Monday, March 12, 2012

Richard Stallman and the Free Software Disconnect

I respect Richard Stallman.   As free software advocate, President of the Free Software Foundation, and creator of the GNU Public License, he's done more than probably anyone else on the planet to make sure users have freedom in both their hardware and software choices. Stallman believes that sharing is right and good and that everyone should benefit when a new invention or innovation is made.  He's never wavered, even for the sake of convenience, and refuses to use proprietary software even when there are perhaps no Free Software options available. For that, and many other things, everyone who works in IT, and particularly software developers, owe Stallman a debt of gratitude.

Unfortunately, for as much as Stallman has contributed to the Free Software movement, he's also one of its greatest enemies. He's acerbic, argumentative, over the top, and unyielding on even the smallest issue. He is often rather rude, unthinking, and believes he's right in spite of all evidence to the contrary. He's an idealist who has no concept how the real world - the world that developed after his time at MIT in the 1960's and 1970's, actually operates. He is not the kind of man you can be lukewarm on; not one you can take or leave. Stallman requires a reaction. You either love him or you hate him and the community seems to be pretty evenly divided on the topic.

Yesterday was a good example of Stallman in action. During an interview with Chris Fisher and Bryan Lunduke on The Linux Action Show, Stallman repeatedly interrupted the hosts to correct their 'incorrect' use of the term 'Linux' (it's GNU/Linux for him, thank you very much) and often pretended that he couldn't understand simple questions instead of giving real answers. When Lunduke, a programmer who is a Linux advocate and writes some proprietary software, challenged Stallman and asked if he believed the right to Free Software was more important than his daughter eating Stallman, not truly surprising those who've heard him before, answered an unequivocal 'yes'.  At one point, he even wished every business that created proprietary software failed and it didn't matter if it put people out of work.

So how is a programmer supposed to make money?  'Integration and custom software', says Stallman, who also suggested that, if Lunduke and other programmers - people who may have spent their lives and money perfecting their skills, can't make a living doing those things perhaps they should stop developing software and go do something else.

He believe the right to Free Software is that important.

Obviously, Stallman is a bit off base. His narrow definition of freedom only accepts what he defines as freedom and what he values. It doesn't take into account the freedom of users to voluntarily transact with each other and willingly trade that freedom for something they value.  In Stallman's world, those who write proprietary software are immoral and evil; they're out to destroy society and are contributing to the demise of the sharing culture. While he's not completely wrong on many of those points, labeling someone as immoral or evil just because of code they write is a bit extreme in almost any rational sense.

But, for all his abrasiveness, Stallman remains a giant in the software world and rightfully so. He's one of the very few people who put their money where their mouth is when it comes to technology freedom. He refuses to spend money with anyone who violates users freedoms and has publicly spearheaded several campaigns against companies such as Sony and Microsoft for their freedom stealing technologies.

I do not hate Richard Stallman. In fact, I admire him quite a bit. But I believe that we live in a much different world than he did in the 60's and 70's and proprietary software is a part of that world. Part of allowing others freedom is allowing them the right to trade that freedom for something else. No one should be forced to use non-free software but people should have the choice to use it. They should be educated as to why it's bad, why the free alternatives are better, and the damage they might be doing to their own freedom and society as a result of using proprietary solutions, but they should not be banned from doing so. Doing that is simply trading one form of tyranny for another and that's no more freedom than what Stallman is currently fighting against.

Video of Stallman Interview on The Linux Action Show:

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