Going beyond advocacy

Paul Boddie paul at boddie.org.uk
Mon Feb 10 22:38:44 UTC 2020

On Sunday 9. February 2020 19.57.50 Nico Rikken wrote:
> I like your line of thinking.

Nice to hear from you again, Nico! :-)

Well, I think we cannot just make assumptions about things magically happening 
all by themselves. Instead, we have to consider the economic models involved, 
and that requires us to consider the bigger picture.

> The Reuse software is a great example I think, rather than starting a
> full-blown European GNU project.

Reuse [1] only really quality-assures existing Free Software licensing, 
however. Finding myself back in an academic environment, with licensing 
applied unclearly to software or even an absence of proper licensing in some 
cases, I do see the need for things like Reuse. But its role in getting new 
Free Software written is going to be somewhat less directly significant 
compared to other initiatives, in my opinion.

Now, the GNU project [2] is actually relevant here, since it aims to offer a 
complete system. But interactions with the wider world mean that it might not 
address every possible user need. Thus, amongst the guidance about helping the 
GNU project and Free Software in general [3], we find the familiar FSF high-
priority project listing [4].

But PDF software improvements were taken off that list in 2011 [5] (whose link 
to GNU PDF now leads to non-free software), with it then having been suggested 
to reinstate them in 2016 [6]. The response is arguably disappointing:

"We're still debating whether to make the addition or not, as PDF is in long 
term decline -- not nearly as steep as Flash, but still becoming ever less 

I guess it depends on perspectives. I look at quite a few datasheets: all of 
them are PDF documents. My bank produces PDF documents for invoices, receipts 
and other records. The suggestion to use PDF.js is a good one, which is 
presumably why it is bundled with things like Firefox. I imagine that a lot of 
people get a lot of benefit from it. So much for a format in decline, 
especially since as a kind of archive format it will be with us for a long 
time to come.

> I've heard the issues with PDF documents before in the Netherlands.
> Perhaps it makes sense to pinpiont the software requirements, and work
> to development a generic extension that can be included in one or more
> pdf editors?

It would certainly be worthwhile. What we apparently see is that familiar 
phenomenon where "mission accomplished" is declared but where the mission is 
open-ended; where "we got this" is announced but years later the software is 
abandoned (in other cases) or not covering the needs of the users (in this 

Given that the problem area is likely to be one of the proprietary forms 
technologies from Adobe [7], only some of which have been pushed into ISO 
32000 (which being an ISO standard isn't genuinely open, anyway), it might be 
unfair to expect Free Software support to track these technologies, 
particularly completely proprietary ones [8], and still maintain a usable 
level of support. Indeed, it is creditable that support does exist and appears 
to be maintained [9].

I can see a few areas of work, however...

1. Advocacy of, and insistence on, genuinely open standards that meet the 
needs of users. People may need to exchange documents (including forms), but 
the technologies involved have to be genuinely open and accessible. If 
insisting on a properly standardised version of PDF means that certain 
necessary features (such as forms) are missing, then other means of providing 
such features need to be advocated and provided.

2. Monitoring of organisations - particularly public agencies - to ensure that 
people stick to the rules. It is too easy for institutions to procure 
proprietary software (various Adobe "suites" in this case, perhaps) and to 
impose proprietary technologies on random people. There should be mechanisms 
to prevent and correct non-compliance, and such policing should not have to 
fall on random volunteers (as it did with the PDF Readers campaign).

3. Assistance for developers implementing necessary and advocated 
functionality. Too often, such work is framed as something for volunteers to 
do, but such work is also fairly thankless and tedious, with other people 
seemingly content to wait for the hard work to be done and then to use it for 
their own personal gain. I would argue that people who are intellectually 
curious and who engage themselves in such work without asking for reward are 
actually being exploited. Is the Free Software movement comfortable with 
perpetuating the trends of exploitation that now pervade wider society?

4. Cultivation of expertise and knowledge sharing amongst developers. Another 
phenomenon is where people are willing to undertake development tasks, but 
then they are more or less driven away by those with the expertise and 
knowledge. Reasons for this include plain old-fashioned selfishness (keeping 
the opportunities within a clique), but it can also include a lack of time due 
to other commitments (they already do such things at work, or that they are 
happy keeping their Free Software activities at "hobby" level), or even a lack 
of enthusiasm ("I'm done with this, so why should anyone else be interested in 
it now?"). I've seen all of these.

Making (3) happen is seemingly straightforward: just pay someone! But it has 
complications all by itself, as we see with all the different schemes that are 
concocted to find money and then to give it out fairly to people who 
supposedly did the work. But I also feel that (4) has a complicating influence 
as well. If the person who could do the work doesn't want to (or cannot), and 
yet cannot empower someone else so that they may do it, either, then the 
difficulties suddenly become much more severe.

Then again, this is a discussion list and I don't have all the answers ready, 
so maybe other people can bring their insights to bear on these problems.


[1] https://reuse.software/

[2] https://www.gnu.org/

[3] https://www.gnu.org/help/

[4] https://www.fsf.org/campaigns/priority-projects/

[5] https://www.fsf.org/blogs/community/gnu-pdf-project-leaves-high-priority-projects-list-mission-complete

[6] https://www.fsf.org/blogs/community/a-preliminary-analysis-of-high-priority-projects-feedback

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PDF#Interactive_elements

[8] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/XFA


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