How Richard Stallman got me to ponder extremism

Note added 2021-03-23: I originally wrote this post almost a decade ago. At the time, I did not know about the harassment and other problems that would eventually lead to his resignation from the Free Software Foundation’s Board. “I think he hurts his own ideological cause” proved more true than I could have realized. In light of his rejoining the FSF board, I want to be very clear: he and the FSF do not represent the values of inclusivity and community that are, to me at least, more important than the licensing aspects of free and open source software.

This evening, I had the opportunity to attend a speech by a man whose work over the past decades enters into my life on a daily basis. The Network for Computational Nanotechnology at Purdue hosted Richard Stallman, the founder of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation. Stallman is a well-known and controversial figure, not only because of his technical work, but also (primarily?) because of his idealism and activism. His un-nuanced views and public lack of tact have driven fans of his work away from the FSF. I went into the talk expecting some pot-stirring. I didn’t expect to walk out deep in thought.

Stallman opened with a discussion of terminology, drawing a distinction between free (for the purposes of this post, free software means libre, not gratis) and proprietary software.  It is an ethical, social, and political distinction, not a technical one. Free software, Stallman argues, is a contribution to society. Proprietary software is morally unjust. Stallman prefers, given the choice between writing proprietary software and doing nothing, that developers do nothing. Even though free software is often available at no cost, encouraging the adoption of free software should be framed as a moral issue, not an economic or practical one. Software as a Service (SaaS) is morally equal to proprietary software in Stallman’s view, regardless of the licensing of the software, because users have no control over it.

During the question-and-answer session at the end, this view brought a heated discussion from NCN director Dr. Gerhard Klimeck. NCN runs nanoHUB, which is effectively SaaS for nanotechnology simulation. Stallman seemed to argue that it was a niche and not really important to discuss. He also semi-adroitly dodged the question of how developers can make money with free software, only asserting that it is being done without providing the [mostly student] audience any insights as to how.

Stallman’s views are based on his personal morality and seem to be absolute. This is what occupied my thoughts on the walk back to my car. Because I largely agree with Stallman, I’ve been inclined to see his extremism as an annoying, but useful thing. By being on the edge, he defines the middle. But why should extremism that I happen to generally agree with be more valid than extremism that I disagree with? While extremism does help define the middle ground, it also poisons reasonable discussion. I admire and appreciate his technical accomplishments, but I think he hurts his own ideological cause.

9 thoughts on “How Richard Stallman got me to ponder extremism

  1. RMS is quite a figure. Consistently controversial. His position on free/libre software, while definitely extremist in today’s “computerized culture” is not so extreme in general. Helping your neighbor, for example, dates back to the beginning of time. It’s what we were taught to do from day one by our parents, the school system, everybody really (be kind to others, lend a hand when you can, be a productive member of society, don’t shut people out of your life without a solid reason, et cetera).

    His sole intention with FSF, GNU and the GPL in general is to do exactly that: help other. And he’s demonstrated for nearly 30 years that by so doing he ultimately helps himself, and everybody else who contributes to free software.

    His “extremist views” are not radically extreme, but fundamental to life and living.

  2. The point in my opinion is software is essentially knowledge. You do not need lots of investment to reproduce it or make copies. Copies are almost free. Also, knowledge upon which software is built has been given to mankind over thousand of years. If they did not keep knowledge secret companies/individuals have no right to keep it secret.

  3. Rick, you’re right in asserting that cooperation is a fundamental part of human history. On the other hand, so is selfishness. Like I said, I largely agree with Stallman’s ideals and objectives. That doesn’t change the fact that his philosophy is on the extreme of existing views and that will turn some people off reflexively.

  4. Sure, copies are trivial. The initial production of the software often isn’t. Conflating the two weakens the argument. The knowledge used to make anything is the result of years of accumulation, but specific software implementations aren’t knowledge any more than a specific television. The only difference is that the software is trivially copyable, whereas the television is not.

  5. If you go to a backery and buy a cake, is it unethical if you don’t get the recipe as well?
    If you buy a radio, is it unethical if you don’t get the construction plans for it?
    If you buy some software, is it unethical if you don’t get the source-code?
    If you buy a processor, is it unethical if you don’t get the “hardware description language”-description of the processor?

    Stallman sees it as an ethical issue. Maby he is ultimately right. I simply don’t know.
    He’s right that sharing is a good thing.
    But is it really an ethical issue whether or not you get some recipe, construction plans or source-code??

  6. If the baker puts poison in your cake, that is unethical. *
    If your radio records and transmits things you say, that is unethical.
    If you buy some software and that software spies on other programs you run, that is unethical.
    If you buy an e-book reader, and its makers can remotely destroy your books, that is unethical.

    Free software is the only defense against an industry that routinely poisons your cakes. In the first two examples that kind of behavious is explicitly illegal, but in software there is no law, or only weak which protects its users.

    * Sorry for the emotive example.

  7. Also sorry, I forgot to mention I don’t think closed software is unethical. Software is just an artefact, I don’t think it can be ethical or unethical on its own. I think the argument goes that producing closed software is an unethical act, as it restricts or constrains its users. This isn’t an issue with cakes – there’s really only one thing you can do with a cake, but with the radio example, it’s more like the manufacturer locking the radio in to a specific radio station. Placing artifical restrictions on the use of a tool for the purpose of profit is more obviously unethical. Exactly how unethical you think it is depends on how much good you think the software could do if it were free, currently, and even more so in the future, software has the potential to do a large amount of good.

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