What is the Free Software Foundation?

By | September 21, 2021

According to NONPROFITDICTIONARY, the Free Software Foundation is politically, structurally and legally committed to the distribution of free software programs. In addition, with the GNU software and the GNU licenses, it makes a concrete contribution to the “free software” movement.

As a non-profit organization, the Free Software Foundation (FSF), founded in 1985, is one of the best-known institutions of the Free Software movement. From her headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts, she influences the development of free software around the world. The FSF Europe has existed since 2001, acting as a sister organization of the FSF.

The FSF can count on over 4,000 active members and extensive financial donations from numerous IT companies. The close partnership with the private sector results from the approach of the non-state foundation: Although it is committed to free software, it allows commercial use. This means that the cooperation is also attractive for commercial players.

Goals of the Free Software Foundation

The non-profit organization promotes the development of software that meets the following criteria:

  • Users can run the software in any way they want.
  • You get an insight into the source code.
  • Users are allowed to pass on copies.
  • You may modify and redistribute the software.

These basic principles are intended to protect users from restrictions on their freedom. The foundation nevertheless enables commercial use, which is where it differs from the open source movement. However, companies must undertake to adhere to the four principles mentioned. This is ensured by the organization with a GNU licensing.

Richard Stallman: activist and founder of the FSF

The American Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation in October 1985. Since the early 1970s he fought for a free flow of information as an employee at the University of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he was active with fellow campaigners in the early hacker scene.

Since 1983 he has concentrated on his GNU project, the central component of which is a free software operating system. With this step he initiated the worldwide free software movement, Stallman is considered to be the most important thought leader. His writings like the GNU Manifesto are the founding texts of this movement. Until 2019, Stallman was President of the Free Software Foundation.

Cooperation with many programmers and companies

Until about the mid-1990s, the Free Software Foundation employed numerous software developers who, in particular, drove the GNU project. The focus of the foundation has shifted since then: In the meantime, many volunteer individuals and commercially oriented companies are working on free software programs, so that the FSF can leave this work to others.

The organization has correspondingly few employees of its own, around a dozen employees mainly take care of administrative tasks. The originally important raising of capital for software projects by the FSF has also lost its importance. Today, in view of the IT boom, sufficient funds are flowing from companies and investors for all projects.

The FSF is currently focusing its activities on these areas:

  • Organization of GNU licensing including legal procedures in the event of violations
  • Lobbying and campaigning for more free software
  • Advice and support for software projects
  • professional Exchange

GNU project as the heart of the organization

With the GNU software, Richard Stallman has been developing an alternative to the then predominant commercial operating system Unix since the early 1980s. The name stands for “GNU’s not Unix”, which makes Stallman’s motivation clear.

The GNU software components are usually used with a Linux kernel; the term Linux is common for this operating system. However, it is a GNU Linux operating system: For marketing reasons, the Free Software Foundation is pushing for the full name of this operating system to be spread.

Licensing of free software under the GNU General Public License

Under the designation GNU General Public License ( GPL ), the foundation licenses programs that meet the four criteria of free software. The GNU GPL is the most important free software license in the world. It has existed since 1989 and is characterized by the copyleft as the central clause of this license. Programmers may change the software and charge fees, but they may not restrict any of the four freedoms.

Specifically, this means, for example: Even with a modified and distributed version, the authors must publish the source code and allow additional processing, including copies. The GNU license prevents free software from becoming part of proprietary software.

Diverse campaigns for more free software

The Free Software Foundation is involved in numerous campaigns to improve the conditions for free software programs. At the same time, those responsible want to protect users from the restrictions imposed by proprietary programs. An example of this public relations work is the Free JavaScript campaign . This action refers to homepages whose visitors see the complete content only with installed proprietary software. The foundation wants to make website operators aware of this issue and encourage them to only use free programs.

Free Software Foundation Europe based in Hamburg

As a registered association based in Hamburg, FSF Europe acts structurally independently, but pursues the same goals as its big sister. In her political lobbying she focuses on the European Union, its member states and European countries outside the EU such as Switzerland. In the individual states it shows its presence with regional groups.

What is the Free Software Foundation