Bringing free software to the masses

Peter Brown of the Free Software Foundation hopes to "get the message of free software outside the hacker world."

You'd think it would be easy to research the right-hand man of free-software icon Richard Stallman, given the mass of information online about the free-software movement.

But a search on "Peter Brown"--the executive director of the Free Software Foundation--and "free software" produces only 14,000 hits on Google and little information about Brown's past.

So when we visited the foundation's headquarters in Boston, it was a surprise to discover a clean-cut, business-suited Englishman from Oxford--very different from FSF founder Stallman, with his impressive beard and baggy clothes.

Their backgrounds are also totally different. While Stallman is a programmer, having almost single-handedly developed the original version of applications such as Emacs and the GNU C Compiler, Brown has a background in business and finance, and he only dabbled with coding when he was in his teens.

Despite these differences, the two men share the same goal--in basic terms, freedom around software, but more specifically, to give people the freedom to run software for any purpose; to study and adapt that software, passing on the improvements to the public; and to freely redistribute copies of the software.

Both men are responsible for the overall direction of the Free Software Foundation and seem to offer complementary skills, with Brown coming across as more of a pragmatist than Stallman, whose idealism and drive to fulfill his goals has led him to spend his life telling people across the world about free software.

ZDNet UK met with Brown to learn more about some of the foundation's upcoming projects, how it's run and funded, and what he feels makes it so special.

Q: Tell us a bit about how you came to be the executive director of the FSF. Do you have a technical background?
Brown: I'm not a programmer, and I'm not a hacker. The last time I programmed was when I was 14 years old.

GPL 3 is the first stake in the ground against (digital rights management). For the first time, someone has said, 'That's it; we're stopping it.'

When I was a kid, I had a Sinclair ZX-81, with 1KB of memory. At the time--back in 1984 or '85--if you wanted to play a game, you couldn't buy a CD, so you had to buy one of the listing magazines, like Sinclair Programs. You had to look at the listing of computer code and type it into your machine. The keyboard was terrible--it was simply a flat piece of plastic. At the end you would try to run the program, and if it didn't run, you would have to correct any syntax errors.

Over time, I slowly worked out why errors occurred and started to learn how to program in Basic. At one point, I sent a game I had written to Sinclair Programs, and they accepted it for publication and sent me a check for 25 pounds. As soon as I sent off the first game, I started writing the next one.

So the magazine arrived, and my game was inside, and they'd drawn a nice big cartoon for it. Unfortunately, when I flicked to the editorial for the magazine, it said, "This is the last ever edition of the magazine." It was basically saying that in the future, people will not share source code and won't type code into computers--they'll buy games on physical media instead.

What was funny was that this was the September 1985 edition of the magazine, which was a month before the Free Software Foundation was created, in response to the fact that people were taking (open) computer code and turning it into proprietary code.

Looking back at it now, overnight, my world was destroyed, because the listing magazine was destroyed. It just became about playing code, rather than writing code. That was the last time I ever did any programming.

What jobs were you doing before you came to work for the FSF? How did you end up in Boston, working as its executive director?
Brown: I've always been in management or finance. I have mainly worked for nonprofits, including Oxford City Council, the BBC and New Internationalist magazine. I was at New Internationalist for several years, then my wife, who worked for Oxford University on a genotyping facility, saw a position offered here (in Boston).

We weren't looking to move, as we were pretty settled in Oxford, but decided to come over here in January 2001 so she could take on the job. I took a seven-month sabbatical before looking for a job. At the time, the FSF was looking for a part-time person, so I came to work here. Initially I helped with the administration, and as we expanded, I took on more duties, such as managing the GPL compliance lab. Last February, I was appointed as the executive director.

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