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Support the FSF Licensing Team & its volunteers

by Donald Robertson Contributions Published on Dec 14, 2016 03:44 PM
Supporting the Free Software Foundation (FSF) grows the roots that support the work of thousands of volunteers all around the globe.

As software permeates more and more aspects of society, the FSF must expand our work to protect and extend computer user freedom. We launched our annual fundraiser with the goal of welcoming 500 new members and raising $450,000 before December 31st. Please support the work at the root of the free software movement: make a donation or – better yet – join us and become a member today. Now is a great time to give, because the next $10,000 in donations will be generously matched by longtime dedicated FSF and GNU supporters Cristian and Andreea Francu. Your donation counts double!

Licensing support is one of the major services we provide here at the FSF. With over 30 years of experience, and being the creators and guardians of free software licenses like the GNU General Public License (GPL), we have a long history as the organization that hackers, companies, and governments turn to when they need help with licensing issues. We provide necessary services and tools to enable individuals, communities, and companies to become better free software citizens. Our work includes answering licensing questions from the public, managing certification programs like Respects Your Freedom, upholding the GPL and other free software licenses, and providing resources like our list of free software licenses, and GPL FAQ.

The FSF is a growing organization with 13 employees today. Every one of those employees supports a large network of volunteers and contributors, magnifying our impact. That is particularly true in the licensing department, where we organize volunteers from all over the world. In many ways one of our main jobs is facilitating the work of our volunteers. Without their efforts, we'd only be able to do a fraction of the work the free software movement needs from us.

Answering questions from the public

We have a team of licensing volunteers who help answer questions from the community. This small group of licensing veterans works closely with FSF staff. We meet with them regularly via IRC to discuss difficult questions, and to double-check that we're always giving the right information to requesters. Our volunteers also review licensing publications and assist in keeping our educational materials up-to-date and useful. The FSF provides the framework, infrastructure, training, and guidance that lets the volunteers help teach the world about free software licensing. They are able to get an incredible amount of work done, answering nearly 1,000 difficult licensing questions from the community last year alone.

"Volunteering for the FSF has given me the privilege to engage with people from all over the world who write in to the FSF. The free software community relies on the FSF, and I'm happy for the opportunity to help." - Yoni Rabkin, long-time licensing volunteer.

The Free Software Directory

Volunteer contributors are necessary to the maintenance and growth of the Free Software Directory. The Directory is a massive listing of over 15,000 software packages that have been vetted to ensure that they are free software. This resource helps users find free software, but also helps maintainers of free software packages to find out about potential licensing issues with their code. The group of contributors working on the Directory is quite large, and while there is a dedicated core who work on it regularly, many more contributors drop in to improve entries on their favorite packages. We have a weekly meeting every Friday via IRC with the contributors, where we all work together to review the licensing of free software packages so that they can be added to the Directory. If there's an issue, we file a bug with the project letting them know about the licensing problem. Previously maintained by a member of the FSF staff, a core group of contributors now take an active role in building the Directory. It has grown by almost 7,000 entries since 2015.

Verification and Certification

In addition to individual packages or particular licenses, users need to know that their systems as a whole are free. Through our List of Free GNU/Linux distributions, users can find a complete operating system that contains and recommends only free software. When the maintainers of a distro want to be added to the list they first contact our volunteers, who review the operating system for any licensing issues. By working with the maintainers, they help remove nonfree software and point out other potential issues with the distro. While staff at the FSF, along with Richard Stallman, make the final determination as to whether a distro can be endorsed, these first rounds of review are invaluable for easing that process.

Of course, once a user has a fully free operating system, they'll need some hardware on which to run it. For their general hardware needs, users can turn to h-node, a volunteer project from the FSF like the Directory, that focused on hardware. The volunteers there grade various hardware on how well it runs using a fully free system. While h-node is a great resource for finding hardware that works with free software, being able to purchase hardware that only comes with free software takes more effort, which is where our Respects Your Freedom certification program comes in. While the detailed review and expertise required to endorse hardware as coming with only free software requires FSF staff largely handle potential candidates, even here a small group of dedicated volunteers can and do aid in reviewing devices. Through our programs, we are making it possible and progressively easier for users to live in a fully free world. That in turn creates the incentives for people to make the hardware and devices needed to run only free software.

And much more

The reality is that people want to support others. They want to share free software and educate users about their rights. But without someone guiding that effort, it is hard for people to get involved. That is why the work we do as staff members is so important. The FSF has over 30 years of institutional experience in handling licensing issues, which enables us to provide a framework for volunteers to flourish. We train and educate the volunteers about licensing so that they can do the same for others. We facilitate legal and policy discussions with Richard Stallman, our board members, and legal counsel to guide our work in the right direction. When all the educational materials aren't enough, and someone fails to provide the rights guaranteed under a free license like the GPL, FSF staff take special care to teach them how to come back into our community. Where necessary, we uphold free software by enforcing the license according to the Principles of Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement. With these roots in place, we are able to support the branching network of volunteers and enable their great work.

For activists around the world, the FSF is a focal point for finding resources and directing efforts. That is why supporting the FSF can have such a huge impact. Becoming a member or making a donation doesn't just support a few employees at a non-profit in Boston. It supports the work of thousands of people around the globe. People are often surprised at the smaller size of the FSF, but that's a testament to our community's ability to turn small donations into big positive change.

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