Monday, 06 June 2011 10:54

Bradley Kuhn: a life devoted to Free Software


Bradley Kuhn is well-known in the world of Free Software. That he works for the Software Freedom Conservancy - and what that august organisation does - is less well publicised.

Kuhn has been around in Free Software circles for a long time; he knows the movement well and has contributed an enormous amount to the progress it has made.

It takes dedication, perseverance and idealism to work and keep working in this area. Kuhn has all three in spades and exemplifies the type of person who is needed more and more as commercialism makes inroads into, and often sullies, the ideals that gave birth to FOSS.

iTWire spoke to Kuhn about life, free software and what lies ahead. Excerpts:

Was there some kind of early influence which drove you in the direction of free/open source software? Family, friends, siblings?

I was always a political radical. In high school, I volunteered for Amnesty International and ran my local chapter. My senior year of high school, I took one of those inventory tests that helps you pick which career you might like; these sorts of things were really popular in the 70s and 80s in the US.

The final report had a circle, which had various types of activities, and most reports gave you a "slice" that overlapped a few similar areas.

I was the only person in the class to get back a report with two slices in disjoint areas, which were, generally, "political activism" and "science". I often think back to that report and realise that it's somewhat obvious that I'd end up in the area of software freedom activism, since it mixes computer science and activism perfectly.
Bradley Kuhn
Who was influential in your choice of computer science in college - you or someone else? And why?

I remember in my freshman year of college, I half-joked that I once considered changing my major. A friend of mine responded with: "Yes, you changed your major from 'fireman' to 'Computer Science" at the age of five." That was probably pretty accurate.

In fact, I once had visual evidence of this which was sadly lost in a flood in my parent's basement. At the age of 10, I had a caricature drawn of me at the beach. The artist asked me what I liked to do, obviously expecting some sport or game. With a straight face I answered: "computer programming". He drew, at the time (pre-PC-revolution), the best representation he could muster: my 10-year-old self pressing buttons on a keyboard attached to teletype.

I never really wanted to do anything else but work with computers, and software in particular. I've actually still find it quite jarring that everyone in industrialised society uses a computer every day. I suppose I suspected that might happen, but I somewhat miss the days when I was the only person at the airport security *that day* bringing a laptop through.

I think I'm jarred by it because most people treat computers as mere tools. Computers are special to me; I feel about them the way musicians feel about their instruments. For example, I'm often teased because of my obsession with old hardware, but I've never really considered the idea of switching to a new computer while the one I have still works. I buy all my computers used on the second-hand market; it just feels more "real" that way to me, like picking out a dog at the shelter.

Were you ever attracted by the big bucks of commercial software jobs?

Well, to be clear, I did work for a few proprietary software companies for a few years right after college before graduate school. It was working at those places that solidified my certainty in the principles of software freedom.

Since then, I have certainly never been "attracted" to proprietary software development. When I've been in financially tough times, I've been "tempted" to work at quasi-Free-Software friendly for-profit companies. I've even done interviews at times. I was occasionally offered positions. (I think, however, I'm mostly black-listed from working at such places. :)

Anyway, in the end, I never accepted any such offers, because I couldn't accept the idea of making my primary, daily work in the service of making profit. Obviously, all of us need to find a way to fund our work, but I've slowly but surely come to the realisation that I don't want to live a "for-profit" life. Earning money has but one purpose for me: make enough to maintain a comfortable life that keeps financial issues from distracting me from working for software freedom. A non-profit structure fits well with this philosophy: I make enough money to live a comfortable middle-class life, but money is not the driving force behind my life.

How would you place yourself politically - left, right or centre?

My political philosophy always comes from my moral one. I was heavily influenced by some of Kant's philosophy when I was in college, and I try to live my life by his version of the golden rule: "Take every action, as if, by acting, that action is willed into universal law". I really do make almost every decision in my life assuming that whatever I do, everyone else will do and considering the consequence of that mass action.

I think it's unfortunate we've decided in modern culture that politics is purely linear, as indicated by "left, right or center". I probably would be considered by most to be "left", but I don't blindly share all my views with what would typically be called "left". I usually analyse any issue logically and attempt to come to a conclusion about what the morally correct thing to do is. Details always matter; it's best to know the details of a particular issue before coming to a conclusion.

For example, I didn't wake up one morning sure that proprietary software was bad for society and Free Software was the solution. I slowly came to that conclusion over time after dealing with many situations in both the Free Software and proprietary software contexts. I've written both, supported (as a sysadmin) both, and I've used both. After years of that, I finally came to the conclusion that proprietary software was harmful and Free Software was a different solution that was not harmful and was usually positive.

Does that have anything to do with your career choices?

My political philosophy, of course, leads to various conclusions about my career. I think that when people put money first in their life, it causes corruption, so I decided to never put money first. I saw that non-profits in general tended to do more good for the world than for-profits, so I have since 1997 only accepted full-time jobs at the former and never the latter.

As for software freedom, I basically believe that if I have some software, and given that I know it's easiest to fix and improve it if you have the source, that I am compelled to work toward a world where software is shareable with all in source form.

What are you doing right now?

I am currently working full time for the Software Freedom Conservancy as its Executive Director. I also am a volunteer for the Free Software Foundation, and am a member of its Board of Directors. I try to do 5 to 10 hours of volunteer work for the FSF per week.

How do you view the achievements of the FSF/GNU Project given its early goals? Success? Failure? In-between?

The GNU project sought to write a completely free software operating system that worked like Unix. The GNU project is very close to reaching its goal. Because we have GNU/Linux systems, you can run some computers without any proprietary software at all. The final goal on this front - which is a target that keeps moving due to new hardware - is to have a completely Free Software BIOS and firmwares for all devices on computers.

The FSF has a broader mission: to bring about a world where all published software is Free Software. This mission is ongoing, and I expect it will take many generations for it to succeed. It does generally get better every year, but there are often setbacks - particularly when a new type of technology becomes popular and only has proprietary implementations.

Proprietary software generally has a head start on Free Software by probably about a decade (assuming proprietary software first appeared in the 1970s and the GNU project started in 1984). As such, we'll always be on average a decade behind unless something revolutionary happens.

We have to keep working toward a revolution, while maintaining ground so we don't fall further behind.

What, in your view, is the greatest danger that free software faces in the years ahead?

It depends on what time frame you mean by "years". Keeping with my answer to the previous question, I'll answer first on the order of many decades, circa 50 years. I think our biggest threat on a 50-year timescale is complacency. Many young people today are used to a world with a great amount of Free Software in it. As such, they may not realise the precarious position that Free Software is always in: only through constant vigilance will we continue on the course toward universal software freedom. We have to make sure each generation understands the moral implications of proprietary software and why Free Software is so important for society.

There are other threats, of course, that are on shorter time frames.

How does the FSF manage for funds?

The FSF is funded primarily through its individual donation program, called the Associate Membership program, which can be found at: I led the launch of this program back when I was still Executive Director of the FSF in 2002, and that program grew into the primary funding program for FSF.

I generally believe that non-profits are best when they are primarily funded by individuals from the general public. It adds an extra "check and balance" on the organisation, since the organisation depends on individual people supporting its mission.

The FSF uses its funds to hire staff to carry out its mission. Early this year, FSF's Executive Director - who replaced me when I left the position in 2005 - Peter Brown decided to move on. Fortunately, John Sullivan, who's worked at FSF since 2001, stepped up to the position, and he's working hard to lead FSF in its mission. It's been wonderful for me to see, since I originally hired John to do shipping/receiving work part-time back in 2001. John's a real example of the "promotion from within" philosophy in FSF. I myself started as RMS' assistant and eventually became Executive Director. John started in shipping and now is the Executive Director. I'm really glad that FSF has such a strong community of people who stick with the organization for a long time, and I'm delighted that John accepted the position of Executive Director.

And how does the Software Freedom Conservancy operate?

The Software Freedom Conservancy is a very different type of organisation from the FSF. Conservancy is what non-profit people call a "fiscal sponsor", although I find that term confuses most software developers. Specifically, the term doesn't mean that Conservancy gives money *to* Free Software projects, but rather, Conservancy manages the money and oversees the non-software operations of its member projects.

So, Free Software projects apply to join the Conservancy, and then become a member of Conservancy. To analogise the situation to the for-profit world, the project then is somewhat akin to a "wholly owned subsidiary" of Conservancy, or a "division" of Conservancy. The projects operate mostly in the way that it had previously. In fact, Conservancy delegates back to the project all details related to software development and documentation. Conservancy manages everything else: things like conferences, accepting donations, reimbursing developers for travel, and even more complex tasks like licence and trademark enforcement.

As for funding, Conservancy receives a diverse set of funding. First of all, many of our member projects donate a percentage of their own donation income back to us. Thus, in many cases, Conservancy gets between 5 to 10 per cent of each donation to support our general operations, and the rest of the donation is placed in an earmarked account and only is spent at the direction of the projects' leaders. (Note that not all our member projects do this; we don't make it strictly mandatory but we do encourage our projects to give back so that the organisation can continue to exist.)

Conservancy obviously accepts directly donations from the general public, and I do ask people to donate at Conservancy doesn't have a high profile like the FSF, so we don't get very much of our income via individual donations to our general fund currently. I hope to change that over time by working hard to show the value that Conservancy brings to Free Software. Hopefully, the public will see the good that Conservancy is doing and will choose to give in the future.

Finally, Conservancy does receive some large donations from various companies. I don't want Conservancy to rely on these donations long-term, since, as I mentioned above, ideally Conservancy will be funded primarily by the percentages we receive back from our member projects plus individual donations directly to Conservancy. I treat our corporate donations primarily as "seed money" to help Conservancy get to a reasonable annual budget. I also go to great pains to avoid allowing Conservancy policies to be in any way influenced by these companies. I always keep in the back of my mind that if Conservancy isn't operating in a way that's best for the software freedom community in my view, I'm not too proud to quit and go work at a coffee shop. That gives me a healthy perspective to make sure I'm not beholden to any donors that support Conservancy.

BTW, it's useful to note that Conservancy was purely a side-project and volunteer effort on my part until 2011. From 2006-2010, I volunteered my time to Conservancy: part-time from 2006 until fall 2010, and as a full-time volunteer for the last few months of 2010. In 2011, the Board of Directors of Conservancy decided to start paying me a full-time salary, since it was clear that Conservancy had too much work to do for me to be only a (mostly part-time) volunteer. I think the "right" staffing level for Conservancy is probably three full-time workers, but it will probably be many years before Conservancy has that staffing level. Right now, Conservancy (from a general funding perspective) has just me as a full-time employee, a part-time person who works eight hours/week to help me out, and a few contractors who do work on demand.

Note, however, that Conservancy also funds a lot of software development through our member projects. Right now, for example, there are three people on full-time contracts to do software development. Matt Mackall, Mercurial's maintainer, has been paid full-time on contract to maintain Mercurial, using donations that various companies and individuals made to Conservancy, earmarked for Mercurial. There are many jQuery developers being funded, two of which are full-time, being paid on contract to work on various parts of jQuery through jQuery's earmarked funds. Conservancy also supports occasional work by various developers, and handles a lot of travel funding for member project contributors.

I really believe that funding of Free Software needs a healthy non-profit component. In recent years, most Free Software development is funded by companies allowing their employees to contribute code.

We'll always need this component of Free Software funding, and it will probably always be the majority. However, we should also have a healthy non-profit funding system that provides grants and contracts to help improve Free Software.

Funding through for-profits will generally always push codebases in the directions that companies want. Sometimes the interests of these companies will align with where the community wants the codebase to go, and in those cases, all is fine. But other times, companies will want to take a codebase in a direction that is in their corporate interest, and perhaps the community wants to take the codebase in a different direction. By funding development through a non-profit - which is set up to serve the public good rather than profit shareholders - we can make sure that there's a healthy dose of "what the community of developers and users want" in the funding of Free Software. Conservancy is committed to making this possible.

Finally, I'd like to note that folks should always read the Form 990s of non-profit organisations. In the US, these are the federally mandated documents that all non-profits must file (under the 501(c) section of the USA laws; Conservancy and FSF specifically are listed as 501(c)(3) organisations). I put Conservancy's 501(c)(3) filings (and the state-level filings for New York), on Conservancy's website. As a personal task, I also maintain a repository of Form 990s I've collected for various non-profit organisations.

You can get these documents from services like and others, but they are non-copyrighted public filings, so when I grab some, I put them up there so others can get easy access.

The reason it's important for individuals to read these rather dry documents is because they really tell you what a non-profit is up to and how it spends its money. If you donate your money to an organisation, the Form 990 is the best way to figure out if the non-profit did something useful with your funds.


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Sam Varghese

Sam Varghese has been writing for iTWire since 2006, a year after the site came into existence. For nearly a decade thereafter, he wrote mostly about free and open source software, based on his own use of this genre of software. Since May 2016, he has been writing across many areas of technology. He has been a journalist for nearly 40 years in India (Indian Express and Deccan Herald), the UAE (Khaleej Times) and Australia (Daily Commercial News (now defunct) and The Age). His personal blog is titled Irregular Expression.

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