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You are here: Home Bulletins 2018 Fall How and why the FSF drives free software development

How and why the FSF drives free software development

by John Sullivan Contributions Published on Nov 12, 2018 12:20 PM
While much of the public attention the FSF receives focuses on our activist campaigns and our advocacy work, associate members who join the FSF as a way to "give back" for all the free software they use should feel confident that their support will indeed help produce more of that software. Here are three ways in which the FSF drives free software development.

First, we directly fund development, from our general budget – especially programs we need for our own operations, or programs connected to one of our current campaigns. Most recently, we funded GNU LibreJS, which meets both of these criteria (see: We also serve as a fiscal sponsor to several projects, allowing people to fund their development. Because of the trust donors have in the FSF's integrity, affiliation with the FSF means that projects are potentially able to attract significant amounts of funding. This fall, for example, a group called Handshake gave a total of $500,000 to multiple projects sponsored by the FSF.

Second, the FSF provides direction to guide overall free software development. Working with a committee of experts who solicit extensive feedback from the public, we maintain a High Priority Projects list highlighting areas that need more investment of resources and time ( We recruit volunteers to work in these and other areas, including placing interns who are able to spend a few months helping a project while learning skills that will lead them to a lifetime of promoting and creating free software. Further, we set high standards under our Respects Your Freedom product certification program that motivate development. These standards inspired Libreboot, the fully free boot firmware project, and they continue to encourage developers to solve difficult problems.

Third, we provide infrastructure used by thousands of contributors to GNU and other free software projects, including mailing list servers; a shell server; build machines; wikis; software distribution; bug trackers; Web servers; virtual machines, and more. Not only do we provide all of this gratis, but we run it using free software on hardware we maintain, enabling developers to stay true to their principles (see: page 10). We also provide legal infrastructure, managing copyright assignments for many GNU packages, and enforcing the GNU General Public License to protect the free software commons.

In our 2017 fiscal year, we spent over $300,000 directly helping free software development. In our new fiscal year, thanks to Handshake, as well as a $1 million donation from the Pineapple Fund, we are poised to spend much more. We make this a priority because our mission is to enable users everywhere to live fully free digital lives. To do that, they must have free software that does all the things they want and need to do.

When free software does an excellent job meeting users' needs, it helps prove proprietary software companies wrong, demonstrating that we actually can have fully free computing. Using a free program is also often the way people first get interested in learning more about how unethically the software industry typically treats them. Supporting free software development is a double win: it leads to programs we need while also boosting our advocacy and campaigns work.

While the FSF doesn't currently employ anyone full-time to develop software, we inspire and drive development in these more impactful ways. We're fortunate that donors are increasing their commitments in this area; given the enormousness of the task, it's imperative that we turn those resources into successes that will attract even more such commitments. Our longstanding reputation and skilled staff allow us to provide the technical, communications, and fundraising infrastructure enabling hackers to focus on their area of expertise: the code. You can rest assured that your donations and memberships are an effective way to give back and support future, much needed, free software development.

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