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Richard Stallman on freedom and the GNU GPL

November 8, 1999
Web posted at: 8:57 a.m. EST (1357 GMT)

by Richard Stallman


(IDG) -- In his article on free software licensing, "Reverse-engineering the GNU Public Virus," (LinuxWorld, September 1999) Stig Hackvan seems to have filtered the facts through his political views: that the Free Software movement is "extreme" and impractical. I hope that readers will take his description of the Free Software movement, its views, and, above all, its practical methods, with several spoons of salt.

He begins by berating me for using the word free to refer to freedom:

The word free denotes gratis (as in "free beer") far more readily than it denotes liberty (as in "free speech"). But Stallman confounds the matter by insisting that he's talking about free speech and then asserts that free software is a matter of liberty, not price.

I wonder what other word he thinks I should use. Most languages have a common adjective for free-as-in-freedom which does not also refer to price, but English has none. Various alternatives have been suggested, but they all have problems of their own. A year ago, some people started using the term open source, but that too is flawed; people regularly misunderstand it if they don't know the official definition (

My views on freedom sound self-contradictory after passing through the Stig filter:

To further confound matters, he promotes free software by constraining the freedom of software developers.

If this seems paradoxical, it shouldn't. Protecting essential freedoms is always a matter of restricting the actions that would deny them. Remember, your freedom to swing your fist ends at the tip of my nose.

The Free Software movement aims to provide certain freedoms for all computer users, including the right to change a program, the right to redistribute copies, and the right to publish modified versions. The most effective way to protect these rights is to deny anyone else the power to take them away from you.

I find the distinction between freedom and power useful for thinking about the ethics of political issues. Freedom is when you control activities that affect you most closely; to control activities that mainly affect other people is power, power to dominate others. When software users can change and share a program, that is exercising freedom. When software developers make a program proprietary, and place restrictions on the users, that is exercising power.

The US Constitution doesn't fare much better in Hackvan's article. He writes:

Congress is authorized to "promote the progress of science and useful arts, by securing for limited times to authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries." From that clause, we may extract three clearly stated goals: the promotion of learning and the "useful arts;" the maintenance of the public domain (only new writings and discoveries are protected, and such protection is limited in duration); and the enrichment of authors and inventors.

The Constitution treats the last of these as a means to an end, not as an end in itself, as you can see from the words that are quoted from it.

The article also repeats a widespread misunderstanding of the GNU GPL:

But the GPL's expectation is that even the tiniest bit of GPLd source code, combined with your own, can "infect" your program with the GPL's redistribution terms.

Strictly speaking, nothing we free software developers do can legally require others to release their code in any particular way. If someone has used some of my GPL-covered code in a program, and releases the program, I cannot make that person release the program under the GPL. I can, however, deny permission to release my code on any other basis. That is what the GPL does.

If he has used a large amount of my code, he might decide to release the whole program under the GNU GPL, rather than taking out my code (which he is always entitled to do). This is how the GPL works, pragmatically, to encourage free software development.

A few passages in the article show us where Stig Hackvan is really coming from:

The GPL specifically permits publishers to charge for distributing GPLd information, yet it prevents artists from using copyrights to charge for their creative output....

Stallman goes to great lengths to be precise about what he means, but he fails to assuage the bottom-line anxieties of software entrepreneurs, to whom anything free seems like a losing business plan.

The fact is, I'm more interested in defending your freedom and mine than in how software entrepreneurs feel. So I refuse to cede any important freedom to make them feel comfortable. (I do try to make them comfortable about using and developing free software, but not by sacrificing the ultimate goal.) Stig would willingly do so, because the freedom of people in general is not such a priority for him -- that is his basic disagreement with the Free Software movement. Naturally, then, he would disapprove of the GPL, or anything that protects our freedom from software entrepreneurs who would like to take it away. His real objection to the GPL is that it does what it was designed to do.

But he could not write an effective article based solely on that. He needed to find other things to criticize, such as our firmness and idealism.

In Stig's view, to be firm is to be inflexible. You can see how much it pains him to describe pragmatic compromises that we've made, such as the Lesser GPL. The difference between us and Stig is this: we compromise when that helps achieve the goal of free software, but we don't compromise the goal.

In Stig's view, to be idealistic is to be ineffective. The Free Software movement is idealistic, but very effective: free operating systems exist because of our idealism. If you are using Linux, Linus Torvalds' kernel, you are most likely using it in conjunction with the GNU system. This combination, the GNU/Linux operating system, the subject of LinuxWorld magazine, exists because of the FSF's idealism. The system is the idealism of the GNU project made real.

I've done business in the world of free software for 14 years now, ever since I began selling tapes of GNU Emacs in 1985, and I agree with Jamie Zawinski (as quoted in Stig's article) that free software and greed are not incompatible -- at least, most of the time they can coexist. But greed alone will not protect our freedom. There are occasions where defending freedom requires a special effort, an effort that requires a motivation beyond material gain.

History shows that people who don't value freedom enough to defend it will tend to lose it. Fortunately, Eric Raymond's doctrinaire, almost Marxian vision of economic determinism is not realistic: history also shows that people who do care can defend their freedom, if they make an effort. To keep free software alive, we need many people to make small efforts, and a few people to make great efforts.

Please join the Free Software movement, and help these efforts.

I suggest avoiding the term intellectual property, which Stig used in his article, because:

  • It takes for granted that these things should be a kind of property, which is prejudging the most important issue.

  • It is too big a generalization, and is likely to tempt all nonlawyers into assuming that patents and copyrights are similar except for some details. Actually, they are almost entirely different.

It is much wiser to talk about either patents or copyrights, and never try to talk about both of them at once.

I also suggest avoiding the term protection to describe what copyrights or patents do. That is a propaganda term -- it views the situation from the point of view of the person or company that owns the monopoly, rather than the millions of others who are restricted by it. This is why publishing interests use the word so much; they know what message it conveys.

Richard Stallman founded the GNU Project in 1984 to develop a free operating system, GNU. As part of this project, he wrote programs such GNU Emacs and GCC, as well as the GNU General Public License. The "Linux operating system" which is popular today is actually the GNU system, adapted to use Linux as the kernel.

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LinuxWorld: An interview with Richard Stallman
Rethinking Linux stereotypes
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