Ruminations on the Digital Realm

Jan Stedehouder

Richard Stallman on open software versus free software

In the list of news feeds a familiar article popped up: Richard Stallman’s essay Why “Free Software” is better than “Open Source”. That’s one thing that sometimes puzzles me: how old news can be made popular again in the digital realm. As if there isn’t enough original content to pick from. However, one commenter gave a link to an update version of the article with the title Why “Open Source” misses the point of Free Software. I decided catch up on the subject again.

Stallman gives a brief history of the free software movement, it’s ideals and describes the fork in 1998:

However, not all of the users and developers of free software agreed with the goals of the free software movement. In 1998, a part of the free software community splintered off and began campaigning in the name of “open source.” The term was originally proposed to avoid a possible misunderstanding of the term “free software,” but it soon became associated with philosophical views quite different from those of the free software movement.

In one paragraph he aptly describes the key difference between the two movements:

Nearly all open source software is free software; the two terms describe almost the same category of software. But they stand for views based on fundamentally different values. Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement. For the free software movement, free software is an ethical imperative, because only free software respects the users’ freedom. By contrast, the philosophy of open source considers issues in terms of how to make software “better”—in a practical sense only. It says that non-free software is a suboptimal solution. For the free software movement, however, non-free software is a social problem, and moving to free software is the solution.

The good point is that he is not attacking open source per se. The real enemy -from his viewpoint- is proprietary software. He does want supporters of free software to be more vocal and explain the difference with open source software. The next point in the article I consider to be extremely weak: you can explain free software by pointing to “think free speech, not free beer”, but explaining open source is less easy. The dichotomic descriptions of the “pure open source enthusiast” and the “free software activist” can be seen as extreme caritures:

A pure open source enthusiast, one that is not at all influenced by the ideals of free software, will say, “I am surprised you were able to make the program work so well without using our development model, but you did. How can I get a copy?” This attitude will reward schemes that take away our freedom, leading to its loss.

The free software activist will say, “Your program is very attractive, but not at the price of my freedom. So I have to do without it. Instead I will support a project to develop a free replacement.” If we value our freedom, we can act to maintain and defend it.

The article ties in with the ideas behind GPL v3 when he discusses the topic “Powerful, reliable software can be bad”, where the idea of “open source DRM” is hammered down. It is here where the fundamental idea of freedom is the strongest and is used to pinpoint negative trends in the development of open source software. Maybe Stallman is right about the need to speak out more about freedom as a core principle (fortunately I did).

That dangerous situation is exactly what we have. Most people involved with free software say little about freedom—usually because they seek to be “more acceptable to business.” Software distributors especially show this pattern. Nearly all GNU/Linux operating system distributions add proprietary packages to the basic free system, and they invite users to consider this an advantage, rather than a step backwards from freedom.

Proprietary add-on software and partially non-free GNU/Linux distributions find fertile ground because most of our community does not insist on freedom with its software. This is no coincidence. Most GNU/Linux users were introduced to the system by “open source” discussion which doesn’t say that freedom is a goal. The practices that don’t uphold freedom and the words that don’t talk about freedom go hand in hand, each promoting the other. To overcome this tendency, we need more, not less, talk about freedom.

One of the main groups that free software advocates need to address are the new users that are drawn to Linux:

As the advocates of open source draw new users into our community, we free software activists have to work even more to bring the issue of freedom to those new users’ attention. We have to say, “It’s free software and it gives you freedom!”—more and louder than ever. Every time you say “free software” rather than “open source,” you help our campaign.

You won’t find an argument against this from me. I do believe we need to educate new users in the underlying principles of free and open source software. And then allow them the freedom of choice.

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