I remember the first time I encountered Free Software in the real world. It was 1995 and I was in a small sailing dingy (a GP14) 2km from the Irish shoreline. At the tiller sat Tom Kelly, a family friend. He was talking about something called ‘Red Hat Linux’ and how his son had started to use it on servers at RTE, the Irish television and radio broadcasting group.
We’ve come a long way since then. The Free Software eco-system has grown from its humble technical origins into a worldwide phenomenon. It turns out that the four freedoms are much more than wishful thinking; they are an essential ingredient in making good ideas into a great reality. The engagement of companies like IBM, Sun Microsystems, Nokia, Philips and Google in Free Software is a testament to that.
For one reason and another I’m now running a project that has its part to play in solidifying the long-term infrastructure of Free Software. I’m the coordinator of the Freedom Task Force, a networked licensing services group operating from FSFE’s Zurich office. The FTF’s job is to help bolster the legal foundation of Free Software in Europe. We educate and train people in Free Software licensing. We provide legal guardianship for projects. We help resolve licensing violation issues.
I’m not going to list the FTF services here. You can read all about them on our website. What I want to do instead is talk about why the FTF is a good idea, and why I think it deserves your support.
Free Software is bigger than technology. It enables people to get things done. It allows people to communicate with each other. It allows people to collect and access information. It allows people to generate new material to share with others. That’s why I use the word ‘eco-system’ when I refer to the overarching Free Software community. There are designers, programmers, marketing people, business consultants, salespeople and users in this mix. It’s a genuinely huge field.
One important aspect of any diverse eco-system is its ability to sustain itself, to grow and to protect itself where necessary. To avoid the boom and bust contractions of unstable markets there needs to be a strong foundation made up of several elements. These elements include aspects of technical engineering like quality and function, and less tangible things like legal coherency.
A strong legal backbone is truly important to allow day-to-day technical work translate into overall community growth year-after-year. It facilitates fair transactions and practices, it mediates interactions within known parameters. The legal sphere is about defining ‘official’ interactions between disparate parties. It ultimately creates a level playing field for everyone.
The FTF is part of the legal backbone for Free Software. I wouldn’t say we are the decisive part (no one entity could realistically make such a claim), but we have our contribution to make. We help to network the legal players in the European arena, we help to educate people, we help with training and we provide one point of contact for impartial advice and consultancy. It’s our job to work in the background to build channels through which Free Software can operate effectively.
An example of how this works in practice can be provided by our recent deal with the Bacula Project. Kern Sibbald, the creator and maintainer of the Bacula network backup software, recently signed a fiduciary agreement with us. The FTF is acting as the legal guardian of the project, allowing Kern and his developers to focus on making sure their solution remains a leader in its field. It’s pretty cool to be able to lend a hand like that, and it’s also pretty cool to be getting signed copies of the FLA from places as far afield as Texas.
I’d like you to contribute to the FTF. Your help will have a direct impact on our work, and there are many ways that you can lend it to us. The primary point of contact is our public mailing list; FTF Discussion. This is where we talk about documentation, where we discuss issues together, and where people can get in touch with other players in the Free Software arena. Do consider joining.
We’re also looking for help in building more concrete European licensing networks. Are you a legal or technical expert? Do you know people who are? Contact us. Let’s work to bring all the disparate parties through all our countries closer together. I firmly believe that increased cooperation is essential to allow us to accomplish our goal of pushing Free Software further into the mainstream.
I’m going to be on IRC for two hours this Friday. You’ll see me there as ‘shanecoughlan’ between 9am and 11am GMT time (10am to 12 noon CET). The server is freenode, and the channel is #fsfeurope. I’d be delighted to answer any questions you might have about the FTF, to discuss potential routes of involvement, and to chat in general about Free Software licensing in Europe.