Last Thursday I went to see Richard Stallman (RMS) deliver a lecture in room C9 of the Renford Building, North Campus, University of Manchester.
For those who do not know, RMS is the guy who 'invented' free software. His organisation 'Gnu' was created in 1983 to create a 100% 'free' operating system. He also proposed the '4 freedoms' which he regards as essential for computer software to be truly 'free'.
At the talk, RMS went through the four freedoms, and gave a good explanation of what each of them meant, in terms of both technical and social responsibility. I liked this part of the talk very much. However, the second half of the talk really got under my skin. It's for this reason that I'm disillusioned with RMS's opinions.
For the second half of the lecture, RMS clearly had an axe to grind re: Linus Torvalds, the 'overseer' of the Linux kernel. Initially releasing his code as Open Source (rather than 'free software'), Linus believed that the beauty of Open Source software was the ability for so many programmers to contribute and review the code - thus creating more powerful and better written software. RMS made a point that it wasn't released as 'Gnu GPL' software - until after RMS had convinced Linus that Linux + Gnu would make a good partnership - and fulfil their 'different, but shared visions.'
RMS is clearly aggrieved at the fact that 'Linux' is now really popular, and 'Gnu' remains an pretty anonymous entity (as regards a lay-man's perception). Those of us who know enough about the OS are comfortable enough to afford Gnu an awful lot of credit for their work.. but seriously - a name like 'gnu' was never a marketable brand. Whilst I understand his desire for proper accreditation - those of us who can appreciate the work do respect gnu.
The other thing that annoyed me about RMS is his tunnel-vision. One guy in the audience at the lecture said something along the lines of -
"If my Microwave contains embedded software, is it necessary in your eyes for that software to be free."
This is where I think RMS showed that he's become so focused on self-promotion, that he's actually not sat down in a long time and thought clearly about the free software philosophy. Embedded software, in my opinion, is fast becoming a very grey area - as more and more devices become interconnected. RMS response was similar to the following:
"It doesn't matter what software your Microwave is running. You press the buttons, and the Microwave cooks your food. Get over it."
I think the guy deserves a doctorate in narrow-mindedness.
One of the things that really inspires me about Free Software is the ability for both hardware and software to be modified above and beyond their original design. In a few lines of python I can write a script that when I press a button on my scanner - it can upload the output to a webserver and then present me with a simple form on the screen to fill in some meta-data about that image. This is not what that button on the CanoScan N6400U was designed for - but through the power of Open Source software - I can do this.
Now, back to the Microwave. Sure, it could be unhealthy, but say I had 9 meals that I'd cook in a Microwave. If I was able to see the code and edit the software on the microwave - it would be easy to re-program the microwave for each number to represent one of my 9 meals. '1' could be reprogrammed to scrambled eggs.. etc. It's not possible with a closed-source approach - it is possible using 'free software.'
I also use gnu/Linux not because it's necessarily free - but because I think it works better for me than other options available. As a systems person, the freedom I get with 'free software' allows me to create scalable software that I would only have previously been capable of doing as Manager of a large IT project with the buying power to license lots of different pieces of software and stick them all together. This is the beauty of free software for me.
Pay for it - no! RMS also said that it's ok to sell 'free software.' I think this is a stupid, stupid, stupid thing to say - and muddies the waters for people who are looking to utilise free software in their environments. I think it's ok to charge to modify free software on an ad hoc basis - but selling free software opens the doors for people to resell other's work without any direct involvement in the creation of that work. I could set up a business re-selling OO.org - that's just not ethical in my eyes - however, producing an extension to OO.org - charging for the time to develop the extension and then bundling OO.org with the extension is a far more sensible way of charging. Charge for service, not products.
The other thing about freedom, is that we should have a choice whether to be free, or un-free - that's part of freedom. Although we live in a quasi-democracy whereby we're all meant to be free and can do our own thing - look at the mini-societies within that democracy. There's never been a truly democratic business - as it just doesn't work. An Admiral on a ship is a dictator of sorts. Giving someone freedom is giving them a choice. I should be able to choose whether to run free/non-free software. Were there no longer the choice, then the points of freedom would be moot.
When Tim Berners-Lee released the code for the World Wide Web - he didn't say that any changes made should be shared. Some were shared and some weren't. It didn't stop the Web from becoming the most pervasive information medium ever - in a unprecedented short timespan. His ideas of freedom weren't forcing people to be free - it was to give people a choice to be free. Perhaps we can learn from that example, rather than by requiring that everyone subscribe to a Texan model of freedom.
I ended up leaving RMS lecture feeling a bit deflated. This man obviously made a great start, and should be remembered as someone who has made a tremendous contribution to 'free software' - but I think his tiresome request for acknowledgement - when he already has that acknowledgement from the people that matter - is something that's put me off the guy. I think it would suit him better to sit behind closed doors and work out a 'free software philosophy' - rather that simply rely on a 'cult of personality' to direct Free Software in the way his gut wants it to go.