foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world

Richard Stallman in Auckland: On the ethics of free software

, posted: 12-Aug-2008 05:56

This Saturday, Richard Stallman gave the second of his two talks at the University of Auckland. The first one was about copyright, this one was about the ethics of free software.

Expecting a similarly packed house as for the first talk I arrived early, just to find that this time the interest was somewhat less – a total of around 100 people showed up. Maybe the fact that it was on a Saturday meant that some students had gone home for the weekend? And the bad weather outside also might have been a factor for some to stay home. Well, they don't know what they missed, for RMS was in top form, delivering some opinions that could be called 'controversial'.

Here is a photo of Richard just before the start of his talk holding two budgies, which for some reason were present during the lecture. I still don't know why they were there, but he certainly seemed to like them.

Richard Stallman at the University of Auckland, August 9, 2008

The four freedoms

During his talk, he discussed the four freedoms, which were defined by Stallman and the Free Software Foundation a long time ago.

0. The freedom to run the program, for any purpose.

This is pretty self explanatory. Specifically, there must be no restrictions on what can be done with the software, neither in the terms of the license, nor in what the software itself allows you to do.

1. The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs.

Studying the software is only possible if the source code is available. The 'adapting' part of this freedom means that you can change the code, or pay someone to change the code for you if you are not a programmer. Thus, he says, only free software is democratic in that it changes according to its user's wishes. Proprietary software, however, is only changed in the dictatorship of the proprietary software vendor, only if and when the vendor agrees to make changes.

2. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour.

He firmly rejected the term pirate, for those who copy and pass on software. He reiterated his opinion that the act of sharing is what makes us human and that thus helping your neighbour is fundamentally a socially responsible thing to do. The term pirate, coined by the software industry is therefore misleading and demonizing.

3. The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits.

This of course is the continuation of the previous freedoms, and their logical conclusion. Some proprietary software comes with what he calls anti features, such as DRM and similar restrictions. These are designed to limit the user's freedoms. In the world of free software, someone would remove those anti features and release the thus improved software to the public. Hence, DRM couldn't survive in truly free software.

Fighting for freedom: Be prepared to make sacrifices

For this reason, DRM is a major point of concern for RMS anyway. Not only does it restrict what a user can do with the data and therefore attacks the user's freedom. It also attacks free software in general, since the necessary keys or algorithms for the implementation of DRM features are only given to companies that agree to not release the source and agree to keep those secrets. Consequently, if people want to see media files, they need to use proprietary software or operating systems. The more media is released with DRM restrictions on it, the more incentive people will have for running proprietary software, which is a dangerous development.

Freedom”, he says, “is frequently threatened, and you can lose it if you don't defend it.” And because he sees himself as a fighter for this freedom, and sees freedom a higher and ethical goal, he is consequently not willing to compromise on his positions at all.

He had little sympathy for one of the audience members, who said that he needed some proprietary (video editing) software in order to do his job, since free software in that field is still lacking, thus taking too much time to get anything done with it. RMS's response? “Get another job! ... f*ck the speed issue, get paid less and be ethical.”

I have to admit that this is probably my strongest point of disagreement with Richard Stallman. I think the free software movement has to have a better answer than that, and that this attitude in the end causes more problems for free software than it helps. I wrote an article where I detailed my concerns and an alternative suggestion, which I think can in the end be more beneficial to the free software movement.

On Linus, Linux and open source

RMS also spend some time on elaborating why people shouldn't just talk about “Linux” when they discuss those distributions they run on their computers, but instead should call it “GNU/Linux”. One point, obviously, is that most so-called “Linux distributions” actually carry more code in the utilities (typically provided by GNU) than in the kernel (which is the only thing that is called “Linux”). Thus, giving credit to only Linux is not quite fair to the many contributors who worked on the GNU portion of the system.

But mere fairness of attribution aside, he says there is a much more important reason: GNU's philosophy and motivation is the freedom of users, while Linux does not represent those values at all. He said that when Linus Torvalds wrote Linux he didn't do so to promote freedom, but to learn and have fun. Those motives, he said, are perfectly ok and valid, but in the end, you can't look to Linus (and Linux) as someone or something that stands for user's freedoms. In fact, he said: “Linus is not a good guy to follow on ideas and ethics.” He illustrated this by pointing out that Linus never objected to the inclusion of binary blobs in the Linux kernel, because “he doesn't care about freedom.”

A point, he says, that also applies to many of the open source advocates, who merely look at open source as a better way to develop and distribute software, but who specifically chose this new term so that they didn't have to talk about the more thorny and important issue of users' freedoms. The term open source is not controversial and doesn't rock any boats, as he put it. Thus, it distracts from what's really important.

As an example, he said that as long as people talk about open source, rather than free software, the opponents of the free software movement have an easier time. He talked about Microsoft producing a lot of information to attack open source (the development or business model), but has a really hard time attacking free software, since it is difficult to say anything bad about user's freedom.

We need to raise awareness about the issue of freedom. Thus, he feels that saying “GNU/Linux” helps to make the point. It helps people to remember what's really important and what really matters: Not some development model, not a business model, not convenience and not 'having fun'. What really matters is the user's freedoms, and this is a goal that is worth sacrifice and inconvenience and frequent reminding.

I fully agree with his point that freedom is what really matters. Over the next few days I will go through my older blog entries and try to change all mentions of “Linux” to “GNU/Linux”.

On free software in schools

RMS also raised a point that is very important to me and that I have written about before: The use of free software (or lack thereof) in schools. Schools, he said, have an important social mission to perform. They are to raise our children to be strong and independent and they are to teach the cooperation of individuals in society. They need to provide a moral education in good citizenship and on how to be a good neighbour. These are all principles of free software, while proprietary software specifically works against those principles.

For many schools there is the immediate benefit of lower cost when using free software, but this is countered by many proprietary vendors simply giving away their software at no cost or steep discount to schools and universities. Of course, these vendors thus transform those institutions of learning into training grounds for their products, and once the students leave school, they have to pay full price for another license of this software. He compared this tactic to the drug dealers offering the first 'hit' for free in order to create addiction to the 'product'. Schools become agents to lead the students into a life-long dependency.

Absolutely right: Using proprietary software in schools is wrong on many levels. We are doing our students and our society a disservice as long as we allow this to happen.

In conclusion

In the end then, RMS treated us to a humorous appearance of his 'alter ego': St. IGNUcius, before starting an extended Q&A session.

Richard Stallman at the University of Auckland, August 9, 2008

There were some controversial opinions in the audience afterwards. Some very much agreed with RMS's views, but some clearly had hoped for a different answer than just “get another job” when it came to the use of proprietary software for their work. And I have to say, I understand them. I think the message of the free software movement should be different here, and that their uncompromising stance is hurting their cause more than it helps.

Overall, though, I think Richard Stallman made very good and eloquent points about why it is important for us to focus on freedom in software, and why proprietary software is bad on many different levels.

It is up to all of us to continue to educate those around us on why freedom matters.

Other related posts:
Iceland's public administration and schools moving towards open source
Astonishing example of what FOSS software is up against: Teacher confiscates Linux CDs
xfmedia player for Ubuntu - bye bye Audacious

Comment by Andrew, on 13-Aug-2008 04:30

While I'm not sure what the thing on top is, the stuffed thing at the bottom is a "Stuff GNU" available from the FSF Store:

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