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Apologetics RMS own articles

Critique of FSF

Articles about RMS Photochronicle Controversial issues Random Findings


Some Open Source licenses, such as the Berkeley-style license used by FreeBSD, Apache, the X Window System, and much of the Internet infrastructure software--is truly free. You can do anything you like with it--including building a proprietary derivative that is not free--as long as you acknowledge the copyright of the creator.

Richard's GPL, for which he claims the term "free software", is actually encumbered by a protective copyright, which he calls a copyleft, that prohibits anyone from creating a derivative work that is less free than the original. The GPL is "viral"--that is, if you include any GPL'd software in a work you create, its terms apply to the entire work. This means that people who are doing any form of proprietary software can't use GPL'd software.

Kirk McKusick, one of the leaders of the Berkeley UNIX project in its heyday, puts it something like this: "Copyright is designed to protect the intellectual property rights of the people who create something. Copyleft is designed to protect the rights of the users. The Berkeley license is copy central: Take this stuff down to the copier and make as many copies as you want, for whatever you want."

Richard is happy to support Berkeley-style licenses as free, but he is adamantly opposed to anyone building proprietary derivatives--even the creators of the original software! (For example, he called John Ousterhout, creator of tcl, a parasite, for creating additional tcl tools based on it, which are not free!)

At bottom, Richard believes that the rights of the users of software take precedence over the rights of the creators of that software. He thinks that software should be free, even if its creators don't want it to be. (And so, for example, if you write some piece of software he likes, he thinks it is his right, and perhaps even his obligation, to clone it and make his version free.) I think that the creator of software should be free to put it out under whatever license he or she likes.

But there's a further dimension to this disagreement.

There is a large group of us who just don't see the moral dimension in free software that is so important to Richard. I like to say that Open Source is science, not religion. Making source code freely available is good not because of some inalienable right belonging to the users of software, but because it's good for the creators of the software: giving your software away makes it more useful to you because more people use it; they give you bug reports, they suggest new features, they validate your ideas.

But for me, the choice of proprietary or Open Source software is purely a pragmatic one. I applaud anyone who feels that they want to give their software away in order to enrich what Eric Raymond calls the software "noosphere", but I don't have a problem with people who want to try to go the proprietary route.

It seems to me that the principles of Open Source either work, or they don't. (And my guess is that they work better for some kinds of software than for others.) So I encourage developers to experiment with licenses, to see which ones best achieve their ends.

Ultimately, the question you're asking--the differences between me and Richard (which aren't really the differences between "free software" and "open source") is one of whether free software (or open source, which is a closely related but somewhat more inclusive term) is a moral issue or a scientific one. Do we make software free because we have to, or because we want to? I argue that we want to. The free movement of ideas always trumps restrictions on ideas in terms of innovation and quality. So let Open Source be tested in the marketplace, not in the pulpit!

RMS own articles

Critique of FSF

[Nov 30, 1998] Linuxetc The GNU project of the Free Software Foundation  --  by Terry Griffin.

A skeptical view on GNU and RMS

My own view is that the FSF's ultimate goal is unrealistic, unnecessary, and perhaps even undesirable. There's no doubt in my mind that there's a very large place in this world for freely redistributable software. This has already been proven by the success of GNU software and Linux, but if all software were freely redistributable I think we'd see an end to major new innovations. Such is the nature of a market economy, and as long as people are willing to pay for software with restrictive licenses I see no reason why it shouldn't be sold.

Linux Today LinuxWorld Reverse-engineering the GNU Public Virus

Copyleft is a reality tunnel
The concept underlying the GPL is dubbed copyleft, and it's intended to be the opposite of copyright. In "What Is Copyleft?" Stallman explains it simply enough:

In the GNU project, our aim is to give all users the freedom to redistribute and change GNU software. If middlemen could strip off the freedom, we might have many users, but those users would not have freedom. So instead of putting GNU software in the public domain, we "copyleft" it. Copyleft says that anyone who redistributes the software, with or without changes, must pass along the freedom to further copy and change it. Copyleft guarantees that every user has freedom.

Specifically, the GPL works by:

If you can think of accepting the terms of copyleft as jumping through Richard's looking glass into Stallmanland, then you can see the hack value of copyleft. The power of the GPL is that people believe in the model of information ethics that it promotes. Copyleft is a reality tunnel, and the people on opposite ends of the tunnel have fundamentally different views of how information should be treated.

The worlds of copyright and copyleft are the worlds of intellectual product and incremental progress -- the lure of private ownership versus the call of public service -- each struggling for the hearts and minds of knowledge workers everywhere.

GPL = consumer protection + anti-copyright + anti/Law
I draw a rough distinction between the GPL's mandate to share unobfuscated source code and its anti-copyright properties.

Wooing all source code out into the open is an important consumer-protection measure. Tying the source to compiled binaries is good for both the stability of the software and the sanity of developers who rely upon it. It's also good for users tired of being used as sacrificial pawns in the ceaseless battles over platform dominance.

The anti-copyright component of the GPL is perhaps somewhat misguided, but some copyright reform is clearly necessary. Viral infection through contract law between developers is a good way to work out a better consensus on the proper limitations of intellectual property. Copyright terms are way too long for software, and "fair use" provisions have been eroding over time, but dealing a fatal blow to the author's copyright seems unwise. By wholly subscribing to the copyleft worldview, one loses the freedom to hack on copylefted software and later pay off one's bills by charging many users for small fractions of the value of the resulting work.

anti/Law is the contractually
reinforced worldview of one community
locally overriding the statutory worldview
of another one. It's a poetic construct
as much as a legal one.

Although GPL gives me pause, the way in which it undermines the very law from which it draws its power is definitely its most fascinating quality. The GPL is an agreement among peers to collectively disregard state law. I call this property of the license anti/Law.
anti/Law is the contractually reinforced worldview of one community locally overriding the statutory worldview of another one. It's a poetic construct as much as a legal one.

Viral licenses are like zoning laws
Now that the network economy is booming away, viral has become an extremely fashionable word. Silicon Valley's Sand Hill Road is abuzz with venture capitalists drooling over "viral marketing," so perhaps the appellation GNU Public Virus can be a compliment if it's drooled over instead of spat upon. After all, "language is a virus" too, wrote Marshall McLuhan, who also predicted that World War III would be "a guerrilla information war, with no division between military and civilian participation."

The effect of viral licensing on the software developer culture is pretty much like the effect of zoning laws on towns and communities. Viral licensing partitions software development into different socioeconomic cubicles. Systems software needs to always have a stable outpost in neutral territory.

Sometimes residents of the Proprietary Zone borrow software from the Free Zone, but they often toss improvements back into the Free Zone so as not to be overly rude. The Free Zone people don't seem to mind.

There's a holy war going on between the residents of the Proprietary lowlands and the dwellers of the Copyleft highgrounds, but nobody's been killed yet and residents of one zone often secretly support those in the other. The Proprietary Zone is quite large, but its population suffers from high levels of stress. The Copyleft Zone has a higher birthrate and lots of enthusiastic new immigrants.

The newer Mozilla and Community Zones are also experiencing population growth and high immigration.

Quality-of-life studies for all of the Licensing Zones are still under way. Only you can decide which viral license zone is most supportive of your own software or your business (or political) objectives.

Is the GPL too much?
While the GPL does a great deal to empower artists by ensuring continued access to source code. It can also keep them weak as it works to dismantle the copyright framework that had originally been created to empower them.

The creeping propertization of information must be curbed, but copyleft takes away an important economic tool that independent software artists might use to remain independent.

Mandatory cooperation is an oxymoron.

Michael Tiemann, one of Cygnus's three founders, puts a positive spin on the GPL's requirement of mandatory cooperation: "What I like about the GPL is that anyone who wants to compete with us must also complement us at the same time. The GPL gives a tremendous advantage to the first company to offer support for a GNU program."

Other companies -- like Red Hat, Cygnus, and the FSF -- also thrive on GPLd code. All of them also give great value to the community, but because they're also all publishers by merit of their brand power, the GPL ensures that they have no responsibility to independent members of our software community. It will be interesting to see how new licensing models that combine openness, cooperation, and some inducement to pay for the software will succeed.

Linux Today Daemon News The GPL vs. Capitalism

3) I commented that, given the FSF's objectives, FreeBSD was doing a better job than Linux.

He (and no doubt many readers) was surprised by this affirmation and asked for an explanation. I reasoned that since the objective behind the FSF was providing free software, and Linux was being heavily commercialized while FreeBSD was not, FreeBSD was nearer to the objectives. In those days, the newly born Caldera's distribution had a lot of commercial goodies and their base distribution couldn't be downloaded anywhere, I also commented that no one could stop the companies like Caldera from gradually replacing free parts of GNU/Linux with commercial elements until they would effectively replace the complete OS (I also mentioned the linux emulation in BSD in another context). To this final point, RMS responded that the only thing we could do was write more free software.

Nowadays I personally think that Richard Stallman is a good person but he is confused (I hope he thinks the same of me when he finishes reading this article :), and I am not going to analyze the answers RMS gave because that is not the objective of this article. I arrived, however, to two important conclusions:

  1. the GNU Public License will not save the world,
  2. there shouldn't be a universal license; different situations require different licenses.

The GPL is a long license; sometimes I think it was made so that people would get tired of reading it; something like those big contracts with small letters on it. Until here I had no real problem with the GPL, and since Microsoft was evidently afraid of the rebirth of UNIX (of course Microsoft considers everything a threat), I even considered it a good thing: like most things that are evil, the GPL seems beautiful on the surface. Of course I saw the truth later on...when I saw it and it was clear to me what people that adopted the GPL were doing to the other people. I was aghast. It was not communism or socialism, this was simply and plainly anticapitalism, a game of trying to break the system with it's own logical rules!

Of course no one cares that big software companies that exploit their developers and their customers die, but big companies will have better chances to survive against free software: small companies will simply die. Let's say that you are an independent software developer, such as a compiler writer, and you spend hours, or many years, developing your product; you will find it's very difficult, probably impossible, to compete against a free software product, as egcs, that has many more man-hours than your product.

In capitalist countries people live for money. Careers are expensive, technical people have to live off what they know. Who makes money out of free software? At first glance no one, that's why it's free. Some redistributors and support people make money out of it, but they surely make less than the vendors of commercial products. Free software vendors can offer better prices because they don't have to hire developers, not because they are particularly efficient redistributing software. Most importantly, authors won't receive anything or will receive a misery if they beg for it.

If you don't want money from your code, that's OK, but by releasing software under the GPL you are forcing other software writers to use the same poverty license even if they add significant features to your code. They must also take care in using different algorithms; no one wants to be sued for changing variable names and indentation from GPL'd software.

One of the most ridiculous reasons for adopting the GPL is..."oh but if Microsoft takes my code...", well, what makes you think they will? I understand they bought and paid their own TCP/IP stack, even when the free BSD version was available; they simply didn't want to give credit to anyone. If they take your code and do significant improvements everyone wins, if they don't do any significant improvements the resulting product will probably not sell well, and people can still get your sources; no one will "take away" free software from you.

Boy, I dislike Bill Gates and his practices, but admittedly he learned his dirty tricks in the same economical system, and he gives jobs to the people. If he could offer a good OS with full added value I would buy it, and I wouldn't have any problem with him, or any other developer, becoming rich from his work, in the meantime, Hotmail should have a "Powered by FreeBSD" logo.

It's also ridiculous to choose Linux over *BSD because of it's license: how many people would choose Windows NT over Linux if Microsoft adopted the GPL?? Linux users are usually confused, they adopt Linux because it's popular "and cool" and hide their ignorance in completely subjective reasons like the license or some technical merit that they heard about but they don't really understand.

All in all, Ken Thompson is right: people are choosing Linux, and the GPL, because it's an alternative to Microsoft. I hope this popularity goes by, otherwise I'd recommend Jeremy Rifkin's excellent book on what will happen in the next years.

Of course, this is all my personal opinion and some food for the thought, please don't email me to say that you disagree or how unfair I have been :).

Daemon News- Restrictively Unrestrictive- The GPL License in Software Development

CPU Review- Why you SHOULD use the LGPL for your next library

InfoWorld- Fetch your flamethrowers- It's time to argue the finer points of software licenses

Linux Today osOpinion Software Freedom -- an interesting point of view of free software

The Free Software Foundation takes great pains to explain that Free Software is not about price or the absence of cost, but about freedom. But they do not define "freedom", taking it for granted that the reader knows exactly what they are talking about. They also bemoan the fact that English has only word for "free" whereas other languages have two; French as both "gratis" and "libre". But again, they fail to define "free". Since "free" and "freedom" are highly emotional words, it is important that they are properly defined in relation to Free Software (1). But as I mentioned above, my dictionary has two definitions for "freedom". The first definition is "the quality or state of being free". The second definition is "a political right". There are many sub-definitions as well."

Articles about RMS

The battle for ideological control of computing's next wave is being waged between two factions. One seeks to increase the collective IQ of the software development community by loosening industry's grip on intellectual property. The other wants to do away with intellectual property altogether.

In one corner stands the Free Software Foundation, conceived, championed, and largely engineered by the impracticably messianic Richard Stallman. In the other, the Open Source Initiative, advanced most prominently by the cantankerous, opinionated, and confrontational Eric Raymond. Both leaders are longtime programmers. Both are significant contributors to Internet culture, each with his own high place on the heap of information-age theoreticians.

Both sides agree that distributing a computer program's source code -- the essential blueprints required to modify the program -- is a good thing. Both believe that empowering users with the opportunity to change and extend their software will have a positive, reinvigorating effect on software development at large.

And Raymond -- strong as his position may otherwise be -- still has something to prove. Never has the Open Source concept really been tested in a radically competitive arena like the computer industry has lately become. It's not clear that corporate hard-chargers will be able defer their attention from IPOs, quarterly reporting, and intercorporate knife-fighting long enough to recognize how the Open Source proposition may ultimately appeal to their self interests. After all, these aren't the Regents of the University of California we're talking about; these are hip-gunning cowboy capitalists. Ideological high-ground aside, it will be interesting to see if the Open Source concept holds up in the cross-fire. Whether it's ultimately about the beginning of a new cooperation or the end of intellectual capital, the Open Source alternative is going to have to withstand a lot of manhandling in the marketplace. It wouldn't be the first golden opportunity to be lost in the rough-and-tumble.


One of the greatest programmers alive saw a future where all software was free. Then reality set in.

Stallman was always a champion of free software. Throughout the 1970s, he was one of the most prolific members of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and one of many exuberant hackers who thought that powerful computers, free software and free information would change society. Then in 1982 he saw the Lab's premier operating system licensed to a computer company and turned into a proprietary tool for making money.

Since then, the GNU project has finished dozens of other programs. Half the work has been done by volunteers who have written programming tools, a free implementation of the PostScript language, and a C++ code compiler, among others. The foundation has attracted more than $350,000 in grants from private companies, money that allows Stallman to hire a staff of programmers and technical writers.

But lately, things seem to have bogged down for Project GNU. Stallman learned long ago not to make promises about delivery dates. This winter, FSF will release EMACS version 19 -- nearly three years later than originally planned. And the basic GNU operating system has been delayed for two years by Stallman's decision to base it upon the Mach microkernel developed at Carnegie Mellon University (university lawyers have spent most of those two years working out terms for the software license, said Len Tower, a member of the FSF board of directors).

Although the original Unix operating system was written in less than a year by two programmers at AT&T's Bell Laboratories, the system that Stallman is trying to clone has been evolving for more than 20 years. "He's trying to build a complete system. That is just a tremendous undertaking," said Keith Bostic, the No. 2 person at the University of California at Berkeley's Computer Systems Research Group, which oversees Berkeley's own brand of Unix.

In the meantime, two competing Unix clones have appeared on the market. But both of those systems are limited to personal computers using Intel's 80386 chip, while the GNU operating system is designed to be portable.

Ironically, the problem now is money - the very thing that Stallman is trying to avoid. Predictably, it's hard to sell tapes to people when they can easily acquire the software free. In better economic times, customers were willing to pay the FSF for a tape as a sort of charitable contribution; but recently those good Samaritans have disappeared. And FSF's grants, which once accounted for half of the foundation's income, have dried up. "There's a recession on," said Lisa Goldstein, the foundation's business director. Last year the FSF was forced to lay off three of its 15 full-time employees.


People that participated in GNU project

Brian J. Fox CTO -- In 1985, Brian joined Richard Stallman at the Free Software Foundation as their second employee.

Controversial issues



Random Findings

Inventor of FidoNet, guerilla ISP wholesaler, and all - around homo punk activist, Tom Jennings -- another interesting figure.

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