all familiar with the grant space or are interested in learning, we could use some help identifying grant application opportunities. If that sounds like your wheelhouse, then please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with "Grant Research" in the subject.
Thanks for considering volunteering your time to support software freedom!
Videos From The Past and Upcoming Virtual Appearances
byon April 27, 2020
We've got a handful of videos from free software events that took place earlier this year and then two upcoming online appearances with different communities.
Videos From Before Shelter-in-place
Bradley and Karen both attended linux.conf.au, a fantastic, long-running community conference that was held at Australia's Gold Coast in January. Bradley Kuhn, our Policy Fellow and Hacker-in-Residence gave a tutorial on the GNU General Public License, version 2 aimed at helping folks participate knowledgeably in both internal and external licensing conversations, "Introduction to Linux's License." Karen Sandler, our Executive Director co-presented with Bradley on the challenges of being a FOSS Activist, "Open Source Won, but Software Freedom Hasn't Yet: A Guide & Commiseration Session for FOSS Activists."
On the day before FOSDEM, Deb Nicholson, our Director of Community Outreach keynoted CHAOSSCon in Brussels. Her presentation, "Ethics: What You Know & What You Don't Know" is about biases, pre-conceptions and how to work though them when you're building and optimizing free software communities.
SCaLE (aka the Southern California Linux Expo), a large FOSS community conference, was held in early March. Vagrant Cascadian is one of the lead developers working on Reproducible Builds and he gave a talk titled, "There and Back Again, Reproducibly!" Reproducible Builds is a Conservancy member project that works on a process to create an independently verifiable path from source code to the binary code. Want to learn how it works and why you might want it for your free software project? Then you should definitely check out this talk.
Upcoming Remote Appearances
GNOME is hosting a social hour on the first Friday of every month at 16:00 UTC. The special guest on May 8th will be Deb Nicholson, our Director of Community Outreach. She'll be talking about "Roadmapping and Finding People" which is a talk about planning and delegating for community-driven free software projects.
Deb is also giving a remote talk at Open Source 101 on May 12th, titled Software Licensing and Compliance: It’s All About Community." Tune in at 4:00 PM EDT (20:00 UTC) to catch it live.