Friday, January 18, 2002

Stallman goes to Chicago Richard Stallman is the Mahatma Ghandi of the software world. Long before the dotcom boom came and went, he was writing Free Software at MIT. Known within hacker circles simply as RMS, Stallman believes that people should not be prisoners of their technology, and so set about writing the GNU operating system (which now surrounds Torvald's Linux kernel to make GNU/Linux), founding the Free Software Foundation, and drafting a license so unusual Microsoft calls it a "cancer." On Halloween 2001, RMS came to the University of Chicago to speak about freedom and his vision for the future of software.

RMS's goal is entirely ideological. He's on a mission to liberate all people from the prison of proprietary software. He shuns material possessions and lives like a student so he can pursue this goal unencumbered. While Torvalds may shun the "Ghandi" moniker, Stallman, with his uncompromising ideology and ascetic lifestyle, is a strong candidate.

Stallman characterizes Free Software as software which gives the user the following "four freedoms":
  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits. (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

He views these freedoms to be as inalienable as the right to self determination. Therefore, using proprietary software that does not give users these freedoms is morally equivalent to selling yourself into slavery. This is the single schism that divides the Open Source and Free Software movements. Open Source thinks that Free software is good and desireable, but that Stallman's four freedoms are alienable, and it's not wrong to trade them (by using proprietary software) for other goods.

RMS enshrined these four freedoms in the GNU GPL (General Purpose License), which is as much political manifesto as it is a software license. Stallman is not shy about admitting this, Free Software in his eyes is solely a moral (not commercial) concern.

Stallman views the four freedoms as being so sacrosanct that it is better to go without software than to use proprietary software.

Most people don't share RMS's position. Most people are OK with giving up (some) of the four freedoms if it means they can have software. If proprietary software delivers more value (utility minus price) than free software, people are OK with using it.

Which brings us back to the "freedom vs. power" and "open source vs. free software" debates. The question fundamentally comes down to: would you prefer the option to buy proprietary software if free software does not a) do the job, or b) exist? If you believe Stallman's four freedoms are inalienable, the answer is "no". If you believe Stallman's four freedoms are alienable, the answer is "yes".

So is this a critique of the GPL? Not really--the GPL is the best protection the technology community has against things like patents and rabid copyright. But should the GPL be mandatory for all code? Clearly not, as most people do not believe Stallman's four freedoms should be inalienable.

This posture also limits tactics the Free Software Foundation could take to bolster the fight against legislation as oppressive as proprietary software, but beyond the scope of copyleft. The EFF needs money to fight the DMCA, SSSCA, copyright extension, software patents, mandatory DRM, and a host of other moves designed to extend monopoly and suck all innovation out of the technology field. Nothing in the GPL excludes dual licensing, which would generate funds the EFF could use and increase the amount of Free Software in the world, but FSF's philosophical posture forbids them from doing this. That's a shame.
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