foobar on computers, software and the rest of the world

My disagreement with Richard Stallman

, posted: 12-Aug-2008 06:08

Why is free software important?

Software and computers are all pervasive in today's world and thus demand our utmost diligence: The lives we live are run and organised by software, we depend on software, we trust our most intimate data to software systems. Thus, the importance of free software: Only free software can protect our freedoms, gives us control to study and if necessary modify that which governs our lives, and only free software allows us to share improvements with fellow human beings. Proprietary software, on the other hand, forces us to adopt anti-social behaviour and attacks our freedoms by depriving us of insight and ultimate control over the machines that run our lives, and by making our freedoms subject to the whims of software vendors.

This is the oft-repeated message of Richard Stallman (RMS), an exceptional fighter for everyone's freedom, who founded the free software movement decades ago and has devoted most of his life to educating and campaigning for free software and - more importantly - everyone's personal freedom. During two recent talks at the University of Auckland, RMS had a chance to elaborate on his points once more. I attended these two talks and have written about them here and here.

Freedom as the most important 'feature'

RMS talks about the ethics of free software, about the necessity to never forget that the user's freedom is what matters. This is why he doesn't like the term open source. It distracts from freedom, which he sees as essential, while focusing merely on a software development paradigm and business model that may or may not be more efficient than proprietary software. I have to say, after thinking about that for some time, I have to agree with him. Indeed, an individual's freedom is by far the most important aspect to fight for. It sometimes demands sacrifices. See also what I wrote about that here. Freedom is a powerful feature of software, which justifies inconveniences and tends to make up for the lack of other features.

RMS's uncompromising views: More harm than good?

Richard Stallman is a man of conviction, sticking to his principles at all costs. In fact, he is entirely uncompromising in his view. And this, I believe, can be to the detriment of the free software movement, which otherwise I am in full support of.

For example, consider the question raised during one of RMS's talks at the University of Auckland. One audience member pointed out that he needs video editing software to do his job, and that there just aren't any capable and comparable free software alternatives to the proprietary systems that are used at his work. He said that he wouldn't be able to do his job without those proprietary systems.

RMS's answer? “I can't say I sympathize much with you... get another job! ... Get paid less and be ethical!”

I believe that right here, right there his statement harmed the free software movement. I am convinced that we should all strive to use free software wherever possible. I myself am putting up with occasional inconveniences because of this. But I also understand the audience member: Firstly, the state of free video editing software – frankly – sucks. I tried it for some really trivial tasks in the past, and the software crashing every 5 minutes simply makes it useless in a professional setting where time matters. I think video editing and other multi-media applications is where free software tends to be sorely lacking. This is often acknowledged even by the most die-hard free software advocate. Free software has many areas of strength, but video editing and other industry specific software is not it.

This is not about video editing, though. In my opinion, it is just not productive to simply tell a concerned audience member to get another job. This accomplished nothing at all. We have to acknowledge the fact that not everybody is a revolutionary, or wants to be one. Some people will do whatever they can, but not more. These bounds of what's possible for an individual are defined by considerations such as a mortgage, kids to put through college, etc. Can we blame them? Can we all claim that we would take the moral high-ground at all times and potentially lose our jobs and risk financial hardships for those principles? I don't think so.

But this should not be a black or white proposition: I strongly believe that we cannot approach masses of people with demands like: Change your job if they force you to use proprietary software. That just turns most of those people off of what we have to say. I think there is a much better message we can send.

People are only human: A better message

In the case of the person who required video editing software, I believe the better response would have been:

Yes, I know that there are some areas in free software that are still sorely lacking. Even if you are forced to use proprietary software at work, and even if you are not a developer yourself, you can still productively help the free software movement by participating in the mailing lists for the various free video editing projects, and by providing suggestions to the authors. We as the Free Software Foundation, I as Richard Stallman, will try to use whatever authority and good name we have to encourage some disparate projects in that field to join forces and thus provide a better overall solution. (Yes, I know, diversity can be a good thing, but sometimes standing divided makes it so much easier to be conquered).

I believe that this would have been a much more helpful response. This would have been understood, it would have kept people productively participating in free software, rather than turning them away in frustration. Remember, not everyone is a selfless hero, and expecting otherwise from people is unrealistic.

The same extends to RMS's view on the typical GNU/Linux distributions. Many use binary blobs and closed-source drivers to make hardware work. For Stallman, only a 100% free distro will do. All other distros, such as Ubuntu, RedHat, etc., are still unethical.

Maybe they are. But some battles are won one step at a time. Having more and more people use GNU/Linux, even distros that are not 100% free, is better for free software in the long run than GNU/Linux never making any inroads, because masses of people are told that only 100% free will do.

Here's the important thing: Being 90% free is better than 0% free. Why? Because once we are 90% free, the remaining 10% can follow much more easily. But for Stallman, only 100% free counts. Yes, 100% free definitely has to remain our goal, but the road there is going to be travelled by many more people if we allow a gradual transition.

Rome wasn't build in one day and it didn't fall in one day. Likewise the empire of proprietary software is not going to be torn down in one day either. Demanding from users to go all out in all parts of their life in just one step is simply unrealistic. Not everyone is a freedom fighter. The free software movement will accomplish more if it acknowledges that people are only human and crafts its message accordingly.

I fully support the free software movement, and I continue to admire Richard Stallman deeply. What he has done for all of our freedom cannot be underestimated. We all owe him. But this is just one point where I have to disagree with him.

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 John Strauss, on 12-Aug-2008 16:42

I agree with you. I'm quite sympatethic to free software but it is very unreasonable to tell people to use solely free software, even if the software isn't working well yet. The road to freedom isn't that short.

Comment by Maximus, on 12-Aug-2008 20:09

I don´t believe that any good has ever come from extreme uncompromising views.  He is nothing more than a Fanatic and the Open Source community would do well to stay well clear and continue on their more compromising paths, if they wish to succeed, of course.

Comment by Gary, on 12-Aug-2008 20:43

Very interesting post. As a big proponent of free software - particularly free editing software - I also agree that RMS's comments have damaged the cause.

It is certainly true to say that free editing software lags behind the functionality and stability of the commercial and proprietary offerings, although if you look at software such as Blender and its application in projects like "The Elephants Dream" and "Big Buck Bunny", you can certainly see that it is coming on in leaps and bounds. In fact I would challenge anyone to produce a better movie with their commercial software. (Even Pixar should sit up and take note, I think!)

Your preferred response to the question in Auckland is, in my opinion, far more balanced and - what's more - speaks directly to the ethos of free software in a more fitting way than the original answer

Thanks for the post.

Comment by Catharina, on 13-Aug-2008 09:45

I think the Free Software movement needs at least one person like Richard Stallman who is sticking to his principles at all costs and who is totally uncompromising on that. In his view propriety software is unethical, so telling the guy that it is ok to use that as long as he uses free software as much as he can, would weaken his position and also that of free software. He just tells the guy that he has a choice and leaves it up to him what to do with that.

Comment by timestyles, on 13-Aug-2008 10:07

Is it right to project your own ethics onto other people?  I think that's what he's doing.  Of course, no doubt Mr Stallman watches the television programmes made by closed source software, in which case, he's a hypocrite.  But saying that would be me projecting my ethics onto other people.

Comment by oded, on 13-Aug-2008 11:01

It seems to me that you are falling in to the same trap most users, including the guy that raised this question is falling into. what he is actually asking is weather he should still resist proprietary software even though it provides better usability? the answer given by stallman is exactly the one I would expect from a man devoting his life to making people aware of the political consequences of the choices they make. He is telling the guy that giving up freedom for usability is not beneficial to him in the long run!

It's a statment that can not be communicated using your diluted message/answer.

I actually like your version of answering but I really hope it will never be stallmans.This would be a real shame, dont you think?

Author's note by foobar, on 13-Aug-2008 11:32

@oded: Well, Stallman wouldn't be Stallman if he would have answered any differently. I thought about whether I fell into that trap that you describe. Whether I am too willing to tollerate proprietary software (at the first sign of inconvenience?). But I don't think so. I fully support that the goal of being 100% free, because nothing less is acceptable. But I cannot escape the fact that we are dealing with humans here. It is important to show them a way towards 100% free, which is acceptable to most people, not just a small number of very committed individuals.

Comment by PeterLambrechtsen, on 16-Aug-2008 08:37

I personally thought with all rms's arguments they were of the uncompromising view. That is the view he needs to consistently portray otherwise his message will be diluted. He has said many times moving in small steps is the practical view such as installing OpenOffice and removing MS Office on a Windows machine as the first step towards freedom. If it's your last step then you have failed to free yourself from Proprietary software, that is why he won't recommend anything other than a fully free environment. But any steps towards freedom should be viewed as that... Steps not the final destination of free computing. Like Free Speech!

Comment by k2t0f12d, on 18-Aug-2008 15:18

I was at the Auckland University talk. I mentioned that there is no reason to worry about how much money free software will be able to earn. People are easily confused and lead to believe that the way programmers earn money is to sell copies of software. Thats completely wrong, programmers get paid to write programs, and publishers get paid to distribute copies, a task that is virtually unecessary in the age of the Internet. If someone is paying the programmer to work on a program they want to have, then the programmer is being paid for their work. If the programmer forces people to pay to use copies of the program, they are being paid for giving their permission, not for their work.

The GNU Project and the FSF aren't also being paid to go and give people platitudes about being asked by their employer to use non-free software. I don't give them my money to run about and say anything other then what they have been saying for the last twenty-five years. I also don't need RMS' permission to feel comfortable with using a non-free program if that is what I am being asked to do by the person who is signing my checks. I wouldn't like it, but being forced to use a non-free program that your employer choses to use at work isn't something to worry about that much. I would only refuse to work for someone who wanted me to WRITE non-free software.

Comment by Bevan, on 21-Aug-2008 00:04

I agree with you in large and recently wrote a similar post on my blog.

I thought you might be interested.

Comment by Daemonax, on 25-Jan-2009 15:10

Here's the important thing: Being 90% free is better than 0% free. Why? Because once we are 90% free, the remaining 10% can follow much more easily. But for Stallman, only 100% free counts. Yes, 100% free definitely has to remain our goal, but the road there is going to be travelled by many more people if we allow a gradual transition.

I realise this is an old post, but anyway. I think the thing here is that any good leader has to have a strong personality and be completely commited to the cause. Like Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and many others, if they were the type that compromised, I doubt they'd get much traction going and very few people would get behind them.

Comment by Matthew, on 2-Jul-2009 15:10

Im the person who asked the question about the video editing software in the Saturday meeting.

I like your suggested way of replying to my question and do feel that it would have had a better effect for those who are in the media industry.

That being said, I am a member of FSF and do support the views of Free Software, I like what Richard Stallman, FSF and GNU have done for everyone.

I'm also a believer in peoples rights for Freedom in general.

More work does needs to be done to improve the Free Software options for Photography, Video and image media. I will try to see what I can do to contribute to it when I find chances to do so.

foobar's profile

New Zealand

  • Who I am: Software developer and consultant.
  • What I do: System level programming, Linux/Unix. C, C++, Java, Python, and a long time ago even Assembler.
  • What I like: I'm a big fan of free and open source software. I'm Windows-free, running Ubuntu on my laptop. To a somewhat lesser degree, I also follow the SaaS industry.
  • Where I have been: Here and there, all over the place.

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