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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.

What projects are you working on for the FSF?
Brown: One of my roles at the FSF is to get the message of free software outside the hacker world. It's very easy to get into the IT press, but we're not about getting freedom for computer programmers--we want freedom for all computer users. How do we get the message out of the hacker community into the real world?

When you ask people about free software, they should instinctively believe in free software. Just like people say "I recycle my cans" but don't understand the process behind it, you don't need to have read the GPL (General Public License) or been a programmer to understand that a computer should be under your control. The typical computer user can't change the software. Then again, my mum can't change what the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank is doing, but these issues still matter to her.

This is the perfect time to get the message out about free software, as you have a confluence of situations--there is a growing realization among the general public that certain CDs won't play in your CD player, or you can't play them in your computer. Then we have the upcoming release of (Microsoft's Windows) Vista, which has DRM (digital rights management technology) up to its gills.

We have nothing to do with Linux--we're GNU.

It is time to show a contrast. GPL 3 is the first stake in the ground against DRM. For the first time, someone has said, "That's it; we're stopping it."

When we release the second draft of GPL 3 sometime in June, we're going to be campaigning to end DRM. We will be campaigning with manufacturers and to get computer users to care about this issue--to not buy their hardware from certain manufacturers and to pinpoint the fact that if you're downloading music, there are a lot of restrictions on how you can use it. For example, you can't share it with friends, and the next device you buy may not allow you to play music you have already downloaded and paid for.

What is this campaign against DRM going to involve?
Brown: We haven't got the campaign organized yet, but we're going to be employing a professional campaigner. There are many facets to such a campaign. It's not directly a political campaign, although there is some bad legislation out there. This is about software companies and device manufacturers. There is a real potential for people power, whether it's boycotting devices or picketing certain places--there are a lot of lovely targets out there. We have thousands and thousands of free-software supporters out there, and they will be deeply involved in the campaign.

The whole purpose of the campaign will be to pinpoint three important areas. First, developers need to know that their freedom to tinker is at stake because of TiVo-ization--if you get a given device with GPL software on it and change the software, the device won't work any more because of DRM. TiVo was the first device to do that.

Second, we need to tell the wider world of mums and dads that they shouldn't be handing over the keys of their home to strangers. In the future, if you have a home entertainment system, it will be able to tell what you're watching and how many times you watch a video. The infrastructure to allow that monitoring is scary. People don't want to be monitored.

The FSF prides itself on being a very cautious, sincere, legally minded project.

Finally, we'll be telling device manufacturers, "Do you want to have control over your destiny, or do you want content providers to have control over your destiny?" The music industry is tiny, compared to the device industry. But it's the music and movie industry that control the manufacturers. The manufacturers should be in control of their devices, and there should be a close communication between the manufacturer and the user. Do manufacturers want their destiny to be with their customers or the music industry?

As you mentioned earlier, the next draft of the GPL is due out in June. Will there be any big changes in this draft?
Brown: No, there won't be any big changes. The role of the GPL 3 process wasn't to get other people to introduce big changes--we only wanted to find out potential problems with what we were suggesting. When GPL 2 was released, Richard only had to talk to a few GNU maintainers, and that was it. Now GNU is only a fraction of the whole free-software world.

It's a huge community, and we need to let people tell us why they use the GPL. Some might say, "The way you've written this text won't work for us." We want to avoid these unintended consequences. We've only extended the ability of the GPL--we're not changing any promises we have previously made. The DRM provisions are nothing new--we are still aiming to protect freedom.

Linus Torvalds, the creator of Linux and the maintainer of its development kernel, has said he doesn't like the DRM provisions in GPL 3. What do you think about this?
Brown: He hasn't sent a comment in through the official process, but we've seen his comments. We don't mind if people shout and scream--it adds to the process. But if people think we'll change the four freedoms, they're wrong. The DRM provision protects one of those freedoms.

How many employees are working for the FSF? What sort of things do they work on?
Brown: We currently have myself and about 10 staff members. All are paid, and two are part-timers. The FSF is the main sponsor of the GNU project, so there are a lot of developers to cater to. We have two full-time (system administrators) and one part-time,... and we have an administrator who works for the GNU Press, shipping books and software.

We also have a copyright administrator, who collects the paperwork from developers working on GNU projects--developers sign copyright to us, and we register ourselves as the author of the work with the U.S. copyright office. There's also a GPL compliance engineer who runs a compliance team. He receives reports about potential compliance issues and then investigates whether there has been a violation. If there has been, he will write to the organization involved and ask them to start complying.

Your work toward ensuring that people comply with the GPL has been criticized by some people. For example, Forbes magazine once referred to you as "Linux's Hit Men." How do you feel about this?
Brown: What's particularly annoying about that article was that we have nothing to do with Linux--we're GNU. It also made us sound aggressive, when, in fact, we only want people to comply with terms of the license. We don't ask for legal fees from people, and we only ask for our costs to be reimbursed, which is only a couple hundred bucks. We've never taken anyone to court.

With copyright law, there are no contractual issues at stake--you either accept the terms, or you don't use the copyrighted material. That's why we've always thought it stupid that people make comments about whether the GPL will stand up in court. It's only the license that gives you rights; otherwise, the software belongs to the copyright holder. If you don't have rights, there's nothing to take to court.

In the case brought by Daniel Wallace against the FSF last year (in which he complained that the GPL's requirement to make code available at no cost is tantamount to price fixing), the judge said the GPL "acts as a means by which certain software may be copied, modified and redistributed without violating the software's copyright protection" and that the "GPL encourages, rather than discourages, free competition" and "benefits include lower prices, better access and more innovation."

This is a federal court judge, who, in a few minutes, can work out that free software has huge advantages.

As far as we're aware, most other free software or open-source projects do not actively pursue compliance or ask developers to sign over copyright. Why is this so important to you?
Brown: The FSF prides itself on being a very cautious, sincere, legally minded project. We've always been very aware of the fact that the people who dislike us most can easily seek legal recourse on issues. The FSF has always felt that securing our assets--our copyrights on the GNU project--was very important.

The whole purpose of the GPL is to protect computer users' freedoms. We must protect our role in that--we're the guardian of those freedoms. No other project goes as far as we do in collecting copyrights. A lot of distributions leave copyright in the hands of individual authors, but most individuals don't have the time, inclination or finances to go after violation reports. We keep everyone honest.

How does the Free Software Foundation get its funding?
Brown: We have four or five sources of revenue. The main source is our membership program--we made $250,000 from this last year. We also get general donations--people donated about $200,000 to us last year. We also have a corporate program, and we list the main donors on our Web site, so people know who has given to the FSF. These companies have each given at least $2,000. We also make money from selling books, T-shirts and other items.

Last year, you said you were hoping to raise $500,000 for GPL evangelizing. How much of this have you raised so far?
Brown: So far, we have raised $140,000, but we're still raising money for that.

Does the Free Software Foundation have any plans for growth in the next few years?
Brown: The FSF isn't looking to grow in size, as we already do what we do well. We don't want to grow, because you want the passion to already be in people. You don't want to be paying for that passion.

If you love writing code, then you love free software, as you're sharing your code with people.

We don't want to dominate this area. We're very happy to see other organizations doing good jobs and are very pleased there's such a thing as Groklaw and the Software Freedom Law Center. We don't want it all to be under our control.

Most of the FSF's work is not campaigning, it's providing infrastructure to the free-software community. The number of contributors has really increased over the last three years, so we needed a better infrastructure and more employees to support it.

What do you think is the future of the free-software movement?
Brown: I think proprietary software is becoming a thing of the past--you can't compete against freedom. You don't have proprietary software people saying they ethically don't like free software.

What do Microsoft employees work on at home? They work on free software. If you love writing code, then you love free software, as you're sharing your code with people. So, straight away, there is a community that loves the idea of free software.

The other thing that free software allows is that code will never die. If you're any type of organization, and you have to sign a contract with a proprietary software firm, what happens if the company disappears tomorrow? You can't hire another consultant to work on the code. In so many ways, I think free software will dominate the world.

Finally, why do you enjoy working for the Free Software Foundation?
Brown: I've worked in organizations before where people "care," but these people don't compare to the likes of Richard. It's great to be able to come to a place where the main cause is freedom.

Richard is what makes the FSF unique. He founded it and is still the leader of the free-software movement. He doesn't take a salary and lives like a student--he doesn't have a house or a car. He lives in a way such that he doesn't have to depend on a source of revenue. He lives off speaker fees and prize money from awards he has won, such as the MacArthur Grant and the Takeda Award.

He is probably out of the country doing speaking engagements 250 days a year. He's often away a month at a time. His last tour was in Europe, and he had 20 speaking engagements in a few weeks. He was very tired when I saw him yesterday at the annual member's meeting. Despite this, he stood up and gave a speech. I guess when you believe in a cause as much as he does, then it's easy to keep doing it.

Even when Richard travels, he raises money for us by selling GNU pins. When he came into the office yesterday, he had bundles of dollars from selling them in Italy. He takes a lot of care over how the FSF spends its money. We're not like a lot of nonprofits in that way.

So not only is he an ethical hacker, but he backs it up with the way he lives. He spends his whole time and energy giving speeches and trying to convert people to free software.  

Ingrid Marson of ZDNet UK reported from Boston.