Free as in freedom

Interesting interview with Richard M Stallman (or “RMS”), founder of the Free Software Movement and lead developer of the GNU operating system that forms the backbone of the system normally referred to as “Linux”, on the subject of “Free Software as a Social Movement”.

Good background on what motivated the development of the free software movement and how this contrasts with the motives behind “open source” software (see end of post for further comments on the distinction between these terms). First up, RMS’s explanation of what “free” software is (formatting added):

The basic idea of the Free Software Movement is that the user of software deserves certain freedoms. There are four essential freedoms, which we label freedoms 0 through 3:

  • Freedom 0 is the freedom to run the software as you wish.
  • Freedom 1 is the freedom to study and change the source code as you wish.
  • Freedom 2 is the freedom to copy and distribute the software as you wish.
  • And freedom 3 is the freedom to create and distribute modified versions as you wish.

In other words, it’s free as in free speech, not free as in free lunch.

These four freedoms give users “full control of their own computers”, and allow users and developers to “cooperate in a community”. RMS continues:

Non-free software, by contrast, keeps users divided and helpless. It is distributed in a social scheme designed to divide and subjugate. The developers of non-free software have power over their users, and they use this power to the detriment of users in various ways. It is common for non-free software to contain malicious features, features that exist not because the users want them, but because the developers want to force them on the users. The aim of the free software movement is to escape from non-free software.

Hence the development of GNU, as a free operating system, so as to give users a basic practical freedom: the freedom to turn your computer on and run it without needing somebody else’s permission to do so.

If you haven’t heard of GNU – the acronym stands for “GNU’s Not Unix” – that’s because it is usually referred to as “Linux”, after the kernel whose development by Linus Torvalds was a key aspect of turning GNU into a workable system, but which was not developed as part of the GNU project. A large part of any “Linux” system consists of GNU software (see here for a full list of GNU programs), so that the overall system is more properly referred to as “GNU/Linux” rather than just “Linux”. (Stallman can get quite heated about this…)

Anyway. The point is that this is the major difference between “free software” (as championed by RMS and the Free Software Foundation) and “open source software” (promoted by the likes of Linus Torvalds and Eric Raymond). While the two terms are often treated as synonymous, there is a fundamental difference of attitude between the two camps.

“Open source” advocates promote such software as being more “powerful, reliable, convenient, cheap, and fun” than proprietary software – all of which is true, as I can testify after a weekend of being driven to near-insanity using my parents’ Windows XP computers – but, Stallman argues, this is missing the point:

Most people talking about [GNU/Linux], though, never mentioned that it was about freedom. They never thought about it that way. And so our work spread to more people than our ideas did.

Indeed, Stallman argues that people should be prepared to “sacrifice some power and convenience” in return for the freedom given by free software – the fact that GNU/Linux systems have been consistently shown to be more powerful and stable than their proprietary rivals is nice, but not the essential point of free software. This is in contrast to open source advocates, whose arguments revolve around more immediately pragmatic issues of cost, power, security and reliability.

RMS also argues that “if you are against the globalization of business power, you should be for free software”. Not that this means he is against “globalization” (that ever-flexible term!) as such:

People who say they are against globalization are really against the globalization of business power. They are not actually against globalization as such, because there are other kinds of globalization, the globalization of cooperation and sharing knowledge, which they are not against. Free software replaces business power with cooperation and the sharing of knowledge.

Globalizing a bad thing makes it worse. Business power is bad, so globalizing it is worse. But globalizing a good thing is usually good. Cooperation and sharing of knowledge are good, and when they happen globally, they are even better.

Not surprisingly, Stallman describes himself as “a Liberal, in US terms (not Canadian terms)”, adding that:

I’m not for equality of outcomes. I want to prevent horrible outcomes. But aside from keeping people safe from excruciating outcomes, I believe some inequality is unavoidable.

For Stallman’s other thoughts – on why it is an imposition on somebody’s freedom to send them a .doc file, and on the biggest current threats to computer freedom (secret specifications, software patents and “trusted/treacherous computing”), you’ll have to read the rest of the interview.

Edit: It has been suggested in the comments that more explanation of the difference between “free software” and “open source software” would be helpful. The difference is mainly one of motivation and intent, and for most practical purposes the terms are probably interchangeable. Programs such as Firefox, Thunderbird, and Apache are examples of software that is both “free” and “open source”.

As noted above, “free software” advocates are motivated by the desire to give users and developers of computer software greater freedom, even if this results in a (hopefully temporary) inability to perform some tasks that can only be achieved by proprietary software. “Open source” advocates take a more pragmatic line based on the assertion that the open source method of software development results in better, cheaper, more reliable software – but where proprietary software is better, they will have no principled objection to using it.

As for me, my heart is for free software, but my head suspects that the open source movement has probably done more to popularise free software and bring it into the mainstream. And if actions speak louder than words, my hard-drive (with its non-free software such as Adobe Reader, Real Player and Java Runtime Environment) exposes me as an open source pragmatist rather than a free software purist.

On the other hand, while Richard Stallman may be seen by some as an “extremist” who risks driving away mainstream computer users, arguably in this as in many other spheres it is the “extremists” who create the space in which the “pragmatists” can then operate – in this case both literally (since open source software would be greatly hampered without GNU) and metaphorically (since open source advocates can pitch themselves as the moderate centrists, between the warring camps of free and proprietary zealots).

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