Issue #41: Licensing,  Library

Richard Matthew Stallman

It would be inappropriate to have an issue on software licensing without including one of the people whose work has done most to shape the topic. Somehow we managed not to mention him by name in the issue on Free, Libre, and Open Source Software. Well, today we correct that.

RMS is, of course, a prolific writer of software (Emacs, GCC, Texinfo, GDB, GNU Make), of copyleft licenses (the GPL, LGPL, GFDL), emails, and awkwardly pedantic, sometimes plain offensive missives regarding whether words are being used with the meanings he perceives to be correct. For the purpose of this article I will focus on two of his books: “Free as in Freedom (2.0)”, and “Free Software, Free Society” (third edition).

Douglas Hofstadter would recognise “Free as in Freedom (2.0)” as a metacircular reference. It is a book about RMS, copyleft, and intellectual freedom, that only exists because of RMS, copyleft, and intellectual freedom. Very much a strange loop, even in a particularly self-referential community that has self-expanding acronyms (GNU’s Not Unix) to multiple depths (Hurd stands for Hird of Unix-Replacing Daemons, where Hird stands for Hurd of Interfaces Representing Depth).

“Free as in Freedom” was a biography of Stallman, written by Sam Williams and published in 2002 by O’Reilly and Associates at a time when they were still somewhat supportive of the free software movement. Crucially it was release by Williams under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License, allowing others to create and share derived works.

An aside here—the GFDL tried to do for prose what the GPL had done very successfully for software, creating an intellectual commons whose shared nature was protected by subverting the same copyright restrictions often used to alienate creative works. GFDL was created in 1999, shortly after the Open Content and Open Publication Licenses and a few years before the first Creative Commons licenses. Today the CC licenses are generally seen as easier and more popular choices for non-software creative works, though some software is released under CC licenses (for example any code quoted in Stack Overflow).

One reader of “Free as in Freedom” who had corrections to distribute was Stallman himself, who rewrote the emotional tone of some sections, corrected technical discussions, and supplied his own perspective on events described remotely in the original. Where “iWoz” is an autobiography in the words of another writer, “Free as in Freedom (2.0)” is a biography incorporating the experiences, analysis, and feelings of its subject.

Many of the stories about Stallman are quintessential RMS brand—arguing with journalists over the term “Linux” where they mean “GNU/Linux”, using the first hexadecimal protest chant at a rally outside Lotus’ offices; early disussions of the GNU General Public License having to distinguish between free “zero cost” and free “zero restriction” (RMS does not mind software being sold for money, as long as the transaction is freedom-preserving). Some are surprising—like your author, RMS was a keen folk dancer for years, until an injury forced him to stop.

All the tales in this book paint a picture of a driven, influential person who changed the direction of the software industry. To see the direction of that change and its impact, look to the other of this month’s works, “Free Software Free Society”.

This book is a collection of essays by RMS on the philosophy and development of Free Software, around and through the GNU system of Unix-replacing software components. It is a wide-ranging work, broadly covering the false idea of “intellectual property” which actually describes a number of different, government-imposed limitations on intellectual freedom, sometimes falsely dressed up as “rights”. Two of these limitations—copyright and patent monopolies—are covered in depth (the other two limitations that the essays do not deal with are trademarks and trade secrets).

Copyleft is a deliberate subversion of copyright using its own mechanism, and particular attention is paid to the ways in which copyright licenses (and particularly copyleft licenses) can enable and protect intellectual freedom among the software-using community, which as software has “eaten the world” has grown to encompass everyone indirectly and a good chunk of the world’s population directly. By the end of part 7 (“Value Community and Your Freedom”) you see the political viewpoint of the author: one that seeks to remove power relationships and injustices that are mediated by computers and software; one that values informed democracy and sees the liberation of information as a route to achieve it.

Of course, Stallman being Stallman he chooses his words carefully and makes sure you know why he has chosen them. So you will also find out why Open Source “misses the point”, why Apple’s products do not deserve to be called by the names Apple bestows upon them, and when it is or is not appropriate to use words like “marketplace” and “ecosystem” in a software context.

But mostly, you will find the development of the philosophical paradigm behind a movement that grew from a text editor that you could buy on tape for $150, to a global reshaping of software businesses and the ways in which software is produced, used, and paid for. The campaign is not over—software freedom has struggled to react to SaaS, where no software is distributed so no copyright licenses get triggered—though many victories have occurred along the way.

Cover photo by the author.

Graham is a senior Research Software Engineer at Oxford University. He got hooked on making quality software in front of a NeXT TurboStation Color, and still has a lot to learn.