July 20–24, 2015
Portland, OR

The Free Software Foundation, on the road for 30 years: Are we there yet, RMS?

John Sullivan (Free Software Foundation)
4:10pm–4:50pm Wednesday, 07/22/2015
Collaboration E147/148
Average rating: ****.
(4.25, 4 ratings)

Prerequisite Knowledge

No special skills or knowledge are required.


The Free Software Foundation is a 501©(3) charity with an ethical mission to ensure users control their computers and not the other way around. The FSF is about to turn 30, a life milestone which traditionally provides a major opportunity for laughter, regrets, reflection, introspection, re-orientation toward the future, and drinking. We’ll do all but one of those things in this session.

John Sullivan has been with the FSF in various capacities for only 12 of its 30 years, but will abuse his access to the organization’s archives and institutional memory to bob for apples (not that kind) from the years when he personally was just first learning how to misuse a computer.

The FSF’s unique blend of conservatism and radicalism has brought us:

  • Amazing GNU software, written by a combination of its own employees, other people’s employees, and nobody’s employees
  • A set of principles that don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon defining what software has to do in order to be considered ethical and respectful toward its users
  • The original model of a tax-exempt organization to sponsor free software development, itself run using exclusively free software, now many times imitated (except for that crucial last part)
  • Four generations of licenses used by programmers around the world as the terms for freely distributing their software, all of which embody the principle of “copyleft,” which works so inconveniently well that some powerful people are working quite hard to uninvent it
  • Efforts of varying success to expand the free software movement, including public-facing advocacy for a kind of user who 30 years ago never had to confront the question of whether her software source code was available or not, and for some reason still has never tried Emacs.

30 years after its founding, the mission is bigger, but the computers are a lot smaller. We are not, as some have said, in a “post open source” world. We are, rather, in a world where it is more important than ever to remember the challenges we’ve had to best in the last 30 years, the way we bested them, and what we’ll need to do now in the world of mobile, wearable, ubiquitous computing, to best them again.

Photo of John Sullivan

John Sullivan

Free Software Foundation

John Sullivan started working with GNU Press and the Free Software Foundation in 2003 and then became the FSF’s first campaigns manager, working on outreach efforts like Defective by Design, BadVista, and PlayOgg. In 2011, John became the executive director after four years as manager of operations. His background is mainly in the humanities, with an MFA in writing and poetics and a BA in philosophy, but he has been spending too much time with computers and online communities since the days of the Commodore 64. He’s become a dedicated GNU Emacs user after first trying it around 1996, and contributes code to several of its extensions. John has been speaking regularly at free software events since 2004, including keynotes at the Libre Software World Meeting, Open World Forum, and LibrePlanet. Prior to the FSF, John worked as a college debate team instructor for both Harvard and Michigan State University.