Bringing free software to the masses

Bringing free software to the masses

Summary: Peter Brown, the executive director of the Free Software Foundation, hopes to 'get the message of free software outside the hacker world'

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...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 of the foundation.

What projects you are working on for the FSF at the moment?
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 or been a programmer to understand that a computer should be under your control. The typical computer user can't change the software, but 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 realisation 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 up to its gills.

It is time to show a contrast. GPL v3 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 v3 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?
We haven't got the campaign organised 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. Firstly, that developers need to know that their freedom to tinker is at stake because of Tivoization — if you get given a 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.

Secondly, 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.

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?
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...

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Topics: Apps, Software Development

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