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Dinner with RMS – the Great Freedom Debate

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I was lucky enough to be invited to join Steve Jacobs and Richard Stallman for dinner, Tuesday night. If I said I was honored to be included that would be an understatement.

But what does one talk about with the father of the Free Software Movement?

Freedom of course!

While this post will read as if we had a long and fruitful debate, the truth is I changed the subject when I realized that he was unbending and not willing to accept any observations other than his own. So my observation that there is a hypocritical element to his position was getting nowhere fast.

Steve tried to interject for clarification since we were discussing such a small nuance to “freedom” but even that was met with inflexibility. In fact he repeated his wording exactly as he had before Steve’s question.

Here’s the issue as I see it…

Freedom is an inalienable right. I also believe wholeheartedly that if you have a restriction of any kind you don’t have true freedom.

I also understand that true freedom is rare and elusive. Laws, taxes, social mores and such are all limiting factors. You can have some freedoms, like the freedom of speech, but I also don’t believe the US is a Free country when there are so many questionable laws still on the books (yes, Patriot act, I’m talking about you and your sleezy friends!)

You should also understand that I’m all for of some laws and mores. For instance, when we all know what side of the street to drive on, its good for everyone. You would also misunderstand this blog post if you come away thinking that I dislike the GPL and/or the Free Software Movement. The fact is I’m a fan and have deep respect for the movement as a whole.

However, my side of the debate focused on copyleft, and the GPLs Share Alike clauses and Stallman’s penchant for term correctness.

As I see it, if you’re going to explain to a crowded room that you can’t…

… call something piracy because it didn’t attack any boats;
… use the term “Intellectual Property” because it refers to multiple laws;
… call an Operating system Linux because the Linux Kernel wasn’t fully effective without the rest of the GNU operating system and vice versa…

Then you must absolutely be certain that you’re not acting hypocritically when it comes to the use of the term “Freedom.”

For me, the question is, how can software really be “free, as in Freedom” when there are restrictions built into it’s license?

Stallman’s stance is that he respects your freedom, but in return you must respect the freedom of others. Then he explained that share alike/copyleft clauses needed to be included because he didn’t want to lose ground. To open up a code base only to have it taken away again isn’t an acceptable situation.

I say that’s a risk you have to take if you’re going to insist that what you’re trying to do is make all software free.

Freedom always comes with a choice. When you have good information and care about the outcomes, you always make the right decision for you. Besides, if information or desired outcomes change, you always have the option to make new choices.

So if you’re to ask for a simple clarification – the Four Essential Freedoms outlined in the Free Software definition do define freedom. However this Free software definition points out that there’s a flaw in copyleft when it states,

“For example, copyleft (very simply stated) is the rule that when redistributing the program, you cannot add restrictions to deny other people the central freedoms. This rule does not conflict with the central freedoms; rather it protects them.”

It’s cleverly written and on quick glance you think “oh it’s about not adding restrictions, that’s Kosher.” But it brings you back to reality when you see that it’s a rule (aka restriction) that needs to be clarified in the second sentence of the quote.

Conflict or not, rules are restrictions and restrictions limit freedom.

Am I the only one seeing this as wordplay and a form of restricting Freedom?


Image “Freedom” By ivan petrov

Written by Karlie

February 25th, 2010 at 11:49 am

7 Responses to 'Dinner with RMS – the Great Freedom Debate'

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  1. Thanks for the post. I agree that RMS is usually not an enlightening argument partner. 🙂

    I don't think you're wrong about the GPL incorporating restrictions, but I think it's a mistake to start by comparing it against a view of freedom that is entirely unrestricted — like you said, that kind of unrestricted freedom doesn't show up very often in reality, and nor should it, because it's very prone to abuse. Most of the things we firmly consider to be our freedoms end when they start infringing on someone else's, and that's okay.

    For example, you mention "freedom of speech", but don't mention that freedom of speech is restricted to stop you from yelling fire in a crowded theater; yet we don't say that talking about freedom of speech is hypocritical because it contains restrictions. Instead, we understand that the restrictions are reasonable, and are there so that society in general can enjoy the underlying freedom (of speech) that we're trying to provide to everyone who isn't abusing it.

    So, I think the question here is whether restrictions are reasonable on an *individual* level, such that they make the freedoms they're trying to preserve usable by everyone on a *societal* level — I think the GPL does a very good job at that.


    25 Feb 10 at 1:52 PM

  2. It almost comes down to a BSD license vs the GPL or another Open Source license. It's just hard for me to see someone so focused on nuances of meaning and not have something better than a because-I-said-so style response to questions.

    For instance, I saw Bradly Kuhn speak at Ontario GNU/Linux fest a few months ago and had less time to speak face to face with him than I did with RMS. I felt like I could be a cheer leader for the GPL after hearing Kuhn, but after dinner with RMS, I wonder what I've gotten myself into.

    I know Stallman's talk Tuesday at RIT went over well and I could see the ripple effect starting with the students and staff. So I'm sure there will be more FLOSS Dev and usage coming their way.

    After meeting with him, I have that bad Catholic feeling. (my mom went to mass every day, I don't know when to stand, sit or kneel)

    Karlie Robinson

    25 Feb 10 at 2:47 PM

  3. I always compare it with democracy, in a democracy everybody has a vote and the majority makes the rules. But… a democracy also means that the minority never looses their voice. So in a true democracy the majority isn't allowed to make rules that take away the rights of the minority.

    The same should be true for Free Software, the Freedom granted should be universal, taking away Freedom isn't freedom at all.

    Or am I missing your point?


    25 Feb 10 at 5:51 PM

  4. Mwielaard – that's Stallman's point so you're not miss using it. My point is if you're going to be a stickerler for terms and usage, then "Freedom" with restrictions isn't freedom. It was more of a devils advocate type debate. Just that no matter how "good" you think you are with Free Software, the only one doing it right is Stallman and the rest of us SUCK. I run my entire business on Open Source, but since I blog here in the cloud, and my software, while being Open Source, isn't Free software, I'm just not good enough.

    Karlie Robinson

    26 Feb 10 at 7:38 AM

  5. One would guess that Stallman's view is strongly coloured by the phrase :
    'he respects your freedom, but in return you must respect the freedom of others.'

    This is a thin line to walk and guidelines (which sometimes have to be put forward as rules or clauses to strengthen them) help people to see what is acceptable or what other supporters of freedom will stand up to defend so that one does not stand alone. Freedom, unfortunately, is not an inalienable right, it is a concept of balance that needs to be constantly defended and often clawed back from those who would take it away.

    Although I don't feel as strongly as Stallman on some issues I appreciate the fact that he defines one extreme to balance other extremes which allows the majority to exist in the middle ground with some safety.


    26 Feb 10 at 9:31 AM

  6. If your notion of freedom means you get to restrict what others can do with their freedom, then I'd say that's a pretty lame version of freedom. OTOH, if you're willing to let RMS and other folks who choose to create and publish under any license of their choosing, then I'd say you've got it right.

    Another version: If you think *your* freedom depends on *anything* that another person *says* (which includes publishing text and other media) then your thinking is not free.

    It's true that if you live in a country with copyright laws like there are in most countries, then it is easy for people to deter you from doing some things by invoking the power of the government. But whether that threat affects your decisions is entirely up to you.


    3 Mar 10 at 3:54 AM

  7. I agree by the definition you are citing, the license isn't really free. Perfect freedom is a standard that is definable, but achievable only with surrender of other cherished values, such as civilization. Having a civilization requires surrendering perfect freedom. Obtaining the hardware required to run the software was dependent on others surrendering perfect freedom for the worthy goal of a sustainable civilization (I understand the Chinese are moving to an open hardware standard, but I suspect the manufacturing process will still be highly dependent on non-open source).

    I believe we must question the shades of freedom necessary for a civilization, and error on the side of freedom. This belief doesn't blind me to the knowledge I have to be willing to both surrender, and require others to surrender, perfect freedom for a grayer shade of freedom as a requirement for a civilization. This is why we obey laws passed by previous generations. Because we have to live with less than perfect to be able to live at all.


    3 Mar 10 at 1:40 PM

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