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Entry 837, on 2008-08-21 at 21:02:36 (Rating 2, Computers)

I just listened to an interview by Richard Stallman, the free software advocate, political activist, and all-round legendary computer geek. Of course, there was a lot in what he said that I agree with, regarding both computing and technology, and politics in general, but there were a few things where I think he is wrong as well.

First, where I think he's right. I totally agree that the US currently has a very poor government and that it is only likely to get marginally better (if it gets better at all) after the next election. I agree that large corporations like Microsoft and Monsanto stifle progress and use numerous dirty tricks to further their already obscenely huge profits. I agree that copyright and patent law is being manipulated by large corporations to protect their monopolistic behaviour. I agree that DRM is both a stupid and an unfair idea which has been pushed through to protect media corporation profits. And I agree that it would be nice if all software was free (in the sense that he defines the word free).

But let's get realistic here. Commercialism isn't going to go away and we don't necessarily want it to. I am against rampant capitalism as much as he is (or more) but we shouldn't throw out the good with the bad. He doesn't care if more free software means that innovative new commercial software stops being produced, but I do.

I am an Apple supporter and Apple are as bad as anybody in protecting their products, but I accept that negative to get the advantages of using a system I really enjoy. The same applies to commercial software like Photoshop. I don't like Adobe's registration process but I don't like any of the Photoshop alternatives either so I put up with the negatives so that I get the positives.

Stallman talks about four freedoms that all software users should have...

Freedom 0 (all true geeks start lists at zero) is the freedom to run the program as you wish. Many people would say this is reasonable, but what about using a program for illegal uses? I could imagine someone who makes a peer to peer file swapping program might allow others to use it only if they don't download pirated material, for example. Is that unreasonable? I don't think so.

Freedom 1 is the right to study the source code and change it. For a start, the number of people who are capable of understanding source code is very small compared to the total number of computer users, so this is more a theoretical than a real issue. But is it even a good idea in theory? Maybe not, because it means that encryption algorithms and other stuff which is best kept secret would be revealed. I don't think this is necessarily a good idea either.

Freedom 2 the right to help your neighbour. Well we all want to help our neighbours, don't we? But when we examine this right in real terms it turns out to be the freedom to make and distribute exact copies of programs. If we don't care about commercial software that's fine, but since I have already pointed out that we do care about it this is obviously not a right we would want to become too widespread.

Freedom 3 is the freedom to contribute to your community, specifically to make and distribute modified copies. This is really just a rehash of one and two so the same criticisms apply.

I use a lot of commercial and open source (similar to "free") software and I like both. Photoshop and Apple's great commercial software beat anything else I have used, either commercial or free, so I choose to accept the license (even though I don't have the slightest idea what it says) and use those programs. I also use Apache, MySQL and PHP for web development work and these are all open source. They are great products and beat any commercial software I have used with similar functionality. So I think there's a place for both.

Bill Gates was just as wrong when he suggested good software couldn't be produced in a non-commercial environment. But Gates being wrong doesn't make Stallman any more right. The truth lies somewhere between the two extremes (as it almost always does).

Stallman refused to allow media of his talk here to be distributed in non-free formats (like mp3s) and I think that is just stupid (I'm sorry to have to say that about an obviously brilliant person). First, mp3 is a good format so why shouldn't we use it; and second, if he wants to try to convert users of commercial mp3 players using proprietary formats he needs to make his ideas available to them. By distributing his audio only in free formats he's just preaching to the converted.

So I think Stallman has got some great ideas but he has to be more realistic and reasonable. Maybe that lack of flexibility is a major reason that projects like Linux haven't done better on the average person's computer. Of course I agree that sabotage from Microsoft and others didn't help!


Comment 1 (1529) by GadgetDon on 2008-08-22 at 00:06:24:

My big problem with Richard Stallman isn't that he thinks people should have the right to choose to use software that support his "four freedoms", it's that he believes that is the ONLY software that should be available, that anyone who chooses software that doesn't 100% support those is being either a dupe or a supporter, and anyone who chooses to write and distribute software in a way that doesn't include those four freedoms is a villain. Your comment about his insistence that the talk not be distributed in other formats is a good example of this issue...you have the freedom to live your life the way Richard Stallman thinks you should, but should you choose another way, you are a bad person.

He's accomplished some great things, free software wouldn't have gotten to where it was without it. And maybe movements need unreasonable people to make progress. But I'd no more be happy in a world where the only choices were the ones offered by Richard Stallman, than the ones offered by Bill Gates.


Comment 2 (1530) by OJB on 2008-08-22 at 08:23:09:

That is exactly how I see it too. I am totally aware of the disadvantages of commercial software but I balance those against the advantages. I'm quite capable of deciding which is more appropriate without advice from a fanatic like him!


Comment 3 (1531) by OJB on 2008-08-22 at 08:26:00:

The ironic thing is that be has made himself less free by pursuing this idealistic goal of supposedly greater freedom.


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