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You are here: Home Blogs Licensing The road to software freedom is paved with licensing

The road to software freedom is paved with licensing

by Donald Robertson Contributions Published on Dec 09, 2020 02:54 PM

The Licensing and Compliance Lab manages the Respects Your Freedom (RYF) certification program to help you find retailers you can trust.

The Free Software Foundation’s (FSF) Licensing and Compliance Lab is the guardian of the GNU General Public License (GPL), which has brought software freedom to the world since 1989. As stewards of the GPL and the rest of the GNU family of licenses, we must continue our work to protect and extend computer user freedom, but the team needs your help.

New members are critical to the cause, and and for the licensing team's ability to provide a solid foundation for the free software movement. As of today, we are 154 members in on our way to our goal of welcoming 500 new associate members before December 31st. Will you help us by encouraging your friends and family to join the FSF today, or to support us with a donation?

Everyone involved in the free software movement has their own story of the journey they took to get there. Whether it was a friend who introduced them to a cool game, a piece of software that made their life easier, or a professor who taught them the power of sharing and improving tools, everyone's story starts somewhere. Here at the FSF Licensing and Compliance Lab, we've heard so many of these stories, because our work is built into the paths that many take towards software freedom. We wanted to take this moment to share how these stories may proceed, how our team helps free software activists and enthusiasts on their way, and how you can help.

Finding free software

For many people, the path towards software freedom begins with a single program. They may not even know what free software is; they may just need a tool or a program to do a particular job. But in their search for that tool, the Free Software Directory, which is one of the key resources run by the Licensing and Compliance Lab, can often be a starting point for a much larger journey.

The Directory catalogues over 16,000 free software packages. Users can find free software packages for almost any activity, from playing games and reading books, to software libraries and developer tools. Every entry in the Directory is meticulously vetted by volunteers and FSF staff to ensure that users have the freedom to run, modify, copy, and share their modified versions of the work. Millions of users have visited the Directory looking for a particular piece of software, and upon finding it, have been introduced to the wider world of software freedom.

While the Directory already acts as a great starting point for many on their free software journey, there's so much more we can still do. We want to make it easier for people, once introduced to free software, to likewise help introduce others. We need resources and financial support for staff in order to organize and mentor volunteers to help us keep those thousands of entries up to date, and to write code to automate various kinds of imports and entry updates to help keep everything current, and so we can add thousands more.

The Directory is one of the best tools that we have for showing what is possible with free software, but we need your help to reach millions more.

Using, sharing, and modifying free software

Once users have found the package they're looking for, the next step on their path is using that software. And while with proprietary software, that begins and ends with running the work on a single machine, with free software, there's so much more that they can do. They can share the packages they love with their friends, spreading freedom as they go. They can use free software tools and libraries to make their own free software, or modify existing packages and likewise share those modifications.

Being able to take that next step requires that we preserve and expand the legal framework that guarantees them the right to do those things. And the Licensing and Compliance Lab is there to help them, each step of the way. We offer resources on free software licensing like the GNU General Public License FAQ. We answer questions from the community about how free licenses work and interact with one another. We write articles, speak at events, and even put on Continuing Legal Education (CLE) courses.

It doesn't stop there. Even when users come to learn about their rights under free software licenses, we still have to remain vigilant to ensure that those rights are respected. Software freedom means little if malicious developers can just ignore it and restrict users. So we work tirelessly to protect software freedom under our Principles of Community-Oriented GPL Enforcement, established jointly by the FSF and Software Freedom Conservancy. Users frequently discover that a lot more of the software they use is actually free software, but locked within proprietary packages and devices. We take reports from users of violations on GNU Project packages, and work with violators to help bring back those users' rights.

Even with all this work that we do educating and protecting free software users, there's so much more to be done. We are constantly confronting new licenses, new laws, and new companies trying to manipulate free software into tools of control. There's also so many new users or potential users that we need to reach. We need to expand and improve our licensing resources, in order to make sure no one gets stopped on their journey towards software freedom.

Using a fully free system

Once a user is excited to use and share free software, the next step on their path towards software freedom is often switching to a fully free system. They don't just want a few free software packages, they want the whole shebang. And the Licensing and Compliance Lab is there once again to help, with our list of endorsed fully free distributions and our Respects Your Freedom (RYF) certification program.

Our endorsed distributions program helps users find complete systems that they can install on their own computer, so that they know that every piece of software and documentation that comes with or is recommended by that system will be free. We work with volunteers to review these distributions, and handle any reports of freedom issues that may arise.

When it's time for a user to find some new hardware to run all their free software, RYF is there to help them find retailers that they can trust. Each retailer in the certification program goes through a rigorous application process where we review not only the software and hardware they deliver to users, but also the Web sites they use to sell those devices, to ensure that users can always purchase and use devices without having to deal with proprietary software.

But as with every other leg of the journey, there's still much to be done here as well. We want users to have as many options as possible when it comes to a fully free system, and we want to bring in as many retailers and distribution maintainers as we can to give them those options. In 2019, we revamped our RYF site to make it easier for users to find what they're looking for, but there's still so many users out there who don't even know that they want software freedom yet.

Help us build the path towards software freedom

Everyone has their own journey when it comes to free software. But every journey cannot begin without that first step. The FSF Licensing and Compliance Lab can help users along that path, but we need everyone's help if we're going to get all users on the right track. We have big ideas, and so much enforcement and certification work to be done. Your financial support is imperative to the success of all of this work.

Illustration Copyright © 2020 Free Software Foundation, Inc., by Raghavendra Kamath, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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