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The Software Freedom Movement

by JEFF NICHOLSON-OWENS

In Alfredo Lopez’s article “Stallman, FOSS and the Adobe Nightmare”. I think that article gets some of Richard Stallman’s message wrong and ends up giving the open source movement credit for a freedom-based philosophy the open source movement disagrees with. I think the intention and enthusiasm to help people understand software freedom are present in the article but quite a few of the article’s details are either untrue or unwisely worded. It would be sadly ironic if people came away reading the article thinking that the underlying issue had to do with developing more powerful, reliable, and convenient software instead of the more important pursuit of our freedom to run, share, and modify published computer software.

Stallman’s movement is the free software movement which he started in 1984, not the open source movement started over 10 years later. Stallman has written about the disagreement between the free software movement and the open source movement multiple times (1, 2) and he raises this issue in every talk I’ve heard him give.

Lopez’s call for software freedom is good to see (I’m glad I’m not the only one out there writing stuff addressing software freedom on CounterPunch!) but it should be pointed out that the open source movement does not champion a user’s right to run, share, and modify published computer software (software freedom). That movement’s founders felt that pressing for software freedom might be objectionable to businesses. The open source movement was formed to speak to programmers so they can better cater to business interests (even going so far as to sometimes endorse software that would not meet the definition of open source software). Open source enthusiasts who help get us software freedom are doing us all a favor, and I’m grateful for their work. But their aim is quite different and sometimes that aim results in radically different conclusions which you can see quite clearly in Stallman’s essay “Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software”:

“The idea of open source is that allowing users to change and redistribute the software will make it more powerful and reliable. But this is not guaranteed. Developers of proprietary software are not necessarily incompetent. Sometimes they produce a program that is powerful and reliable, even though it does not respect the users’ freedom. Free software activists and open source enthusiasts will react very differently to that.

A pure open source enthusiast, one that is not at all influenced by the ideals of free software, will say, “I am surprised you were able to make the program work so well without using our development model, but you did. How can I get a copy?” This attitude will reward schemes that take away our freedom, leading to its loss.

The free software activist will say, “Your program is very attractive, but I value my freedom more. So I reject your program. Instead I will support a project to develop a free replacement.” If we value our freedom, we can act to maintain and defend it.”

Lopez calls what happened to Adobe “theft” but this term is problematic for precisely the reason the GNU Project has laid out. Adobe’s source code was copied without permission, not stolen, because Adobe still has their copy of that source code. As for whether the copying was right or wrong the GNU Project points out:

“Unauthorized copying is forbidden by copyright law in many circumstances (not all!), but being forbidden doesn’t make it wrong. In general, laws don’t define right and wrong. Laws, at their best, attempt to implement justice. If the laws (the implementation) don’t fit our ideas of right and wrong (the spec), the laws are what should change.”

The issue of the credit card information is another matter as that adversely affects others besides Adobe. It’s one thing for a proprietor to have a hard time; we’re better off if a proprietor finds it harder to continue distributing proprietary software and any money they make from that activity is ill-gotten gain. But the users shouldn’t have to suffer from proprietary software or from imposters using their credit card information. Fortunately credit cards are set up to deal with this, credit cardholders have rights that limit liability (at least in the US, as I understand it) and that could make this a relatively minor matter of canceling old credit card numbers, and having banks deal with imposters and Adobe for not properly securing their credit card information system. Adobe should certainly know whom to contact to alert them to get their cards canceled.

Lopez also uses the word “protected” in a way he should avoid when he says proprietary source code is a proprietor’s “private work product often protected by copyright laws”. Better to use a word that doesn’t carry the implication of preventing harm (as proprietary software itself is the harm). The program is restricted from being copied freely, from the user’s point of view. Copying the program doesn’t harm the program, not being able to share copies of the program harms the user.

Finally, when Lopez says “FOSS developers don’t have a cache of credit cards because they don’t charge for their software” that is not entirely correct—these developers might not charge for the software in the same way proprietary software distributors charge users—to get a copy of the program—but there are FOSS developers who charge for their labor and take credit cards as payment, thus they have credit card data to keep track of.

JEFF NICHOLSON-OWENS (“Dr. NO”) is a computer consultant in Champaign, Illinois, and conducts the radio program “Digital Citizen” on community station WEFT-FM. He can be reached at jbn@forestfield.org.

Copyright 2004 J.B. Nicholson-Owens Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.

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