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Displaying posts by Bradley M. Kuhn

Goodbye To Bob Chassell

by Bradley M. Kuhn on July 3, 2017

It's fortunately more common now in Free Software communities today to properly value contributions from non-developers. Historically, though, contributions from developers were often overvalued and contributions from others grossly undervalued. One person trailblazed as (likely) the earliest non-developer contributor to software freedom. His name was Robert J. Chassell — called Bob by his friends and colleagues. Over the weekend, our community lost Bob after a long battle with a degenerative illness.

I am one of the few of my generation in the Free Software community who had the opportunity to know Bob. He was already semi-retired in the late 1990s when I first became involved with Free Software, but he enjoyed giving talks about Free Software and occasionally worked the FSF booths at events where I had begun to volunteer in 1997. He was the first person to offer mentorship to me as I began the long road of becoming a professional software freedom activist.

I regularly credit Bob as the first Executive Director of the FSF. While he technically never held that title, he served as Treasurer for many years and was the de-facto non-technical manager at the FSF for its first decade of existence. One need only read the earliest issues of the GNU's Bulletin to see just a sampling of the plethora of contributions that Bob made to the FSF and Free Software generally.

Bob's primary forte was as a writer and he came to Free Software as a technical writer. Having focused his career on documenting software and how it worked to help users make the most of it, software freedom — the right to improve and modify not only the software, but its documentation as well — was a moral belief that he held strongly. Bob was an early member of the privileged group that now encompasses most people in industrialized society: a non-developer who sees the value in computing and the improvement it can bring to life. However, Bob's realization that users like him (and not just developers) faced detrimental impact from proprietary software remains somewhat rare, even today. Thus, Bob died in a world where he was still unique among non-developers: fighting for software freedom as an essential right for all who use computers.

Bob coined a phrase that I still love to this day. He said once that the job that we must do as activists was “preserve, protect and promote software freedom”. Only a skilled writer such as he could come up with such a perfectly concise alliteration that nevertheless rolls off the tongue without stuttering. Today, I pulled up an email I sent to Bob in November 2006 to tell him that (when Novell made their bizarre software-freedom-unfriendly patent deal with Microsoft) Novell had coopted his language in their FAQ on the matter. Bob wrote back: I am not surprised. You can bet everything [we've ever come up with] will be used against us. Bob's decade-old words are prolific when I look at the cooption we now face daily in Free Software. I acutely feel the loss of his insight and thoughtfulness.

One of the saddest facts about Bob's illness, Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, is that his voice was quite literally lost many years before we lost him entirely. His illness made it nearly impossible for him to speak. In the late 1990s, I had the pleasure of regularly hearing Bob's voice, when I accompanied Bob to talks and speeches at various conferences. That included the wonderful highlight of his acceptance speech of GNU's 2001 achievement award from the USENIX Association. (I lament that no recordings of any of these talks seem to be available anywhere.) Throughout the early 2000s, I would speak to Bob on the telephone at least once a month; he would offer his sage advice and mentorship in those early years of my professional software freedom career. Losing his voice in our community has been a slow-moving tragedy as his illness has progressed. This weekend, that unique voice was lost to us forever.


Bob, who was born in Bennington, VT on 22 August 1946, died in Great Barrington, MA on 30 June 2017. He is survived by his sister, Karen Ringwald, and several nieces and nephews and their families. A memorial service for Bob will take place at 11 am, July 26, 2017, at The First Congregational Church in Stockbridge, MA.

In the meantime, the best I can suggest is that anyone who would like to posthumously get to know Bob please read (what I believe was) the favorite book that he wrote, An Introduction to Programming in Emacs Lisp. Bob was a huge advocate of non-developers learning “a little bit” of programming — just enough to make their lives easier when they used computers. He used GNU Emacs from its earliest versions and I recall he was absolutely giddy to discover new features, help document them, and teach them to new users. I hope those of you that both already love and use Emacs and those who don't will take a moment to read what Bob had to teach us about his favorite program.

Tags: GPL

Why GPL Compliance Tutorials Should Be Free as in Freedom

by Bradley M. Kuhn on April 25, 2017

I am honored to be a co-author and editor-in-chief of the most comprehensive, detailed, and complete guide on matters related to compliance of copyleft software licenses such as the GPL. This book, Copyleft and the GNU General Public License: A Comprehensive Tutorial and Guide (which we often call the Copyleft Guide for short) is 155 pages filled with useful material to help everyone understand copyleft licenses for software, how they work, and how to comply with them properly. It is the only document to fully incorporate esoteric material such as the FSF's famous GPLv3 rationale documents directly alongside practical advice, such as the pristine example, which is the only freely published compliance analysis of a real product on the market. The document explains in great detail how that product manufacturer made good choices to comply with the GPL. The reader learns by both real-world example as well as abstract explanation.

However, the most important fact about the Copyleft Guide is not its useful and engaging content. More importantly, the license of this book gives freedom to its readers in the same way the license of the copylefted software does. Specifically, we chose the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 license (CC BY-SA) for this work. We believe that not just software, but any generally useful technical information that teaches people should be freely sharable and modifiable by the general public.

The reasons these freedoms are necessary seem so obvious that I'm surprised I need to state them. Companies who want to build internal training courses on copyleft compliance for their employees need to modify the materials for that purpose. They then need to be able to freely distribute them to employees and contractors for maximum effect. Furthermore, like all documents and software alike, there are always “bugs”, which (in the case of written prose) usually means there are sections that fail to communicate to maximum effect. Those who find better ways to express the ideas need the ability to propose patches and write improvements. Perhaps most importantly, everyone who teaches should avoid NIH syndrome. Education and science work best when we borrow and share (with proper license-compliant attribution, of course!) the best material that others develop, and augment our works by incorporating them.

These reasons are akin to those that led Richard M. Stallman to write his seminal essay, Why Software Should Be Free. Indeed, if you reread that essay now — as I just did — you'll see that much of the damage and many of the same problems to the advancement of software that RMS documents in that essay also occur in the world of tutorial documentation about FLOSS licensing. As too often happens in the Open Source community, though, folks seek ways to proprietarize, for profit, any copyrighted work that doesn't already have a copyleft license attached. In the field of copyleft compliance education, we see the same behavior: organizations who wish to control the dialogue and profit from selling compliance education seek to proprietarize the meta-material of compliance education, rather than sharing freely like the software itself. This yields an ironic exploitation, since the copyleft license documented therein exists as a strategy to assure the freedom to share knowledge. These educators tell their audiences with a straight face: Sure, the software is free as in freedom, but if you want to learn how its license works, you have to license our proprietary materials! This behavior uses legal controls to curtail the sharing of knowledge, limits the advancement and improvement of those tutorials, and emboldens silos of know-how that only wealthy corporations have the resources to access and afford. The educational dystopia that these organizations create is precisely what I sought to prevent by advocating for software freedom for so long.

While Conservancy's primary job provides non-profit infrastructure for Free Software projects, we also do a bit of license compliance work as well. But we practice what we preach: we release all the educational materials that we produce as part of the Copyleft Guide project under CC BY-SA. Other Open Source organizations are currently hypocrites on this point; they tout the values of openness and sharing of knowledge through software, but they take their tutorial materials and lock them up under proprietary licenses. I hereby publicly call on such organizations (including but not limited to the Linux Foundation) to license materials such as those under CC BY-SA.

I did not make this public call for liberation of such materials without first trying friendly diplomacy first. Conservancy has been in talks with individuals and staff who produce these materials for some time. We urged them to join the Free Software community and share their materials under free licenses. We even offered volunteer time to help them improve those materials if they would simply license them freely. After two years of that effort, it's now abundantly clear that public pressure is the only force that might work0. Ultimately, like all proprietary businesses, the training divisions of Linux Foundation and other entities in the compliance industrial complex (such as Black Duck) realize they can make much more revenue by making materials proprietary and choosing legal restrictions that forbid their students from sharing and improving the materials after they complete the course. While the reality of this impasse regarding freely licensing these materials is probably an obvious outcome, multiple sources inside these organizations have also confirmed for me that liberation of the materials for the good of general public won't happen without a major paradigm shift — specifically because such educational freedom will reduce the revenue stream around those materials.

Of course, I can attest first-hand that freely liberating tutorial materials curtails revenue. Karen Sandler and I have regularly taught courses on copyleft licensing based on the freely available materials for a few years — most recently in January 2017 at LinuxConf Australia and at at OSCON in a few weeks. These conferences do kindly cover our travel expenses to attend and teach the tutorial, but compliance education is not a revenue stream for Conservancy. (By contrast, Linux Foundation generates US$3.8 million/year using proprietary training materials, per their 2015 Form 990, page 9, line 2c.) While, in an ideal world, we'd get revenue from education to fund our other important activities, we believe that there is value in doing this education as currently funded by our individual Supporters; these education efforts fit withour charitable mission to promote the public good. We furthermore don't believe that locking up the materials and refusing to share them with others fits a mission of software freedom, so we never considered such as a viable option. Finally, given the institutionally-backed FUD that we continue to witness, we seek to draw specific attention to the fundamental difference in approach that Conservancy (as a charity) take toward this compliance education work. (My recent talk on compliance covered on LWN includes some points on that matter, if you'd like further reading).


0One notable exception to these efforts was the success of my colleague, Karen Sandler's (and others) in convincing the OpenChain project to choose CC-0 licensing. However, OpenChain has released only 68 presentation slides, and a 12-page specification, and some of the slides simply encourage people to go buy an LF proprietary training course!

Tags: conservancy, GPL

Software Freedom Can Avoid the Looming Dystopia

by Bradley M. Kuhn on February 14, 2017

I encourage all of you to either listen to or read the transcript of Terry Gross' Fresh Air interview with Joseph Turow about his discussion of his book “The Aisles Have Eyes: How Retailers Track Your Shopping, Strip Your Privacy, And Define Your Power”.

Now, most of you who read my blog know the difference between proprietary and Free Software, and the difference between a network service and software that runs on your own device. I want all of you have a good understanding of that to do a simple thought experiment:

How many of the horrible things that Turow talks about can happen if there is no proprietary software on your IoT or mobile devices?

AFAICT, other than the facial recognition in the store itself that he talked about in Russia, everything he talks about would be mitigated or eliminated completely as a thread if users could modify the software on their devices.

Yes, universal software freedom will not solve all the worlds' problems. But it does solve a lot of them, at least with regard to the bad things the powerful want to do to us via technology.

Tags: conservancy

Supporting Conservancy Makes a Difference

by Bradley M. Kuhn on February 13, 2017

There are a lot of problems in our society, and particularly in the USA, right now, and plenty of charities who need our support. The reason I continue to focus my work on software freedom is simply because there are so few focused on the moral and ethical issues of computing. Open Source has reached its pinnacle as an industry fad, and with it, a watered-down message: “having some of the source code for some of your systems some of the time is so great, why would you need anything more?”. Universal software freedom is however further from reality than it was even a few years ago. At least a few of us, in my view, must focus on that cause.

I did not post many blog posts about this in 2016. There was a reason for that — more than any other year, work demands at Conservancy have been constant and unrelenting. I enjoy my work, so I don't mind, but blogging becomes low priority when there is a constant backlog of urgent work to support Conservancy's mission and our member projects. It's not just Conservancy's mission, of course, it's my personal one as well.

For our 2016 fundraiser, I wrote last year a blog post entitled “Do You Like What I Do For a Living?”. Last year, so many of you responded, that it not only made it possible for me to continue that work for one more year, but we were able to add our colleague Brett Smith to our staff, which brought Conservancy to four full-time staff for the first time. We added a few member projects (and are moving that queue to add more in 2017), and sure enough — the new work plus the backlog of work waiting for another staffer filled Brett's queue just like my, Karen's and Tony's was already filled.

The challenge now is sustaining this staffing level. Many of you came to our aid last year because we were on the brink of needing to reduce our efforts (and staffing) at Conservancy. Thanks to your overwhelming response, we not only endured, but we were able to add one additional person. As expected, though, needs of our projects increased throughout the year, and we again — all four of us full-time staff — must work to our limits to meet the needs of our projects.

Charitable donations are a voluntary activity, and as such they have a special place in our society and culture. I've talked a lot about how Conservancy's Supporters give us a mandate to carry out our work. Those of you that chose to renew your Supporter donations or become new Supporters enable us to focus our full-time efforts on the work of Conservancy.

On the signup and renewal page, you can read about some of our accomplishments in the last year (including my recent keynote at FOSDEM, an excerpt of which is included here). Our work does not follow fads, and it's not particularly glamorous, so only dedicated Supporters like you understand its value. We don't expect to get large grants to meet the unique needs of each of our member projects, and we certainly don't expect large companies to provide very much funding unless we cede control of the organization to their requests (as trade associations do). Even our most popular program, Outreachy, is attacked by a small group of people who don't want to see the status quo of privileged male domination of Open Source and Free Software disrupted.

Supporter contributions are what make Conservancy possible. A year ago, you helped us build Conservancy as a donor-funded organization and stabilize our funding base. I now must ask that you make an annual commitment to renewal — either by renewing your contribution now or becoming a monthly supporter, or, if you're just learning about my work at Conservancy from this blog post, reading up on us and becoming a new Supporter.

Years ago, when I was still only a part-time volunteer at Conservancy, someone who disliked our work told me that I had “invented a job of running Conservancy”. He meant it as an insult, but I take it as a compliment with pride. In fact, between me and my colleague (and our Executive Director) Karen Sandler, we've “invented” a total of four full-time jobs and one part-time one to advance software freedom. You helped us do that with your donations. If you donate again today, your donation will be matched to make the funds go further.

Many have told me this year that they are driven to give to other excellent charities that fight racism, work for civil and immigration rights, and other causes that seem particularly urgent right now. As long as there is racism, sexism, murder, starvation, and governmental oppression in the world, I cannot argue that software freedom should be made a priority above all of those issues. However, even if everyone in our society focused on a single, solitary cause that we agreed was the top priority, it's unlikely we could make quicker progress. Meanwhile, if we all single-mindedly ignore less urgent issues, they will, in time, become so urgent they'll be insurmountable by the time we focus on them.

Industrialized nations have moved almost fully to computer automation for most every daily task. If you question this fact, try to do your job for a day without using any software at all, or anyone using software on your behalf, and you'll probably find it impossible. Then, try to do your job using only Free Software for a day, and you'll find, as I have, that tasks that should take only a few minutes take hours when you avoid proprietary software, and some are just impossible. There are very few organizations that are considering the long-term implications of this slowly growing problem and making plans to build the foundations of a society that doesn't have that problem. Conservancy is one of those few, so I hope you'll realize that long-term value of our lifelong work to defend and expand software freedom and donate.

Tags: conservancy

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