Does GNU have a responsibility to educate GPL projects ?

Posted 3 Nov 2001 at 19:24 UTC by rmorrell Share This

I run and fund the SmoothWall firewall project here in the UK and across the globe in all the countries where its installed (107 countries in 14 languages). While we strive totally to make sure that we push and promote GPL everywhere were possible and make our downloads free, complete with GPL compliant source - sometimes it sucks that it isnt clear how the key core management of FSF dont make themselves more available to help GPL projects remain clued up as to the direction of proceeding towards commerciality without screwing up a vital message.

The GPL is one of the most important licences in the history of software development. Some more vocal may argue its also standing up for our rights as software developers to have a freedom of speech. I just know that it allows me as a software developer to release good high quality fit for purpose software globally with minimal restriction.

It's certainly not all plain sailing. In the past we've had run in's with FSF and we've always instantly complied with their advice. It has always been helpful advice and RMS and Georg Greve have both worked hard to help us. I've always found the staff at FSF in Boston both attentive and really helpful.

Now we move onwards and upwards are FSF committed to making sure we are successful ? It would be a nice idea if they were - I've searched for advice on how to take the next step using the GPL as a base but the advice is thin on the ground even though I'm more than aware commercially of what we need to do as a team. It would be cool to have practical advice from FSF but its invisible.

As I sign off another personal cheque to keep this project alive and look at the not inconsiderable cash I've poured in over the last eighteen months I look to take my project commercial and to do it making sure that whatever I do is in compliance with the GPL and other OSI approved licencing conventions.

I do so because I believe in the sheer weight of credible people out there in userland whose ability as an extra pair of eyes vetting our code and our documentation can correct bugs and typo's that we thought we'd weeded out in our lengthy beta programmes. I also want this project to show people that starting something small doesnt mean it has to be small and that it can be career changing and via the GPL open a new stream of development talent and lifelong strong developers with talented people I've never met and who I only talk to via IRC and email.

Having worked for Linuxcare and VA I've seen companies staffed by people who are some of the leading lights in the OpenSource and Free Software industries (if using the word industries is the right word). They have developed software using the GPL while their employers have struggled to make GPL pay. Admittedly neither VA nor Linuxcare are shining examples at this time although Linuxcare were just screwed from day one once the suits arrived.

When I develop software under the GPL I do it to help people - I do it because it allows me to grow my project using resources and talents I could not utilise if I used proprietary software models but I and a few other project maintainers feel that very much we start along the line when releasing GPL code that we could do with ongoing practical advice and education from the FSF management at large. Hell I'd even find them the funding to pay for such advice. Its in our interests to make sure that we're not just behaving how a text file instructs us but as we proceed to commerciality that the FSF idealogies and also practical management of GPL projects becomes a reality. No-one's asking for a manual on project and resource management. What I'm raising is that if the GPL wants to be appreciated by the wider world not just us guys in the front line releasing and maintaining projects - then as we grow there needs to be a proactive and visual representation from FSF to say these are the next steps.

It would really help to have this information publicly available or even if it meant we had to find much needed funding for Georg Greve at FSF Europe or GNU itself then its money well spent.

GNU needs to be taken seriously - its best adverts and success stories are successful projects - does FSF need to have more of a forthright role in growing distributions or in GPL projects - not just acting as a capable and necessary watchdog for violation ?

I personally would welcome a more proactive stance from FSF, its not just about freedom from software patents

No flamewars - I think this is a valid discussion framework - I want the GPL taken seriously - and believe me every time I see other companies selling my product freely under the GPL it hurts but I accept it, thats life, now I'm going commercial with my own cash yet again holding this up lets see what practical commercial advice FSF can supply. Lets see if I even get any advice.

Richard Morrell Project Founder and Co-Author - SmoothWall

Could you help us with this?, posted 3 Nov 2001 at 20:13 UTC by jonas » (Master)

Yes! This is something that I think everyone in the FSF would be very interested in doing, and what we already do to some extent. You mentioned already that you've had discussions with the FSF in Boston and with Georg Greve (FSF Europe). If others have questions, we're always more than happy to try to answer them to the best of our ability as well.

But as you say yourself, this is only a first step in that direction. You seem to want the FSF more involved in this process, and as you correctly guess, lack of resources is certainly one of the reasons why we don't generally do this today. I say "generally" because we have some activity in that area towards projects that are part of the GNU Project.

It's important to remember here though that the FSF (and FSF Europe) is not only concerned about projects in the GNU Project, but of Free Software in general, be it in the form of GNU Projects, individual software or software from the NetBSD project.

What I'm most interested in hearing though is what exactly you would like. How do you think that the FSF and FSF Europe should go about to become more involved in "education" of Free Software projects? You mention that you are in the UK, so it would probably make sense for you to join the FSF Europe discussion list, if you havn't done so already. This is one place where such a discussion could take place. You could of course also hold it with persons inside of the FSF or FSF Europe individually, if this suits you better :-)

Here is the web page for FSF Europe by the way: FSF Europe. I think I speak for everyone in both the FSF and FSF Europe when I say that we're always interested in hearing ideas about what we can do.

FSF Consulting?, posted 4 Nov 2001 at 12:00 UTC by fc » (Master)

I am not familiar with rmorrell's situation, so this might be a stupid idea. Maybe the FSF might investigate if there is a market for opening an FSF consulting branch. The consulting could assist companies in implementing GPL-based business, and help out with interpreting the license. It could teach clients how to behave and play nice with the community.

Such a branch would require FSF advocats, programmers, but also <cough>lawyers</cough>. The money made from this could be used to finance the FSF. Oh, and the consultanst would have to wear suits and ties to be taken serious by business people :-)

FSF needs to care about How To Make Money with free software, posted 4 Nov 2001 at 12:47 UTC by davidw » (Master)

I'm a bit tired after the morning's bike ride, and these ideas are still in the incubation stage in my head, so bear with me...

Basically, what I have to say is this: not everyone wants to live like Richard Stallman - we want to make a good living wage, to support a reasonable lifestyle, like owning a car, a home, having a family, and so forth. In order to do that, we need to be able to make money.

I had Richard Stallman tell me to my face, upon meeting him briefly at some Linux (err, GNU/Linux, sorry) event a number of years ago, that it would be better to not work in the software industry than to create proprietary software. Frankly, if it comes down to doing something menial or writing proprietary code, guess what folks, I don't think proprietary software is so bad that I'd rather wait tables.

I guess it will take time and experimentation to see what business models will work with open source software, but so fare there isn't a lot panning out besides consulting (I'm managing to do that and do free software, for the moment) - or is there?

I suppose what I hear in the above article, and feel to a certain degree myself is "ok, now what?". It doesn't help that the economy is in the toilet, but I feel a bit "led down the garden path" - it's all well and good for Stallman to live like a hermit, but I *don't want to*.

Ok, this whole comment is not very clear, and my writing stinks, but maybe someone will get what I'm trying to say:-) I'm off to eat a nice plate of pasta and enjoy the sunshine.

Commercialisation and the FSF, posted 4 Nov 2001 at 14:28 UTC by alan » (Master)

Right now the FSF have done some token things - like the list of consultants it keeps but that is very quiet, ground level and not promoted.

Promoting a general business area is hard and expensive - it is normally done by mass advertising like the infamous "go to work on an egg", "make room for the mushrooms" and other UK campaigns.

The more traditional role of such bodies in engineer has been a mix of quiet promotion and of quality control - something I don't think the FSF is equipped to do (here the UK analogy is things like Federation of Master Builders).

I'd like to see the smoothwall site much more aggressive about actually selling stuff. I thought it would neat to get a copy to play with then discovered I couldn't order a CD

There seems to be a market hole for selling

Smoothwall CD (direct only - the shop game is pointless) Smoothwall polar bears, caps, shirts Fixed price "per incident", "per year" type support

and more importantly some fixed [higher] price deals

Preinstalled smoothwall boxes Smoothwall onsite (preinstall, intro, configuration engineer for a day) Smoothwall remote managed service (remote updates, monitoring, logging, so many reconfig "incidents" per month)

These are some of the things you get from established firewall players and things people want.

Have you done any marketing research or for that matter if getting it off the ground is an issue talked to the UK business connect folks and the like in search of grants, assistance.

I think there is an opportuinty - just don't send the onsite installer out in a polar bear suit.


Need specific ideas, posted 4 Nov 2001 at 18:18 UTC by jonas » (Master)

When I see the comments from fc and alan, it seems to me that they're dealing in principle on two issues. The first issue, raised by fc is that the FSF/FSFE could perhaps offer more business services to companies working with Free Software. Some of this we already do, like offer to help with reviewing licenses, though perhaps, as alan points out, not to the extent that some people would like. For this issue, we need people to tell us what they want us to do, preferably as specific as possible.

The second issue is the general promotion of Free Software. alan doesn't know if the FSF/FSFE can do this, and I have my doubts as well, though for different reasons I think. I don't think this can be done on a global level. For example, the campaigns that alan mentions seems focused on increasing specific areas in the UK. If we had a chapter of the FSF in the UK, then I think it would be feasible to think that a campaign of that type (but perhaps not the same magnitude) could be created.

To some extent, this is why the FSF Europe wants to have local chapters in all European countries. There are some things that can be done on a global level, but there are a lot of things which need a local presence to actually make a difference. Incidentally, the UK is one of the countries where we might be able to create a chapter soon, but we always need more people in all European countries. As I told Richard, please let us in the FSF Europe know if you're interested in helping us with anything, or if you think that the FSF Europe can do something for you.

FSF-UK, posted 4 Nov 2001 at 21:38 UTC by bgough » (Journeyer)

Slightly off topic, but there is a meeting to discuss founding an FSF- UK chapter, or similar organisation in the UK, in Birmingham on the 18th.

See the thread on the fsf-uk mailing list

Not Yet FSFE Chapter UK // FSF Franchising Inc, posted 4 Nov 2001 at 23:15 UTC by slef » (Master)

Quick reply on two distinct points, I'm afraid.

Last point first: as I understand it, the November meeting is not intended to start an FSFE chapter in the UK, but the more logical first step of starting a general free software supporter association, which Great Britain doesn't appear to have yet. Hopefully, in a short time, this will become an associate organisation of FSFE and assist with creating the UK chapter, but this country is quite backwards in some ways, especially given the developed nature of groups like UKUUG. So, that's what I think I'm going to Birmingham for (and terrorist car-bombs are not going to keep me away!).

The other point: What do we want from the FSF? Personally, I'm not surprised that various people connected who are successful in businesses built around the GPL are keeping their business models to themselves for now. This is a tricky time for many tech-based businesses, so secrecy on business tactics is going to be a strategy some use to get the drop on their competitors. Maybe when the sun shines again, FSF* can keep a list of businesses who are willing to talk about this, but I don't think FSF themselves should be a business model franchise operation. There's quite enough for them to do already.

Bottom line, I guess, is that a bad business model can't be debugged by FSF and nor should it be. How would you feel if your donations were put towards putting you out of business by helping your competitors?

state of business models, posted 5 Nov 2001 at 18:10 UTC by sej » (Master)

At present the small businesses having the most luck with free software are those using dual-licensing of some sort: TrollTech, Aladdin, Sleepycat, etc.. Dual-licensing is a reluctant compromise of the FSF, partially because they can't do anything about it, and partially because they wanted a PostScript interpreter. They don't promote it for obvious reasons. Some have increased the effectiveness of dual-licensing by adding a time-delay -- not releasing under the GPL until a later date. This has been done by design (Aladdin) and by accident (TrollTech).

There are a small number of natural monopolies available in the free software world, like that of RedHat/Cygnus, and these seem a viable business model as long as the monopoly is retained. Most of us won't have a chance to start one of these. We might work for one.

And then there is the service model. This may be a viable form of business in the future, but there are problems. Customers have come to expect massive amounts of self-customizable capability for the price of shrink-wrapped software, and everything must run on Windows. It helps if you specialize in business applications, because business users are more comfortable with outsourced consultants than users of technical applications.

And the FSF certainly doesn't promote the use of non-copyleft free software licenses, something rather useful for custom free software developers working on proprietary products. Once again, for obvious reasons.

Business models, posted 6 Nov 2001 at 13:08 UTC by alan » (Master)

I think I have to disagree there. It is certainly one of the models but a large number of small companies are doing very well customising, improving and building open source software.

I was pleasantly suprised to find the nearest usergroup included a fair mix of people who were in the building stuff with Linux department not students.

Re: Business models, posted 6 Nov 2001 at 18:09 UTC by sej » (Master)

alan, can you give more details about successful free-software service-oriented small businesses that you know of? Are they IT related (i.e. business applications), web-server servicing, sys-admin oriented, or technical oriented? Where are they physically located? Are they copyleft or copy-centrist? What business are their customers in?

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