Why Richard Stallman is Wrong

I listened to an interview with Richard Stallman, and I truly believe he is wrong regarding the ethics of proprietary software and especially the fundamental beliefs behind computer and Internet usage.

Fundamentally, he assumes incorrect things. He says that people should be able to use computers for free. That doesn’t mean that having people pay to improve the experience is evil. I can decide to gnaw through a tree on my property for free, but I can obviously pay to have it cut down. Similarly, a user should be able to do anything they want for free, but should also be able to pay to either improve the experience, do it faster, or change the feel. The point at which you start getting involved with morality is when the development of proprietary software begins to interfere with the development of open-source software. However, I think that if proprietary software was somehow banned, the rate of development of open-source software would not increase by very much.

Stallman is fine with software developed for a single client, where the developer is paid for the development of free software, rather than the software itself. However, that is fundamentally the same as distributing proprietary software. The cost of the proprietary software represents the effort that went into making it, as well as upkeep for the company including other worker salaries and continued research and development. I do agree that such costs can get out of hand and that a ridiculous amount of money can end up going to those higher up on the corporate ladder. However, that is a necessary evil to keep high quality proprietary software pumping out at a rate faster that free software can be developed.

Although he demands that the functionality of ebooks mirror that of books, he doesn’t seem to make the same connection regarding proprietary software and its real world parallel: non-free services. Although you should be able to live in a house and use public transportation for minimal costs, you almost always buy furniture and hire services to make your life more comfortable. Similarly, proprietary software allows users to improve the aspects of their experience that they want to.

As I said before, Stallman discusses ebooks, and how you should be able to do the same with an ebook as you can with a regular book. However, as a completely different medium, you can’t just demand something like that. Suppose I demand that JPEGs be viewable in the same resolution as the paintings at a museum, for free. That doesn’t even make sense. Being a completely different medium, we need to approach ebooks in a completely different fashion. It would be nice to be able to easily share ebooks or sell them used. However, for an ebook to exist in an economic and material singularity similar to that of a paper book, proprietary software is absolutely necessary. Using Stallman’s logic, I can say that if you want a book to be freely available, write it yourself!

In some ways, open source philosophy (or at least Stallman’s) is like Communism. Everybody pools their resources and in return everybody gets the same, free software. However, as we see with many actual implementations of Communism, somebody who contributes resources may not need all the products. If I spend time coding, I want a video editor, not a database manipulator. The obvious solution is to have both developed and then have those who want the video editor to give their share of resources to that developer, and those who wanted the database software to the other.

14 Responses to Why Richard Stallman is Wrong

  1. Abi Gopal says:

    Ohai Matt! :D. First, here’s the link this week’s new Linux Action Show, a response to the old one: http://bit.ly/FRIzcv . Next, I agree with most of your points, but I think you’re misunderstanding RMS’s logic. I don’t think his viewpoints are that specific with software. His real issue is that he can’t do whatever he wants, with random content. For example, if you were to produce a movie, he thinks that he should be able to take the movie, change a few things, and market it as his own. It really doesn’t make any sense :(. But whatever. Great blog you have here! I shall spam it with comments :3


  2. Anonymous says:

    I don’t mean to insult you, but you have it all wrong. Sorry for my english. RSM refers to free as free-speech, not free beer. He says that all software must be free, but he doesn’t say anything about price. Yes, you can pay someone to upgrade your software. Yes, you can pay a corporation for software, but only if that software is free.
    By free he means and I quote:

    “A program is free software if the program’s users have the four essential freedoms:

    The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
    The freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
    The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
    The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others (freedom 3). By doing this you can give the whole community a chance to benefit from your changes. Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
    A program is free software if users have all of these freedoms. Thus, you should be free to redistribute copies, either with or without modifications, either gratis or charging a fee for distribution, to anyone anywhere. Being free to do these things means (among other things) that you do not have to ask or pay for permission to do so.”

    See ya.


    • headhunter09 says:

      Sorry, I may be misunderstanding your argument, but:

      I do think that anybody should be able to do basic actions for free (as long as you have the hardware). But like free speech, premium services (such as restaurants in real life) don’t have to put up with it. If you start shouting your opinions in a restaurant, they’ll ask you to leave.

      Forcing software companies to allow free sharing of their product is analogous to forcing book publishers to allow reprinting of their books; it’s an integral part of the profit scheme.

      Now, if a company wants to let free sharing and provide the source code of their software, then they are free to do so. In fact, it might be an incentive for users to choose that software over competitors. No commercial enterprise should be forced to let people exercise harmful behavior.

      That’s my take on it, anyways.


  3. I think there should just be an agency similar to the FDA for software. I know it would slow down releases but at least we could feel secure and maybe RMS could calm down a bit.


  4. I couldn’t agree more with your points. You just missed a few points. One is how he completely ignores the economic fact that if people took up his ideology, there would be another global financial crisis much bigger than the one in 08.

    One other point I think Brian really had going for him that Richard was wrong about, was that Richard though we should all work for companies writing custom software. This ignores one of the key lures for independent developers like me, Brian and millions of other people. We know if we sell millions of apps / subscriptions / whatever. We can become RICH! and without that lure, I for one would most likely not have come to software as well as many other people.

    Don’t get me started on his problems with his problems with his ideas on ‘having children’. I think its just because no one would want to have kids with him.


  5. RHW says:

    I view his stance on ‘free’ sostware a far left insistence on communal sharing. GPL essentially means you have to give away your IP, if someone else can just read your source. Yeah, well, maybe he makes a living out of it, but how’s the average Joe programmer going to do better than subsistance without writing their own killer (gasp!!) commercial (i.e. Capitalist) software??

    I absolutely refuse to include any GPLed libraries in my software. Even if I intend to release it at no cost, I won’t support the insanity of GPL.


    • Jadon says:

      You don’t understand the definition of Free Software, it seems.
      Free Software doesn’t mean “$0”, it means free as in freedom.
      You can make a living selling Free Software.

      And no, you don’t “give away” your IP. Does Mozilla give away it’s IP? No, they plaster copyright notices in the source code.

      Free Software IS capitalist.


  6. Sean Lyons says:

    Your interpretation of some of Stallman’s philosophy is wrong. He is against the hidden agenda that so much modern software has. He is against facebook and google using their users’ usage data for financial gain through the use of end-user license agreements. He is against people being forced to use software without being able to verify what the software is actually doing (this is the closest thing the FSF ever advocates to open-source).

    The point you made about JPEGs in museum quality doesn’t make any sense. No one said that you should be able to obtain that JPEG for free, but if you buy that quality of a JPEG, you should definitely be able to do with it as you please; just as if you had bought the painting out of the museum. Just because eBooks are a different medium for reading doesn’t mean they need to be treated differently; an additional service is being provided to afford you convenience, and you pay for it. However, to increase profits, the large companies that provide this service participate in the unethical practice of restricting your rights to use something you pay for. They can do this because while one company may not have monopolized the industry, all the big companies have the same interest (I’ll give you a hint, it rhymes with absurd profits…oops) and they leverage their effective monopoly against the consumer. Publishers would probably do the same thing with printed books if it were feasible, but that doesn’t make it right.

    Here’s how I see it: Your purchase of the hardware is a payment for the convenience. Your purchase of the book is a payment for the right to ownership of one copy of the book. Ownership implies that no one can tell you what you can or cannot do with the book, yet the companies that offer these services restrict your right do what you please with your property. Virtually, they are not selling you a product, they are indefinitely lending it to you, and making you pay the same price that you would pay for ownership of a hard-copy nonetheless. The consumer is being taken advantage of because no one has the capital to compete with companies like Amazon. It’s really more of an issue of business ethics.

    Stallman doesn’t put all the blame on companies though. A lot of his talks focus on the responsibility of the user/consumer to demand a higher standard by making sacrifices. After all, they are the ones who are choosing convenience over freedom when it comes to software services. If the company chooses not to accommodate the consumer for economic reasons, then so be it, but the user should have some standards for the services they are supporting.

    I will concede that the right to distribute copies of the software that you purchase as-is seems ridiculous. If you modify and re-distribute, obviously there are legislative ways to prevent people from modifying insignificant quantities of code and calling it their own. Even if someone merely adds to the existing code and tries to pass it off as their own, I see some issues there. However, most of what GNU and Stallman argue for is pretty reasonable.


    • headhunter09 says:

      I agree with you mostly, but the fact of the matter is that we haven’t been able to develop good system for eliminating piracy without limiting consumer rights. The ease of duplicating an ebook is, in my mind, a fundamental difference between print and digital books. We therefore require a fundamentally different way of handling ownership. If people didnt pirate, the old way would be fine. But since that is an impossibility, we need restrictions to stop parasitic users.

      I’d also like to hear your proposed legislative methods for limiting redistribution. They are not so obvious to me.


  7. Anonymous says:

    agree with Sean Lyons

    I agree with you mostly, but the fact of the matter is that we haven’t been able to develop good system for eliminating piracy without limiting consumer rights. The ease of duplicating an ebook is, in my mind, a fundamental difference between print and digital books. We therefore require a fundamentally different way of handling ownership. If people didnt pirate, the old way would be fine. But since that is an impossibility, we need restrictions to stop parasitic users.

    I’d also like to hear your proposed legislative methods for limiting redistribution. They are not so obvious to me.

    You are limiting society when you think that way. People who want to read a book are not ‘parasites’ The way I see it is if everbody in the world gets a copy of that book they asre that much smarter, and thus society is that mush smarter. Limiting access to information (weather its a jpeg, pdf, whatever) is wrong. If no one was allowed to use the idea of the wheel where would we be today as a society?


  8. Anonymous says:

    Its not about making a buck. That is a selfish thing. Free software is about freeing society. A lot of the posts on here simply do not have the intellect to understand free software. Why should someone have to work harder (pay) to get information that is already freely available. Our society needs to grow, and free (as in FREE SPEECH NOT FREE BEER) is essential for us to advance as a species. Why you gonna let Joe not read a book because he cant afford it? Its only going to take longer for joe to reach a level of consciousness which is beneficial to humans as a species


  9. Gary says:

    I use whatever software works for me, regardless of license. Have you ever used a completely GPL’d OS? They are neutered beyond belief. Play MP3 and most video codecs? Nope. Flash and Java? Good luck with that.
    The FSF: You are “free” to use whatever software you want, as long as it’s the kind they want you to.


  10. Anonymous says:

    This is really a simple debate when you get right down to it:

    A) You are in fact currently “free” to offer your own creations and intellectual property under whatever licensing scheme you so desire. Yes. Right now. You are FREE to do so. Prefer open source? Great. Maybe you want proprietary. Also great. It’s not for us to say, as after all, it’s YOUR property. Actual freedom is wonderful. It’s about individual choice, ultimately.

    B) Or…But, but but…”it’s free as in, Communism”. Pretty much. The other end of the spectrum is you effectively wish to impose your moral beliefs on all others, and restrict the property rights of others accordingly. You may think it’s precisely the opposite of restriction, but you would be attempting to appeal to authority to impose your moral will on the private property rights of others. There is nothing “free” about collectivists, yet again, waging war against the private property rights of the individual.

    This is literally every other leftist cause. In some manner or another “you are being VICTIMIZED”. In this case, the “evil proprietary software” is the culprit of your supposed victimhood status. Never fear! Comrade FSW’s (free software warriors) will protect the shit out of you! For the love of God, do us a favor and stop trying to “protect” us. You can still create your “free” shit. No one’s stopping that. We just don’t like your continued attempts to erode the rights of the individual.


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