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Introducing Craig Topham, FSF copyright and licensing associate

by Craig Topham Contributions Published on Sep 11, 2019 02:19 PM

Hello World! My name is Craig Topham, and I’m the latest to have the honor of being a copyright and licensing associate for the Free Software Foundation (FSF). I started work in November, and the delay in assembling my introductory blog post is a testament to how busy I have been. Although my post feels late, it gives me a chance to share my experience here at the FSF, along with sharing a little bit more about myself.

From 2005 to 2017, I worked as a PC/Network Technician for the City of Eugene, Oregon. The role had the inherent reward of allowing me to be a part of something much larger than myself. I was helping local government function. From the mayor and city council all the way to the summer staff that worked the front desk at the recreation department's swimming pools, I was one of many making it all work. It was even a part of my job to support some free software the city used! Sadly, a vast majority of the software that we used was proprietary, but despite the painful duty of supporting nonfree software, the overall experience felt pretty great. As I close that chapter of my life with all the wonderful memories and marks made, I am beset with a wild sense of relief. Like finding a rock in my shoe after twelve years, the alleviation is palatable: I never have to labor to master proprietary software again!

For unknown reasons (which I contemplate often), I did not learn about the free software movement until 2004, despite a lifetime of using computers. Like so many before me, my initial education on the movement came via Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman. What so instantaneously drew me to free software was the simplicity of the four freedoms: run, edit, share, contribute. These freedoms, coupled with the ethical nature of the movement, made it a natural fit for me. It did not take me long to realize that this is what I needed to soothe my “How can I make the world a better place?” angst. Inevitably, I became an FSF associate member on October 28, 2007 because it was (and still is) the easiest way to help out. If you are reading this and you are not a member, I encourage you to change that and help make the world a better place.

Although the four freedoms appear simple, defending them in this complicated world is a different story. The GNU General Public License (GPL) was created as a tool that anyone can use to defend those freedoms. As with any license, questions arise as to best practices and various topics like compatibility with other terms. In order to help others make better use of free software, my team (and our fantastic volunteers) answer licensing questions sent to licensing@fsf.org. There, we are useful to programmers and others seeking to ensure that free software remains free for future generations.

In my role here at the FSF as a copyright and licensing associate, the program I have been most excited about is evaluating products for the “Respects Your Freedom” (RYF) certification program. Enjoyably, this task brings the highest degree of technical calisthenics for my work at the FSF. The RYF certification program encourages the creation and sale of products designed to do as much as possible to empower you, the user, and will provide reassurance that you have the complete control that you deserve over your device. Keep an eye on this program! More than ever, people are becoming wise to the idea that their freedom, privacy, and rights are something that requires active defense, and having the right hardware is the first step.

Among many other job duties, the most engrossing is that of GPL compliance for works on which the FSF holds copyright. Although backed by the force of law, a compliance case should be viewed as a kind of teachable moment, because with every compliance case comes an opportunity to make the free software movement stronger. This strength comes from the addition of another compliant distributor of free software as we continue to labor towards (and ultimately secure) a world that respects the GPL and computer user freedom.

As I mentioned earlier, I find it rewarding to be a part of something larger than myself, and this role puts me on the front lines of an important movement which spans the whole globe. The free software movement is invaluable because humanity is faced with a critical binary choice that will determine the quality of our collective future: when it comes to computers, we either control these machines or we don't. It is that simple, especially since we now live in a world that is inseparably intertwined with this technology. If we don’t control these machines, the challenges of keeping personal privacy, retaining freedom of speech, and having transparency in governments will be nearly impossible to overcome. Free software does not guarantee success to these challenges, but free software is understandably a prerequisite. If the free software movement fails, our prospects would be very dim, and a nightmarish dystopia awaits. Fortunately, from a widely held point of view, the movement has been very successful, but there is obviously still far more work to be done. I am here to do that work.

I'm very grateful to be here, and will strive to be the activist that the FSF and free software users everywhere need and deserve. We will see how it goes; however, I believe that with a talented FSF staff and so many dedicated supporters and volunteers behind us, our bright future is an inevitability.

If you ever want to meet, feel free to stop by our office. We love visitors! If you can’t stop by, you can find a licensing and compliance team member every Friday hosting the Free Software Directory Meeting in the #fsf IRC Channel on freenode.net, from 1200-1500 Eastern Time, or you can reach me at craigt@fsf.org.

Here’s what else you can do to get involved and help make the world a better place:

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