The Software Freedom Conservancy (SFC) has been in business for four
years, so it seems about time for the organization to have a full-time employee. But is the organization ready to support a full-time employee? What started as a small offshoot of the Software Freedom Law Center (SFLC) is now home to more than 20 open source projects, with others waiting in the wings. It has a solid set of services for its organizations, but fundraising may be a challenge for now full-time Executive Director Bradley Kuhn.
Kuhn, known for his work as Executive Director of the Free Software Foundation and later with the SFLC, has been the driving force behind the Conservancy since its inception. As he writes in his introductory post, Kuhn has been doing the work to keep the Conservancy running in his "spare" time outside of his work with the SFLC. As a part-time volunteer, Kuhn has done a remarkable job of bootstrapping the Conservancy, but additional skills will be needed to make the Conservancy self-sufficient enough to carry one or more employees.
The SFC grew out of the SFLC, and was launched in
April 2006. While the SFLC was equipped to provide pro-bono legal services
for FOSS projects, there was an obvious need for more than just legal services.
What the SFC Does
The conservancy provides several services that projects need, but that developers are not ordinarily well-equipped or enthused to do themselves. The SFC provides a non-profit umbrella for projects, so that they can receive tax-deductible donations as a 501(c)(3), and provides fundraising assistance. The SFC also helps with contract negotiation, which comes in handy when a project wants to work with a contributor company, hold a conference, or any other activities that require contracts. If desired by the project, the SFC can also hold physical and legal assets, ranging from trademarks to servers donated to a project.
In other words, the SFC performs all manner of legal and financial work on behalf of projects so that contributors can focus on the project and not administrivia.
How do the client projects feel about the SFC? Matt Mackall of the Mercurial project, says that he's pleased: "Things have been good so far. They're fairly responsive and take a load of paperwork off our plate."
Mackall, primary author and project lead for Mercurial, says that the
decision to join the SFC was spurred by a threat from BitMover to one of
Mercurial's developers. Mackall recently decided to work
on Mercurial full-time so, to enable that, donations come in for
Mercurial to the SFC. He then receives payment as an independent contractor
from the conservancy.
Aside from handling donations, Mackall says that the Conservancy has been helpful in many other ways ranging from making it possible to get T-shirts for contributors, to supporting Mercurial's licensing move from GPLv2 to GPLv2+, and assistance with developer sprints in Paris and Chicago.
The SFC isn't the only organization that does this, nor is it the
first. For instance, Software in the Public
Interest (SPI) has been serving in a similar role for Debian and other
projects for many years. Kuhn sees it as a good thing that several non-profit homes for projects exist:
Conservancy should never be the only non-profit home for FLOSS projects. In fact, we should have quite a few, for a number of reasons. First, there is a certain amount of aggregate risk that projects together in one organization share. For example, if Conservancy is sued because a company wants to attack one of its projects, the other projects would of course be impacted at least at little.
Second, not every project wants the exact service plan that Conservancy offers, so other non-profits are a better fit. Comparing Conservancy to SPI, for example, Conservancy is much more hands-on with regard to day-to-day non-profit work of a project. Some projects prefer SPI for this reason. (Obviously, I tend to think a hands-on approach helps projects navigate better, but I don't begrudge projects that don't like that and thus opt for SPI as their non-profit home.)
Comparing Apache Software Foundation to Conservancy, ASF firstly requires that projects be licensed under the Apache license, while Conservancy accepts projects under any license approved as both an Open Source and a Free Software license. Second, ASF doesn't do earmarked accounts for projects; all funds donated to Apache Software Foundation go into a general fund, and then its board (and committees appointed thereof) decide how funds are routed to individual project needs.
Next Steps for the Conservancy
Rapid growth is not in the cards for the Conservancy. In its four years,
the SFC has signed up an impressive set of projects that run the gamut from Linux distributions to media players. The list includes more than 20 projects, from major and well-established projects like Samba to smaller projects like Libbraille, which provides a shared library for easily developing software for Braille displays.
The current projects aren't the only projects that wish to join the Conservancy. Kuhn says that there's a waiting list to get in and he hopes to have the resources to accept most of those in waiting. The SFC has standardized on letting in new members twice per year, to coincide with the biannual director's meeting.
Likewise, Kuhn isn't planning to expand the services offered by the SFC
I remain open to hearing from member projects who want additional services and seeing how we can meet their needs. I think Conservancy has passed the "build it and they will come" point with great success. Now, it's a matter of listening to what member projects want additionally, while continuing to improve the level of service on things Conservancy already offers.
One of the things that the Conservancy does offer is help with license
compliance. The SFC has been busy in protecting the rights of BusyBox,
which is often shipped in embedded devices without vendors complying with
the requirements of the GPLv2. The SFC worked with the SFLC to file
suit in December of 2009 against Best Buy, Samsung, Westinghouse, JVC,
and several other companies for violating the GPLv2 in shipping BusyBox.
The SFC received a default
against Westinghouse in July for $90,000 in damages and $50,000
to cover costs of the suit. However, Kuhn says that Westinghouse is trying
to avoid paying the judgment, so it may be some time before the
Conservancy can recognize the income. When it does, Kuhn says that the any
money for damages are earmarked for the member project, while money for
costs have gone to the SFLC to help it continue to serve its members.
Expect more of the same. Kuhn says that GPL enforcement is
"definitely" an area where the SFC will be more active in
The BusyBox project leaders have asked, given my extensive GPL enforcement experience, that I give more time to making sure that companies comply with their license. Thus, Conservancy has made an agreement with the BusyBox project leaders that we'll increase the amount of GPL enforcement. Also, I've put out the offer to other member projects if they want us to do compliance work related to their licenses, Conservancy is available to do so.
Finally, Kuhn says he wants to increase the Conservancy's available operating funds, but that will depend heavily on the generosity of the community and corporate sponsors. Right now, he says that the SFC has "about six months of operating expenses in cash for 2011, so my first goal is to bring that cash fund up to a year's worth of expenses and make sure I can deliver on a sustainable budget, including one employee."
Kuhn is the first full-time employee of the SFC, which raises the question of how funds will be raised to pay Kuhn's salary going forward. How does the Conservancy plan to raise money for that and other necessary services? First off, Kuhn is "bootstrapping," the move by being a full-time volunteer until 2011. He says that the SFC will be paying only for expenses until 2011.
Will the Conservancy be tapping member projects for funds? Kuhn says yes, but only for those that wish to contribute. "As part of Conservancy's fundraising strategy, we also ask our member projects to give a small percentage of funds raised in their earmarked account back to Conservancy generally. We hope to never have to make that mandatory, although we do have to tell very large projects that are in need of a lot of services from Conservancy staff that it will be difficult to assure ongoing services without this component."
Even if all projects choose to contribute, it still won't cover all the
funding needs for a full-time salary — much less all of the services
offered by the Conservancy. To that end, Kuhn says the Conservancy will
seek "a diversified" donor base, and has been encouraging FOSS supporters to give to FOSS-related non-profits and not just the SFC:
Now that so many developers are funded to write FLOSS (which is no doubt a good thing), there's become a bit of an "I gave at the office" mentality. I strongly encourage supporters of software freedom to think about what kind of ecosystem they want: should for-profit companies have all the power, or should there be a well-funded not-for-profit space that isn't beholden to for-profit company control and money? By giving generously to the non-profits you care about, you can make a real difference regarding that question. So, I'd say that even if your readers don't like Conservancy, they should consider giving to other 501(c)(3) organizations like the FSF, GNOME Foundation, Apache Foundation, SPI, and the many other organizations in the FLOSS Foundations directory.
Kuhn says that he doesn't want to depend too heavily on corporate donors, and doesn't have a specific plan to target donations from companies. He does talk to potential sponsors at conferences, and expects a contribution for 2011 from Google. So far the Conservancy appears to have done well by its members and on a shoestring budget, but a more aggressive and targeted fundraising plan would be more comforting. This is, perhaps, an area where the Conservancy should actively seek contributors to work on a fundraising plan and specific funding targets.
Funding concerns aside, the SFC has achieved quite a bit in its four years without the benefit of having a full-time employee. Providing the SFC can meet its fundraising goals to sustain Kuhn full-time, 2011 should be a very interesting year for the organization.
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