Richard Stallman, Free Software, and Copyleft

In the free and open source software community, only Linus Torvalds, the maintainer of the Linux kernel, retains a level of prestige, respect, and influence comparable to that of Richard Stallman. After the legendary programming feat of Emacs (the “ultimate text editor,” still in use today) and pioneering work on Artificial Intelligence at MIT’s AI Lab in the 70s, Stallman became disillusioned with the increasingly proprietary nature of software within the Lab and in the wider software market, launching the GNU Operating System initiative in 1983, with the stated goal of creating a fully-free, Unix-like operating system from the ground up.

Stallman insists on software being free, by which he means “free as in freedom, not as in beer.” Free software is not about price: giving something away for no cost does not make it “free.” Rather, the Free Software Foundation, of which Stallman is the founder and president, enumerates four basic freedoms it deems necessary for the distinction: the freedom to use software any way one wishes, the freedom to modify it to do whatever you want it to, the freedom to pass it on to others, and the freedom to distribute your modifications to others. Stallman has actively campaigned for these freedoms ever since. His GNU project eventually generated most of the tools for the GNU/Linux operating system (with the addition of Torvalds’ Linux kernel in 1991), the largest free software project in history. The Free Software Foundation has likewise supported free software through advocacy and legal action, and in particular through its GPL Public License, the most widely-used license for free software.

The GPL, mostly written by Stallman himself, makes use of existing copyright law to subvert the prohibitive nature of actual “copyright protection.” That is, Stallman is stridently opposed to the notion of both “copyright” and “intellectual property,” as both are utilized to restrict the sharing of information, and are thus directly opposed to the freedoms listed above. However, rather than advocating a “public domain” approach to the releasing of code, Stallman’s creative license not only rejects copyright, but actually helps to nudge proprietary projects toward a free model. It does this by maintaining the copyright of all software released under its auspices, explicitly (and irrevocably) allowing it to be used and modified at will by others, but preventing anyone from utilizing its code in any proprietary project. That is, it makes its software freely and enticingly available for others to use, but requires that their derivative projects also utilize the GPL and respect the same freedoms. Thus the GPL propagates itself, both legally and philosophically. Stallman’s personal website lists a number of examples where this has forced otherwise proprietary projects to be released under the GPL, increasing the amount of code released freely worldwide. Because the GPL utilizes copyright to promote free use and wide dissemination instead of imposed scarcity and restrictive control, it is referred to as “copyleft.”

The GPL doesn’t contain any prohibitions on selling software, and Stallman makes a point of noting that it is fully consistent with his philosophy to sell free software, and he encourages individuals and businesses to do so whenever possible. Again, his software is “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.” Of course, in practice it is difficult to charge much for software that can be freely copied from other sources; nonetheless, this is a market correction and not a requirement of free software per se.

The open source movement originally split off from the free software movement in the mid to late 90s, as detailed in “The Cathedral and the Bazaar.” Eric Raymond, Linus Torvalds, and others felt that the designation “free,” along with Stallman’s underlying philosophy, was hindering the wider acceptance of free software, particularly among businesses, which were adverse to the idea of abolishing intellectual property and anything that smacked of anti-business or anti-capitalist at its core. The result was the “open source movement,” which emphasized that this sort of software was about an open development model, where anyone and everyone could contribute to the code, not an anti-business philosophy. Raymond’s advocacy in particular was highly influential in convincing businesses (both developers and users of specialized software) that open source development models would benefit them from a financial standpoint.

In practice, almost all open source software is free in Stallman’s sense, and vice versa; however, there are significant philosophical differences between the two positions, and political differences between their respective movements. In his essay, “Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software,” Stallman writes:

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.

It isn’t difficult to see why, based on this distinction, the open source movement has been far more widespread and successful in the commercial sphere than the free software movement. “Open source” is a far more popular term than “free software,” Torvalds and Raymond have been far more popular with businesses and end users alike, and even the famous free/open source operating system beloved by so many is commonly referred to as “Linux” rather than “GNU/Linux,” a convention Stallman vociferously and publicly opposes, along with the term “open source.” Even though programmers of both philosophical stripes work together on the same software, Stallman argues that there are real, practical ramifications to calling our software “open source” instead of “free.” If open source is merely a development model, then its superiority over proprietary software lies only in its results. That is, open source is only superior to propriety development if it results, as Raymond argues, in more powerful and reliable software. As Stallman notes, however, proprietary development can also lead to robust software; open source advocates and users have trouble, in these cases, making value judgments with regards to the two. Someone who only believes in open source as as a development model will even abandon open source software for its proprietary counterpart in cases where the proprietary version (due to exceptional coding or massive outlays of expense) is actually more powerful or reliable. For Stallman, the developmental advantages of open source software aren’t necessary or sufficient to guarantee its value: only underlying freedom to use, modify, and re-distribute it is. Therefore, Stallman advocates using free software over its proprietary counterparts even in cases of inferiority. Only this policy, he argues, will lead coders to take seriously the challenge to produce better free versions of existing proprietary projects, and teach coders and users alike the value of freedom and the necessity of defending it, though their coding activities, end user decisions, and political actions.

Accordingly, we can notice that “free software” and “open source software” entail somewhat different political positions. Stallman is extremely progressive: a member of the Green Party in the US, consistently anti-corporate, a supporter of worker’s rights and a defender of many democratic and egalitarian causes, he is also an active protester and has a great affinity for the boycott (on his personal website he calls for boycotts against not only proprietary software, but also Blu Ray, UK airports, Harry Potter books, travel to the US and Japan, and much more). Eric Raymond, in contrast, is a member of the US Libertarian party: also concerned with freedom, his priorities are nonetheless quite different. His pet cause (other than open source) is gun advocacy (“I cheerfully refer to myself as a gun nut,” he writes on his personal web site), and his chief enemy is not corporate, but rather government, control. These two camps, collaborators in the greater free/open source software movement, approach it from significantly different philosophical/political quarters, which partially explains the significant confusion among the general public as to what this software is really all about.


Richard Stallman’s Personal Page
GNU Operating System
Free Software Foundation

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