Who Will Lead Free Software in the Future?

After Richard Stallman, three individuals appear the most likely candidates.
Posted September 27, 2011

Bruce Byfield

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The Free Software Foundation (FSF) and Richard Stallman's leadership are common topics on the Internet. However, perusing the usual criticisms and defenses of Stallman in a discussion last week on Facebook and Google+, I had a blinding flash of the obvious:

What, I wondered, happens when Stallman no longer leads? Will new intellectual leaders emerge, or will free software be limited to a single generation?

The question of succession is one that many organizations in free and open source software (FOSS) will have to face in the coming years. Since FOSS is less than three decades old, in many cases, organizations are still being led by their founders. However, as the original leaders approach old age, the question will become increasingly unavoidable.

Some, of course, have already answered it. In the Linux kernel, the "Linus doesn't scale" controversy of a decade ago resulted in a reorganization of work flow so that now several lieutenants exist who might be able to step into Torvalds' position if for some reason he was unavailable.

Similarly, one of the reasons that Eben Moglen created the Software Freedom Law Center in 2005 was to help guarantee a new generation of FOSS-knowledgable lawyers.

However, in the case of the FSF, no such provision seems to have been made. Asking board members and employees, I drew blanks when I received any answer at all.

Probably, the matter does not seem urgent. Stallman is only 58 years old, and has made no announcement of major health problems. Nor does he seem a likely candidate for retirement.

Still, I can't help wondering if the subject is one that people prefer not to think about. Yet, once you think of the matter, raising it is no more ghoulish than writing a will. In fact, to anticipate the need only seems responsible. Like anyone else in late middle-age, some time in the next few decades, Stallman is likely to die or become unable to continue his present hectic schedule. At some point -- short of a digital uploading of his personality -- the problem of succession will need to be dealt with.

When that happens, the FSF may suffer more than many FOSS organizations might, because so much of its philosophical center seems dependent on Stallman alone. On a day to day basis, the FSF could probably continue indefinitely, but how will it respond to new technology and challenges?

Who might emerge as a new intellectual leader, and how might they affect how the Foundation operates and change the face that it presents to the world?

Three Possible Successors

Whenever the time for a successor comes, the FSF should have more choice than it once did. Over the last half decade, the Foundation has more efforts to encourage participation in its efforts than in the rest of its existence.

For example, in the last few years, the FSF has created LibrePlanet, an umbrella organization for local free software groups, as well as the annual conference of the same name, and GNU Generation, an organization for pre-university students.

These organizations seem to be spread a bit thin, but add regular internships, as well as the board of directors, and in theory the FSF should have no shortages of places from which future leaders might emerge.

However, as I write, the number of plausible candidates seems relatively few. At least half the current board seem too far along in their own careers -- even those who, like Henri Poole, a founder of CivicActions, I have heard mentioned as possible successors.

Similarly, current executive director John Sullivan, has a long history of free software advocacy, but after only six months in the position, he hasn't had much chance to leave his mark.

In fact, after several days of thinking, I could only come up with three plausible candidates. In alphabetical order, they are:

1) Peter Brown, the FSF's executive director from February 2005 to March 2011, and a current director and treasurer for the Software Freedom Conservancy. Before that, Brown was a director of the activist magazine The New Internationalist, and worked for BBC Radio.

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Tags: Linux, free software, FSF, Linus Torvalds

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