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Free v Open Source

John Dolva

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Richard Stallman and the free software movement

Wednesday, September 29, 2010 By Greg Adamson


The gnu (or wildebeest) is the mascot of the GNU project. The free software movement produced the GNU operating system a free alternative to proprietary software such as Microsoft. Image: GNU.org Richard Stallman is something of a legend in the global software community. In 1983, he created the free software movement, through which highly trained and often highly paid professionals give their time to producing software for the public good.

The movement produced the GNU operating system, a free alternative to proprietary software such as the Microsoft or Apple operating systems. GNU is a both a humorous “recursive acronym” standing for “GNU is Not Unix”, and a gnu (or wildebeest) is the mascot of the GNU system and GNU Project.

The free software movement is one of several strands of technology development in the past half-century that have defied market theories on how the economy must work. Others have included the Wikipedia peer-created and reviewed encyclopedia, and the work undertaken by many voluntary technology organisations.

However, the free software movement goes further than most others. It identifies the need to carry out an activist campaign to achieve its goals, rather than simply relying on the power of a good example.

In 1989, Stallman wrote the first GNU General Public License, which provides a framework for licensing “to ensure that this voluntary work brings freedom for users, and cannot be transformed into an instrument for someone to gain power over others”.

Stallman’s work and the work of the free software movement have influenced vast areas of technology.

Today, Stallman spends much of his time travelling and speaking to audiences about the importance of free software as a political and ethical need for people. He is currently touring Australia. For details, visit www.acs.org.au/rmstour . Stallman spoke with Green Left Weekly’s Greg Adamson.

* * *

Why is the issue of who controls software important?

Because we use software for important things in our lives, and if we use software controlled by a mega-corporation that mega-corporation will use its power against you.

What is “free software”?

Free software means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Specifically, it means that you the user have the four essential freedoms:

• Freedom 0 is the freedom to run the program as you wish.

• Freedom 1 is the freedom to study the source code of the program, and then change it so it does your computing as you wish.

• Freedom 2 is the freedom to help others. That is the freedom to make exact copies and distribute them to others when you wish.

• Freedom 3 is the freedom to contribute to the community. That is the freedom to make copies of the modified versions and distribute them to others when you wish.

Each of these is the freedom to do something when you wish. You are not required to do any of these things. For instance, you are not required by free software to make a copy for everybody who asks. But as you are part of a community, and have relationships with other people, there are times that you will be glad to do so.

The point is nobody should try to block you from cooperating with other people.

Is free software the same as “open source software”?

No. Open source is the way people who reject our ethical ideals attempt to co-opt our work and cause our ideals to be forgotten.

I started the free software movement in 1983. When we had a fair amount of success and the GNU/Linux operating system was spreading, there was a disagreement within the community. There were those of us who advocated free software, and there were those who liked the free programs, and maybe even contributed, but disagreed with our ethical views.

In 1998, that latter group started talking about open source, and formulated a different discourse that did not question whether proprietary software was actually legitimate.

So instead of saying that there was freedom that users deserved, they left that issue unraised. They did recommend distributing software in the same ways that we had been doing, so that did respect users’ freedom, but they didn’t talk about it as freedom that users deserved.

If people don’t learn to value and demand freedom, they are likely to lose it.

At a practical level, those people may help. They write software that is free. That is contributing to our community, whatever their political ideas might be. But at the level of our political ideas, of teaching people to appreciate and demand freedom, they have chosen not to participate and they imply disagreement with that idea.

They may not say explicitly “we don’t think users deserve freedom”, but that’s implicit in everything they have said. They think of free software, or whatever they call it, as just an option.

They may say they think it is good to have this alternative. But we are not aiming to make an alternative. We are aiming to liberate all users of software.

Linux is widely known. Where does that sit in relation to free software?

Linux is the program that does a specific job that is called a “kernel”. It was started in 1991 by Linus Torvalds as non-free software. But in 1992, he released it as free software using the GNU General Public License that I had written. That was one among various free software licenses in use at the time.

Since 1984, I and others have been working on developing a completly free software operating system called GNU. In 1992, we had the whole system except for one component, the kernel. So Linux, when it was liberated by Torvalds, filled the last gap in the system, and people put them together and made the GNU/Linux system.

This is now used by millions of people, except that mostly they don’t know they are using the GNU/Linux system. They think that the whole thing is Linux, and they think that Torvalds started it all in 1991. That is unfortunate, because then they tend to adopt his ideas and not even consider ours.

He is one of the open source people. He doesn’t believe that you as a user deserve freedom, and he doesn’t believe that he deserves freedom. He says he is happy to use non-free software as long as it’s powerful and reliable.

What are the mains obstacles to free software today?

There are many obstacles to our work developing free software beyond just that some things are a lot of work to do. For instance, in many countries it is forbidden to distribute software capable of accessing media designed with encryption with the purpose of restricting users, such as most DVDs.

These malicious restrictions are known as Digital Restrictions Management, DRM [which movie companies call “Digital Rights Management”], or “digital handcuffs”. When it is forbidden to distribute free software to do a certain job that is a big obstacle. Fortunately, there are other countries that do not forbid this, so the software is available there.

A second problem is that many countries allow patents to cover software techniques and ideas: not entire programs, but specific ideas that can be implemented in part of a program.

Since a large program combines thousands of ideas, if 10% of all the ideas are patented that means the large program is probably forbidden by hundreds of different patents at once.

And there are hundreds of different possible lawsuits against the developer who is writing that program. This threat applies to free software and proprietary software, and the patent holders can also threaten users some of the time. So allowing software ideas to be patented is dangerous to all software development.

Australia is about to consider this question and Australia should refuse to allow patents to restrict the development and use of software.

Another problem comes from hardware devices whose specifications are secret. This means that the manufacturer will sell you the product and refuses to tell you how to run it. Instead they offer you a proprietary program, which means it doesn’t respect your freedom and you don’t control that product.

That means in order to use it you have to surrender your freedom.

Does the issue of free software intersect with other issues such as gender, environment, or foreign policy?

Sometimes, it is directly an object of foreign policy. For instance, Australia and many other countries are now negotiating a trade agreement that I call the Anti-Citizen Tyranny Agreement, or ACTA, although they pretend this agreement is to stop “counterfeiting”. [its supporters call it the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement.]

But that is a misleading name because (to me) that implies many other things. Part of this treaty might be a prohibition on distributing software that is capable of breaking digital handcuffs, which would include any free software that is capable of playing DVDs.

[We don’t know] because they keep it secret from the public. They show the drafts to the companies that might gain from it and they won’t tell the public. That’s enough to show that they are up to no good.

Do you have any other comments?

First of all, Australia suffers from censorship and needs to abolish censorship. People are discussing a proposal for an internet filter. I am glad that it appears now that has been blocked in the Senate and won’t happen.

But Australia already has a system of Internet censorship, forbidding links to foreign web sites including political web sites. Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA, www.efa.org.au ) made a link to an anti-abortion web site that was on the censorship list, specifically to demonstrate that Australia censors links to foreign political viewpoints.

EFA was ordered to remove this link or face a fine of $11,000 a day. This is tyranny.

I disagree with what they linked to. I am in favour of abortion rights. But freedom of speech has to apply to the things we disagree with.

Finally, what is the Free Software Foundation and how can people get involved?

The Free Software Foundation is a tax-exempt charity in the US that we started in 1985 to invite donations for work on free software, promoting free software. If people support us they should join, because we need their support to pay staff, to work on campaigns against things that are harmful.

One of these campaigns is called DefectiveByDesign.org, which is a campaign of protest against digital handcuffs. The site asks you to subscribe to the mailing list. You get told about the protests and you can help carry them out. Please join, because we need your help.

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From GLW issue 856

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