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May
23

Free software and the necessity for idealism

by Richard Hillesley

Free software idealism is a necessary and desirable part of the software landscape, says Richard Hillesley…

“We cannot solve our problems with same thinking we used when we created them” – Einstein

Free software is sometimes characterised as extremist because it is implacable and accepts no compromise. Richard Stallman has a simple explanation for why taking and holding a position is important to the long term uptake of an idea which was often dismissed as unrealistic and impractical.

“The only reason we have a wholly free operating system”, he once said, “is because of the movement that said we want an operating system that is wholly free, not 90 per cent free. If you don’t have freedom as a principle, you can never see a reason not to make an exception. There are constantly going to be times when for one reason or another there’s some practical convenience in making an exception.”

“It’s not about money”, he has said, “it’s about freedom. If you think it’s about money you’ve missed the point. I want to use a computer in freedom, to cooperate, to not be restricted or prohibited from sharing.”

The role of Stallman and the free software movement and the idealism they represent has been to keep the open source software development model on track, and to prevent it from being subsumed into an entirely commercial view of the programming universe.

Over the past three decades, Stallman and the free software movement have played a central role in raising awareness of the legal and proprietary obstacles to the free distribution of software and ideas – and the universal language of contributors to open source projects (and the software industry in general) has been informed by the philosophical and political grounding provided by Stallman’s writings, especially his insights into the nature of the law surrounding software copyrights and patents.

But his greatest achievement may still be the GNU General Public License (GPL).

The license and its preamble are the profound exposition of Stallman’s idealism and clarity of purpose, to liberate software from the shackles of its proprietary chains, and to allow hackers (in the original meaning of the word, “enthusiastic computer programmers who share their work with others”), the freedom to develop and grow, and share their code.

The beauty of the GPL is that like a piece of elegantly written code, it has a simplicity and transparency all of its own. The license fulfills its demanding objective, of protecting and promoting the principles of free software, without ambiguity or compromise, and as such is a reflection of the determination and personality of Stallman, who could be said to have single-handedly willed GNU, the GPL, and the free software movement into being.

Any idea that doesn’t follow the crowd can be characterised as radical or extremist, but it is the radical idea that brings new things into existence, or as Einstein once put it: “We cannot solve our problems with same thinking we used when we created them”

Bradley Kuhn has his own take on this. “It so happens in debate that whoever has the most out there position is seen as the most radical, however moderate their position really is. Brian Behlendorf who is famous for helping start the Apache Software Foundation, once said he was really glad that there were free software advocates out there because it made him a moderate.”

“‘If you weren’t there’, he said, ‘I’d be the radical’.”

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    • http://luke-robbins.co.uk Luke Robbins

      I would like to point out the numerous flaws in your argument, but I think this explains a lot

      “The beauty of the GPL is that like a piece of elegantly written code, it has a simplicity and transparency all of its own. The license fulfills its demanding objective, of protecting and promoting the principles of free software, without ambiguity or compromise, and as such is a reflection of the determination and personality of Stallman, who could be said to have single-handedly willed GNU, the GPL, and the free software movement into being.”

      You can paint it any way you like, but GPL is giving with expecting something back in return. That isn’t truly a gift.

      GPL is “Freedom as we tell you” … and nothing more. It is not Freedom and it is not giving.

    • Not Luke Robbins

      Once again a confusion from people who advocate “freedom to interfere”. Talking about individual people’s freedoms in this aspect is confusing, as they easily conflict with each other (I want your money). It only makes sense to talk about freedom for code and for users to use this code.

      So, yes, if you define “code giving” as “releasing code with freedoms to run it and redistribute with or without modification”, then GPL is an implementation of permanent code giving and permanent code freedoms.

    • http://www.gatchev.info Grigor

      @Luke Robbins: Not exactly. GPL is giving only to those who deserve to be given. This is its greatest strength.

      Where those who don’t deserve still get everything, those who deserve to be given are cheated. For example, where those who never contribute back still receive everything, those who contribute back are cheated.

      Consequently, in such places everyone quickly learns to not be a fool and to not contribute back. Contributions to the free software stop, its development stops and it gets obsoleted. End of story.

      GPL is “Freedom on the condition that you don’t take away the freedom of the others”. A freedom that anyone in a stronger position can take away from you is not a freedom. Neither giving to the non-grateful can last and build a legacy.

      Long live GPL.

    • http:luke-robbins.co.uk Luke Robbins

      The usual nonsense.

      At the end of the day it is still giving with a stipulation … it is not giving.

      You can try to twist anyway you like, the fact still remains it isn’t true giving. At the end of the day the of the day it is the developers choice as to what license the code get released.

      I and a growing number of people will not release any code with a GPL license of any sort.

    • Curtis V

      The usual nonsense appears to have come from Luke. Luke we have no idea what you even disagree with in the GPL as you have not bothered to articulate such a point. I can only conclude that you either are a capitalist shill who does not like the competition that GPLed software provides in the marketplace or are a developer who wants to use GPL software without providing the licensed protections (in the GPL) to your customers.
      All I can say is shame on you!

      The GPL is totally free or restrictions to anyone that is on the customer end of a transaction. The requirements of the GPL are extended to protect the customer by ensuring they have source code to fix your mistakes after you have moved to greener development pastures. If you are incapable of understanding a customer centric license then you are free to revel in the wondrous MS EULA for the rest of your life. We will not miss you.

      If you happen to simply be a BSD fanatic who cannot understand that there are appropriate uses for both BSD and GPL then I’d suggest you open your mind to the possibility that a company might want to free some of their code with restrictions that create a cooperative partnership in development. This too is as valid an approach as simply releasing under BSD. I view BSD as a good license to use to encourage fast adoption/implementation of new standards by providing a potential implementation. I also view GPL as a great license to create ongoing ad-hoc strategic partnerships.

      Both GPL and BSD happen to provide a very suitable approach to both business and idealism.

    • Curtis V

      Luke, I can’t resist looking in more depth at your first post. You said that you would “like to point out the numerous flaws” in Richard Hillesley’s article. Then you gave a two sentence opinion, “You can paint it any way you like, but GPL is giving with expecting something back in return. That isn’t truly a gift”.

      Why didn’t you point out any flaws? Perhaps there was no evidence to support your contention?
      I am sorry because I am not going to give any real evidence either but I will paraphrase the GPL in my own words as best I can and draw a conclusion.

      The GPL basically give the software user a bunch of rights above that which Copyright gives, basically full freedom to use the software as if it were your own.
      The GPL gives developers and publishers rights to distribute if desired (this also is beyond what Copyright allows). These extra distribution rights are given only if the entity distributing does so in a manner that preserves for the downstream recipients all the rights that were given to the upstream users and developers.

      Please show me from the GPL if I have read the GPL incorrectly.

      Given my experience with GPL it appears that you want to take freedoms away from downstream users because that is the essence of the GPL’s purpose. So exactly who is it that “isn’t truly [giving] a gift”?

      Hoo-har me maties that [GPL] do be a hard thing to abide by!

    • Nerp

      I believe that Luke up here is suggesting that, the GPL is restrictive in the sense that any derived code must also be GPL.

      This prevents others from looting my work. Lemme rebrand this BSD code, and call it my own closed source program, and sell it for cash!

      GPL code is communal property, cemented into the public domain. There is no auctioning off this store of value.

      What’s that Mr Executive? You want to use this, but it doesn’t have this feature that you really need? If I were adequately funded to enjoy a reasonable living for a period of time, then coding such functionality into my project would bring me joy.