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Why You Should Speak At & Attend LinuxConf Australia

by Bradley M. Kuhn on August 4, 2016

Monday 1 February 2016 was the longest day of my life, but I don't mean that in the canonical, figurative, and usually negative sense of that phrase. I mean it literally and in a positive way. I woke up that morning Amsterdam in the Netherlands — having the previous night taken a evening train from Brussels, Belgium with my friend and colleague Tom Marble. Tom and I had just spent the weekend at FOSDEM 2016, where he and I co-organize the Legal and Policy Issues DevRoom (with our mutual friends and colleagues, Richard Fontana and Karen M. Sandler).

Tom and I headed over to AMS airport around 07:00 local time, found some breakfast and boarded our flights. Tom was homeward bound, but I was about to do the crazy thing that he'd done in the reverse a few years before: I was speaking at FOSDEM and LinuxConf Australia, back-to-back. In fact, because the airline fares were substantially cheaper this way, I didn't book a “round the world” flight, but instead two back-to-back round-trip tickets. I boarded the plane at AMS at 09:30 that morning (local time), and landed in my (new-ish) hometown of Portland, OR as afternoon there began. I went home, spent the afternoon with my wife, sister-in-law, and dogs, washed my laundry, and repacked my bag. My flight to LAX departed at 19:36 local time, a little after US/Pacific sunset.

I crossed the Pacific ocean, the international dateline, left a day on deposit to pickup on the way back, and after 24 hours of almost literally chasing the sun, I arrived in Melbourne on the morning of Wednesday 3 February, road a shuttle bus, dumped my bags at my room, and arrived just in time for the Wednesday afternoon tea break at LinuxConf Australia 2016 in Geelong.

Nearly everyone who heard this story — or saw me while it was happening — asked me the same question: Why are you doing this?. The five to six people packed in with me in my coach section on the LAX→SYD leg are probably still asking this, because I had an allergic attack of some sort most of the flight and couldn't stop coughing, even with two full bags of Fisherman's Friends over those 15 hours.

But, nevertheless, I gave a simple answer to everyone who questioned my crazy BRU→AMS→PDX→LAX→SYD→MEL itinerary: FOSDEM and LinuxConf AU are two of the most important events on the Free Software annual calendar. There's just no question. I'll write more about FOSDEM sometime soon, but the rest of this post, I'll dedicate to LinuxConf Australia (LCA).

One of my biggest regrets in Free Software is that I was once — and you'll be surprised by this given my story above — a bit squeamish about the nearly 15 hour flight to get from the USA to Australia, and therefore I didn't attend LCA until 2015. LCA began way back in 1999. Keep in mind that, other than FOSDEM, no major, community-organized events have survived from that time. But LCA has the culture and mindset of the kinds of conferences that our community made in 1999.

LCA is community organized and operated. Groups of volunteers each year plan the event. In the tradition of science fiction conventions and other hobbyist activities, groups bid for the conference and offer their time and effort to make the conference a success. They have an annual hand-off meeting to be sure the organization lessons are passed from one committee to the next, and some volunteers even repeat their involvement year after year. For organizational structure, they rely on a non-profit organization, Linux Australia, to assist with handling the funds and providing infrastructure (just like Conservancy does for our member projects and their conferences!).

I believe fully that the success of software freedom and GNU/Linux in particular has not primarily come from companies that allow developers to spend some of their time coding on upstream. Sure, many Free Software projects couldn't survive without that component, but what really makes GNU/Linux, or any Free Software project, truly special is that there's a community of users and developers who use, improve, and learn about the software because it excites and interests them. LCA is one of the few events specifically designed to invite that sort of person to attend, and it has for almost an entire generation stood in stark contrast the highly corporate, for-profit/trade-assocation events that slowly took over our community in the years that followed LCA's founding. (Remember all those years of LinuxWorld Expo? I wasn't even sad when IDG stopped running it!)

Speaking particularly of earlier this year, LCA 2016 in Geelong, Australia was a particular profound event for me. LCA is one of the few events that accepts my rather political talks about what's happening in Open Source and Free Software, so I gave a talk on Friday 5 February 2016 entitled Copyleft For the Next Decade: A Comprehensive Plan, which was recorded, so you can watch it, or read the LWN article about it. I do warn everyone that the jokes did not go over well (mine never do), so after I finished, I was feeling a bit down that I hadn't made the talk entertaining enough. But then, something amazing happened: people started walking up to me and telling me how important my message was. One individual even came up and told me that he was excited enough that he'd like to match any donation that Software Freedom Conservancy received during LCA 2016. Since it was the last day of the event, I quickly went to one of the organizers, Kathy Reid, and asked if they would announce this match during the closing ceremonies; she agreed. In a matter of just an hour or two, I'd gone from believing my talk had fallen flat to realizing that — regardless of whether I'd presented well — the concepts I discussed had connected with people.

Then, I sat down in the closing session. I started to tear up slightly when the organizers announced the donation match. Within 90 seconds, though, that turned to full tears of joy when the incoming President of Linux Australia, Hugh Blemings, came on stage and said:

[I'll start with] a Software Freedom Conservancy thing, as it turns out. … I can tell that most of you weren't at Bradley's talk earlier on today, but if there is one talk I'd encourage you to watch on the playback later it would be that one. There's a very very important message in there and something to take away for all of us. On behalf of the Council I'd like to announce … that we're actually in the process of making a significant donation from Linux Australia to Software Freedom Conservancy as well. I urge all of you to consider contributing individual as well, and there is much left for us to be done as a community on that front.

I hope that this post helps organizers of events like LCA fully understand how much something like this means to us who run a small charities — and not just with regard to the financial contributions. Knowing that the organizers of community events feel so strongly positive about our work really keeps us going. We work hard and spend much time at Conservancy to serve the Open Source and Free Software community, and knowing the work is appreciated inspires us to keep working. Furthermore, we know that without these events, it's much tougher for us to reach others with our message of software freedom. So, for us, the feeling is mutual: I'm delighted that the Linux Australia and LCA folks feel so positively about Conservancy, and I now look forward to another 15 hour flight for the next LCA.

And, on that note, I chose a strategic time to post this story. On Friday 5 August 2016, the CFP for LCA 2017 closes. So, now is the time for all of you to submit a talk. If you regularly speak at Open Source and Free Software events, or have been considering it, this event really needs to be on your calendar. I look forward to seeing all of you Hobart this January.

Tags: conservancy, GPL, supporter, conferences

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