Skip to content
Welcome guest. | Register | Login | Add
About | Wiki | Legacy

Understanding the Free Software Foundation

Free Software Foundation, or FSF for short, is one of the most controversial information technology related organizations. Some people hate it and some people love it. Neither can change the fact that it has had a tremendous influence on what many today tend to call the "open source" phenomenon which is in fact lying on the very foundations that the FSF represents: Free Software and the Free Software philosophy. Variations of this philosophy have sprung up into new, but similar philosophies due to differing motivations and goals. You can read more about it in our recent "Facts and Friction on Open Source and Free Software" article.

In this article, however, we are attempting to take a look through the glasses of the Free Software Foundation in order to understand what drives people involved with it and why does it do what it does. One of the most important skills in life and most appreciated traits of diplomats is the ability to see and understand various different perspectives. We are about to look at the world from the FSF's perspective. Please, keep an open mind and read on.

Some history

The founder of the Free Software Foundation comes from a community of programmers who worked at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in which sharing code was a normal thing. It was normal among other software communities at the time as well. As Stallman explains, it was like sharing cooking recipes, a completely natural thing to do. The term "Free Software" didn't even exist yet because freedoms to share were never even brought into question.

However, this soon changed, as companies started offering their software under exclusive agreements and restrictive licenses in order to increase their profits, creating a completely new social system opposed to the natural state of things that was before. Most people today don't know about this. They think that the Free Software Foundation is promoting a "new" kind of idea while it is in fact just trying to restore what already existed before. It is proprietary software which is a new idea, and to Richard Stallman it was a dangerous idea.

He was faced with a choice of going with this new flow and signing non-disclosure agreements for software companies he would have worked for, hence accepting the new state of things, or going the hard way and try to fight this new trend. This is where one of the basic characteristics of Stallman and today the FSF comes into play. Many programmers simply signed those agreements and went with the flow. I can imagine what their arguments and justifications for this might have been. They were probably saying that they had to be pragmatic, that they didn't have any choice or they bought this new philosophy thinking it was the only way for the software industry to go forward. But Stallman had a different priority. He saw the new trend as outright unfair, antisocial and unethical. There were no additional "buts", there were no justifications. In his mind, this trend had to be reversed, even if it costed him a job. And it indeed did.

We can recognize this tenet in the FSF today as well, its uncompromising attitude and prioritizing of social and ethical values over short term practical ones. Everyone who has been observing FSF long enough must have recognized this quite vividly.

In 1984 Stallman quit his job at the MIT and started the GNU Project, a project of writing a Free Operating System, licensed in a way which would allow for freedoms that they once had at the MIT lab. In 1985 he also founded the Free Software Foundation to promote this idea of freedom and support other Free Software projects.

Free Software Foundation was all about regaining what is lost, not coming up with any really novel ideas and philosophies. Freedom was taken away and they prompted to take it back. GNU General Public License was written by Richard Stallman as a license to be used with software which people are free to use, modify and share; to grant and protect those freedoms. This is exactly the role which GPL continues to play today. The intentions haven't changed.

We are trying to understand how FSF is thinking. Their thinking nor their goals haven't changed considerably since the very founding. Even today, it is still a project of taking back freedoms that were lost in those early days, and protecting them from being taken away in some other way again.

Ideology first

When everything is ideal, you don't need an ideology. When programmers at the MIT lab cooperated without any restriction that state of things was not seen as an ideal to them. It was normal everyday life. However once this was taken from them its restoration became an ideal. Only in that sense, and not in some utopian sense, can the Free Software Foundation be considered as in pursuit of some ideology.

But before they could effectively fight to restore this ideal they first had to define it. We don't usually define what we take for granted, but in this case, when this was taken away, a definition was necessary. This is how the Free Software Definition was born, with its four central freedoms defining what it means to have freedom with software, what it meant to have freedom to cooperate in the old days, at the MIT lab.

Now is it any wonder that the FSF takes these freedoms so seriously and strictly and that they leave no room for compromise? If they allowed for even a little leeway it wouldn't be the community of freedom they were restoring, but something else, something bastardized instead.

For the Free Software Foundation, this ideology indeed comes first. There is no other way for it to reach the goal for which it was founded. As long as there is proprietary software FSF will have its hands full. Undoing proprietary software and its negative effects on the society is the reason FSF came to be.

Why is its effect being considered negative should be quite clear from history described above. It essentially destroyed communities based on sharing and cooperation and replaced them with isolated corporate clubs who thrive on dividing programmers while exerting control over what users can or can't do with their copies of software necessary to run their computers. This may seem to be a harsh description to those who live in a world where proprietary software prevailed, but in the interest of understanding the way FSF thinks we should consider the way this loss felt back then.

We have all probably felt injustice on our own skin to some extent. Recalling these feelings helps in understanding how Richard Stallman felt about the loss of his cooperative community.

Terminology and associations

Much of the criticism towards the FSF can be attributed to their insistence on specific terminology; "Free Software" instead of "Open Source", "GNU/Linux" instead of "Linux", opposition to the term "intellectual property", renaming known threats to "Digital Restrictions Management or "Treacherous Computing" etc. Indeed, terminology plays an important role in the advocacy strategies of the FSF. The elaboration behind this approach can be cut down to one central notion, that different terms convey different ideas. According to the FSF, what you call it often matters. It matters when the difference between two terms indeed does mean a difference between two opposing ideas or a difference between clarity and confusion.

For example, it seems quite clear that the term "Digital Rights Management" was coined to imply a notion of respect towards human rights whereas the term actually represents concepts which do exactly the opposite. Switching the term to "Digital Restrictions Management" is one way to quickly convey a different idea about the concepts behind it, that it may not be all about human rights, that it may, in fact be about restrictions, or as I also like to say, deliberately "mismanaging" digital rights.

Similar explanation goes for other terms that FSF replaces with their own versions. In other cases where terminology is concerned, the case is more about clarity versus confusion rather than conveying an alternative idea. Besides, confusion can only serve the one with dishonest intentions. Those who seek clarity are more likely to be the ones with an agenda worth following.

We almost need not to explain the reason why FSF calls Free Software as "Free Software" rather than Open Source. They didn't participate in the attempt of renaming the movement. They didn't even condone it. It deemphasized the main goal of the Free Software Foundation, which was to restore freedom. Why would they take any part of such an initiative, the Open Source Initiative? It goes without saying that using the term Open Source when identifying the work of the Free Software Foundation is completely incompatible and improper.

In addition, using the term Open Source while in fact not sharing the ideas behind this initiative seems improper as well. In the interest of clarity, FSF recommends using the term that actually fits what you believe and to whose values you share.

FSF also insists for the operating system that people often tend to call "Linux" be called GNU/Linux instead. This is another case of clarity vs. confusion, as far as FSF is concerned, because "different terms convey different ideas". Linux is the name of the kernel, and rare are those who would dispute that. Can the name of a kernel be applied to the whole operating system? In the proprietary software world this seems common, but in the proprietary software world the operating system is usually produced by one entity, not by a diverse number of people each giving a special name to their project.

The GNU Project is a project of creating a Free Operating System called "GNU", and today it contains everything an operating system is to have for basic functioning except the kernel. Linux filled this spot. FSF believes that there is enough evidence supporting the conclusion that the final system coming out of this combination deserves to be called GNU/Linux and that otherwise, the GNU Project and its idealism would lose acknowledgment for the substantial role that it played in building this Free OS.

What makes this acknowledgment unusually more important to the FSF, though, is again that "different terms convey different ideas". Linux was named after Linus Torvalds, someone who actively opposes some of the core ideas that define the FSF. His ideas align with the initiative which deemphasizes the main goal of the FSF, the Open Source Initiative. You can see how important it is for FSF not to lose acknowledgment for their part in creating the Free OS because if they did, people who end up using this Free OS would rarely hear the ideas of the FSF, and would be unproportionally more exposed to the ideas of the Linux kernel founder.

You can be the judge of what is fair, but we hope that you can at least understand the motives behind FSFs insistence on calling it "GNU/Linux" and further, their insistence on correct terminology.

In the end that is all I can hope for as the effect of this article, that you have at least a little better insight into the way FSF sees the world, that you are better able to consider their perspective and therefore better equipped to judge for yourself.

Thank you
Danijel Orsolic

Note: A good source of information on the GNU/Linux naming issue is the GNU/Linux FAQ. You are encouraged to read it if you have any further questions.




Not sillyness, precision

Anonymous wrote:

... Should we call Linux the "X/BSD/GNU/Artistic/put your license here/Linux"? I personally think not, it is a Operating System and Distribution that includes packages and applications from many Licenses and different peoples work. It's called "Linux", in this case Mr. Stallman is being quite silly, though I do understand his frustration...

This argument goes to the opposite extreme of those who mistakenly equate distributions with the OS. (And BTW, the licensing is not at issue, it is the software that makes the system useful.) The position can be shown to be incorrect if you consider what you can do without. Can you run the Linux kernel productively without X Windows? Yes. Can you run it without a database? Yes. Can you run it without perl? Yes. Can you run it without coreutils (cd, chmod, chown, cp, ln, ls, mkdir, rm, rmdir, su, etc.)? Maybe, but probably not.

Certainly, if the FSF did not provide coreutils, and several other packages, the kernel developers would have to create them. Since these vital system utilities have been developed by the FSF, its members see this as a partnership that deserves recognition.


Anonymous wrote:

In fact, Linux is just the OS, and most or all of the software running on the OS in a given distribution is GNU. If Sun releases Solaris under GPL3 like some reports are saying, then look for GNU/Solaris distributions to become prevalent and popular. It is marvellous that Linux provides the OS for a GPL'd distribution, but it might have some very excellent company soon. And it is likely that there will be those who call them "Solaris" distributions, and those who will want to refer to them as "GNU/Solaris" distributions. It's all good and hopefully once software is set free it is guaranteed to stay free thanks to the good work of the FSF. I have no trouble giving credit where credit is due.

did you say that linux is the OS? WRONG linux is the kernel... there is no OS with out the different parts that form this OS... linux is just one part of it.. don't summit yourself in old marketing stereotypes.. a kernel is a kernel and usually is the same company who puts the kernel and the different parts all together to form the OS, in GNU/Linux this is not the case... the OS is the GNU system parts with one part added that is the linux kernel...
then GNU/Linux is apropiate..

Daniel, very good article.


Daniel, very good article. Going back on the GNU/Linux vs. Linux. I'd like to explain the point I made in the conversation on my blog. I could discuss at length why the GNU/Linux name conveys more accuracy than just Linux. I could also argue that the GNU OS -and more to the point- the software surrounding the kernel are not all abiding to the GNU philosophy. Well, most of them do: but they're not necessarily hosted on or savannah. Then, there is that "oddity": "GNU". It's like . Do you notice how I keep saying and the rest of the world keeps calling it "Open Office"? Even J. Schwartz, chairman of Sun, calls it this way! Why? Because as you said, different terms convey different ideas. "Open Office" is a Taiwanese office furniture manufacturer. is not just the domain name of our project, it also emphasizes that we are an organization, a community, hence the ".org".

But in the end, I kind of felt tired of reminding this to people. And what happened with the GNU/something vs the "something" is I think due to an ego problem. On the one hand, Linus Torvalds doesn't give a damn about the FSF (I think he's wrong). On the other hand RMS can't stand Linus. And he'd love to see the Linux kernel being replaced by another one, say OpenSolaris who knows. Both persons can't get along. And both of them do have an ego bigger than the Eiffel Tower, so both of them come up with all kinds of arguments that I have grown tired of reading and judging in one way or another.

Hence my comment...


It seems like buzzwords

It seems like buzzwords always win against the accurate terms, and that the accurate terms employ names which apparently aren't up to the current marketing standard doesn't help (GNU doesn't really sound "sexy", nor does But then again, with enough dedication and well, money, every term can be made a buzzword. It's just that FSF definitely doesn't find it a priority to invest money into this sort of marketing.

So it's hard to get people to call it the way it ought to be called. Still, that doesn't mean we have to just give it up. Besides, our belief doesn't have to require that it be a popular one. Smiling So I'll keep calling it GNU/Linux.

About it being a battle of egos I mostly disagree with you. I think I know enough about RMS to believe that arguments he poses are quite genuine and real. And besides, I don't need RMS to tell me that those arguments make sense to conclude that they make sense. And it's obviously not just about getting credit.

Also, I think that saying that RMS "can't stand" Linus is a bit exaggerating. He disagrees with him, probably even severely, but I doubt he'd refuse to have an open minded conversation with him. They have different motivations and follow different (even if slightly) ideals, and the choice of terms probably largely reflects this difference, but that's it.



libervisco wrote:

GNU doesn't really sound "sexy", nor does

GNU is so fun to say Smiling

"Tripple O" sounds good.

Indeed, GNU isn't all that

Indeed, GNU isn't all that bad once you use it for a while.. It just goes to show that every word has a buzzibility potential. Every word can be made to look attractive with the right marketing. Smiling

Besides, you think BMW is an attractive term? It's awful if you judge it by the same standards as GNU, and spelling is even harder, but people still find it attractive since it's a popular brand associated with good cars..



You're missing the point about the naming convention. The 'GNU' is not supposed to refer to the license. The GNU is to refer to the GNU project from which was born the entire toolchain that almost everything in a distribution relies upon. Arguably moreso than the kernel.

Comment viewing options

Select your preferred way to display the comments and click "Save settings" to activate your changes.