What is the Free Software Foundation?


Definition “Free Software Foundation” What is the Free Software Foundation?

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

Companies on the topic

The Free Software Foundation behind the GNU License stands for the rights of software users.The Free Software Foundation behind the GNU License stands for the rights of software users.

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 its headquarters in Boston, Massachusetts, it influences the development of free software around the world. Since 2001, FSF Europe has been operating as a sister organisation 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 business community stems from the non-governmental foundation’s approach: although it is committed to free software, it allows commercial use. Thus, the cooperation is also attractive for commercial actors.

Goals of the Free Software Foundation

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

  • Users may run the software at will.
  • You get insight into the source code.
  • Users may 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 allows commercial use, here it differs from the open source movement. However, companies must undertake to comply with the four principles mentioned above. The organization ensures this with GNU licensing.

Richard Stallman: activist and founder of FSF

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

Since 1983, he has focused 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 the most important thought leader. His writings, such as the GNU Manifesto, are fundamental 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, in particular those who promoted the GNU project. The focus of the foundation has shifted since then: many voluntary individuals and commercially oriented companies are now working on free software programs, so the FSF can leave this work to others.

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

FSF is currently focusing its activities on these areas:

  • Organization of GNU licensing including legal action in case of violations
  • Lobbying and campaigning for more free software

GNU project as the heart of the organization

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

The GNU software components are usually used with a Linux kernel, commonly referred to as Linux for this operating system. However, it is a GNU Linux operating system: for marketing reasons, the Free Software Foundation urges that the full name for this operating system be widely used.

Licensing free software with the GNU General Public License

Under the 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 exists 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 redistributed version, the authors must publish the source code and allow additional editing including copies. The GNU license prevents a free software from becoming part of a 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, the responsible users want to protect against the restrictions of proprietary programs. An example of this public relations work is the campaign Free JavaScript. This action refers to homepages whose visitors only see the complete content with installed proprietary software. The foundation wants to sensitize the operators of websites to this topic and encourage them to use only free programs.

Free Software Foundation Europe based in Hamburg

FSF Europe operates as a registered association with its headquarters in Hamburg structurally independent, but pursues the same goals as its big sister. In its political lobbying work, it focuses on the European Union, its member states and European countries outside the EU such as Switzerland. It has a presence in the individual states with regional groups.


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