In June 2007, the FSF released the third version of the GPL (GPLv3). This update tried to take into account new technologies and ways of evading the provisions of the second version of the license (GPLv2). The new version was the product of an extensive, unparalleled consultation with community and corporate stakeholders.
However, this consultation process did include consensus. When Linus Torvalds decided that the Linux kernel would stay with GPLv3, the FSF went ahead with the GPLv3 regardless.
At the time, the decision seemed sensible in the face of a deadlock. But now, GPLv2 is used for 42.5% of free software, and GPLv3 for less than 6.5%, according to Black Duck Software.
Moreover, as though that situation wasn't bad enough, there seems to be a trend towards permissive licenses that don't require code sharing, the way that all versions of the GPL do.
Richard Stallman and many other members of the FSF refuse to appear at conferences that don't use GNU/Linux in their name and advertising. In fact, Stallman has been known to refuse to speak to a group or to journalists who don't use his preferred nomenclature.
The main exception that I'm aware of is Eben Moglen, whose work at the Software Freedom Law Center includes many who style themselves open source supporters.
I understand that this refusal is a matter of principle. Yet, despite all the ways to communicate on the Internet, face to face contact remains important in the community. By maintaining their ideals, free software advocates have made themselves invisible, cutting themselves off from the personal networking and other informal associations that spring up when people talk to each other.
As founder and main speaker for the FSF, Richard Stallman has played a major role in the history of free software. Nothing will ever change that.
But Stallman's stubbornness, which helped the ideas of free software to take hold and flourish, now appear to many as a handicap. Stallman consistently displays a fixation on definition that distracts from his main points about the need for software freedom. These days, too, he never seems to miss a chance to criticize the open source philosophy, even when the criticism isn't relevant to his point.
Even worse, Stallman has a history of making gaffs, then refusing to admit that he was wrong. In July 2009, he created a controversy by refusing to back down after a sexist remark he made at the Desktop Summit in Gran Canaria. More recently, Stallman remarked about Steve Jobs that, "I'm not glad he's dead, but I'm glad he's gone," then expanded on his remarks a few weeks later. The problem was not that he was wrong about Jobs popularizing proprietary technology, but that many people felt that his remarks were tasteless and crass when speaking about the recently dead, and that a leader should have shown more sense than to make them.
Stallman is far from the whole of the free software movement, but many people judge the movement unfavorably because of him.
None of the reasons mentioned here is decisive in itself. However, cumulatively, they go a long way towards explaining why the FSF and free software ideals are less influential than before.
As a free software supporter, I can only hope that the loss of influence can be reversed. Five years ago isn't so long a time, and in theory I see no reason why free software can't regain the ground that it's lost. If the FSF and free software advocates would engage current trends (to say nothing of the rest of the community), then in another few years it could be more influential than ever.
The only problem is, will the free software leadership admit the problems and correction them? I hope so, but I'm not optimistic about the answer.
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