Open Letter to Free Software Foundation’s Executive Director – John Sullivan

John Sullivan, Executive Director of the Free Software Foundation, has asked the membership a question…

By what measures do you judge the success of the FSF’s public advocacy campaigns, and how do you think they have been doing?

Below is my reply. Comments, as always, are welcome.


Dear Mr. Sullivan,

First of all, congratulations in your new role.

You asked for comments and criticism on FSF campaigns, so here is it.

How do I measure a campaign’s success? Does it result in market share change? Is there positive brand recognition? Does the general public come away thinking good thoughts about Free Software or are they lost in scary geeky confusion?

With the rest of this letter, I will discuss several FSF campaigns and mantras. Where the FSF does well and areas that could do a little better.

I would like to see The FSF to be a beacon for all of Free culture. Specifically, work more with obvious allies like MediaWiki,,, and Creative Commons. I loved the film “Patent Absurdity” and your collaboration with the Software Freedom Law Center. Any time you see allies, I want to see FSF to think Win-Win as I saw in that film.

I want to see FSF to not hold such harsh criticism to those who use semantics that you do not agree with. You can gently continue to remind people who say “Open Source” or “Linux” without the GNU. Refusing to go to events or help projects by people who do not use your language is a missed opportunity to gently make your point. The current posture is elitist and “my way or the highway.”

The “GNU/Linux vs Linux” argument is the very reason that I was convinced from 1999-2009 that the FSF wouldn’t even want me to be a member. Eventually I became a member anyhow since my freedom is much too important.

It is cool that the FSF continues to use “GNU/Linux.” Depending on the audience, or the level of specificity I need, I will say “GNU/Linux” too. But, when talking to the general public I say, “I use Linux.” I get two typical answers to that “Oh, my friend uses Ubuntu!” or “Gee, I’m not a computer wiz like you.” I’m sorry but “GNU/Linux” is not brand-recognizable in the world domination scale.

In this day in age, it is difficult enough for products based on the kernel such as Android or WebOS for me to shout from the mountaintops “Linux is winning” let alone, “GNU/Linux is winning.”  Some desktop distributions such as Fedora have dropped the word “Linux” purposely from their product name. Would the FSF rather that no one would say “Linux?!?”

Furthermore, would you rather people who say “Open Source” not become FSF members? We spend so much time using of neutral terms such as “non-proprietary” or acronyms such as FLOSS so that we don’t offend the Free Software Foundation’s hard line. When someone does say “Open Source” instead, a pedantic argument ensues, making both sides of the argument look childish to someone who has not yet committed to freedom. By the 20 times effective frequency theory, the “Free Software” brand nor the “Open Source” brand will sound appealing, even after they’ve heard it 20 times after all this negativity.

I actually jealous of those whose native language isn’t English because they are less likely to hear the “Open Source” bashing. We all get enough FUD from proprietary software, and our great foe Microsoft. Free Software has won in emerging economies such as Brazil and powerhouses such as France, Russia, and China.  It is time we focus on what is important.

I would rather the FSF focus on unity. I loved the “working together” campaign. Build on where we all agree. Politely say, “excuse me ‘Free Software'” when someone says “Open Source” and move on. Check out Open Respect. There is a respectful way to assert your point of view so please for heavens sakes, drop the anger. I know we can all be friends. Really.

Finally, a conversation about The Free Software Foundation’s campaigns would not be complete without mentioning “The Party of GNO.” Yes, I agree that Windows 7 is “sinful” and that iPhones are “defective by design.” I understand these things because I am I freedom loving person. Someone who does not yet understand freedom yet sees the FSF as a group of judgemental purist freaks who make Free Software sound non-fun.

I would rather campaigns that promote the advancement and use of Free Software. Software Freedom Day is awesome. Funding GNASH as a high-priority project is great. I want people to want to use Free Software because it is the most beautiful, the most useful, the most fun software out there. No one should have to compromise their freedom for that one application or driver. Sadly we are not there yet, but we are oh so close.

Please focus on bridging gaps where there are not great Free Software options and the celebrating success of outstanding Free Software projects. That is the the Free Software Foundation I want to support.

Thank you for taking the time to have this discussion with your members. I’m really looking forward to your thoughts after your Mid-May contemplation.

Beth Lynn Eicher

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8 Responses to Open Letter to Free Software Foundation’s Executive Director – John Sullivan

  1. foo says:

    Sigh 🙁

  2. Mel Chua says:

    Thanks for sharing, Beth Lynn – I thought this was a very thoughtful, well-written letter – and I agree with and admire much of what you’ve said. I think the FSF is a great organization, and would also like to see them be more inclusive – as you’ve pointed out, this doesn’t mean “compromising” on principles, but rather taking opportunities to broaden both your own horizons and the horizons of those you engage with who may have different philosophies.

    I was reminded of a friend of mine whose (devoutly Catholic) parents wouldn’t let her take a “world religions” class in high school because “her faith might be swayed.” It struck me as narrow-minded; if you honestly believe that what you say is truth, and that truth wins, then you should be trying to learn from “unbelievers” when possible – they may give you greater insight into what they and you believe in.

    If we engage in a spirit of mutual cooperation and learning, then truth will come out, in the end – and if we aim for truth prevailing, regardless of whether or not what we discover in the end matches our individual preconceptions in the beginning (the second one’s the hard part – what if we’re the ones who are wrong?), we’ll all end up better for it, at the end of the day.

  3. Ben Williams says:

    Beth Lynn well said and all I can say is I wished could add anything, but i can not


  4. Thank you, Beth! I really appreciate these thoughts. There will be more from me/us after mid-May, but it really means a lot right now to get high quality feedback like this.

  5. twitter says:

    When people ask me what OS I use, I say “Debian”. If they want to get technical, I’ll tell them it’s GNU/Linux on x86, powerPC and ARM. Sooner or later, I may be running Debian GNU/Hurd or Android/Linux. When you consider that I might also run GNU/kBSD, you see that the precise language of the FSF is correct and gives credit where it’s due.

    I don’t harshly criticize people who don’t agree, unless they do so maliciously, and I don’t see the FSF doing this so much as I see a bunch of Microsoft FUDsters making issues of nothing. The words to avoid collection is a good example of polite and careful advocacy. It’s a little dry but it’s concise and well written. Joe Brockmeier’s essay is full of exaggerations and inaccuracies and injustice for the FSF. As we come close to majority market share, it is apparent that the FSF’s approach worked well. People value their freedom and the simple and careful language of the FSF.

    My free software systems are way more fun than Windows. So are Android smart phones and tablets. As Linux “wins” it’s important to make sure that it is also a win for software freedom. Projects like Freedom Box should do the trick soon enough. See my Vista Failure Videos and Windows 7 Sucks Videos for a reality check. Vista 7 is still a failure because Digital Restrictions Suck. Thanks for the thoughts but don’t let the Microsoft people convince you to stop talking about freedom and GNU.

  6. ChrisTX says:

    Speaking of restrictions, remind me when Linux gets dtrace and zfs which have been both released under the OSI-approved open-source license CDDL.

    FreeBSD and Mac OS X were somehow able to feature them. Linux had to turn them down because their GPL batshit is unfortunately considering not all OSI-approved licenses the same value.

    As for that, you also need to license except ( and thus break with OSI approval ) every single time you want to use OpenSSL. Legally such exceptions are because of a poor choice of words not clear.

    Digital restrictions? Linux, check.

    “As we come close to majority market share, it is apparent that the FSF’s approach worked well.”

    Almost majority market share, yes.

  7. ChrisTX says:

    Did you pay this dude his 20 bucks already for the lost bet?

    37.26% + 32.05% + 11.38% > 80%.

    The game. You lost it.

  8. ted says:

    I have no probs with the FSF being the way it is.
    You NEED organizations from all spectrums.
    You want to be a wishy-washy org like the Linux Foundation?

    Btw, Linux users NEVER say Linux when talking to each other.
    You say, I had problems with Debian or the name of the distro.
    You are right thought… different names for different audiences.
    Parents and family its Linux, when I talk or write reports its GNU-Linux which is a HUGE difference since we also do work with Android-Linux.

    > I’m sorry but “GNU/Linux” is not brand-recognizable in the world domination scale.

    yeah, Im sorry too because that line about world domination is just childish

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