Stallman leads the GPL off a cliff

Richard Stallman has a lot of personal control over the wording of the GPL, and has added verbiage that prevents GPL software from being used in DRM systems. Though that may suit certain ideological predilections, it is also likely to hinder the spread of open source software.

I've criticized Stallman numerous times in the past. I've pointed out that he argues in favor of lowering revenue expectations among developers in order to return to the halcyon days of programming artists doing their thing for the love of the discipline. As he notes in the document to which I've linked:

If we take away the possibility of great wealth, then after a while, when the people have readjusted their attitudes, they will once again be eager to work in the field for the joy of accomplishment.

No mention is made, of course, about the fact that "love of accomplishment" has performed poorly when compared to the incentive-based systems that drive modern market economies.

Either way, I can see why gardeners, employees at Wal-Mart, and professional athletes might think it's great to get free (as in cost) code. Heck, I'd like free hamburgers, free cars, and the latest novels from modern writers for free, too. But why are DEVELOPERS, the people who MAKE THEIR LIVING from this stuff, supposed to welcome the erosion of value in their industry?

This is an old debate, and my failure to understand the motivations of free software vigilantes doesn't change the fact that they are, in fact, so motivated. Likewise, many in Talkbacks to past criticisms have noted that Stallman does not speak for the entire movement, and that his personal predilections have little bearing on the philosophy that motivates the ground troops. People may wish to rethink that premise, as the GPL is incredibly important to the open source movement (though Eric Raymond has advocated doing away with it), and Stallman has just thrown down the ideological gauntlet. The question is whether those same developers who followed Stallman down the GPL garden path will continue to follow as he leads them over the edge of a cliff.

Bold claim, admittedly, but let's start with the first part: that Stallman really aims to lead the movement. If you ever had any doubt about that, just check out a recent interview with Stallman for eWeek. Speaking of the recent release of GPL v3 for public comment:

So, is the process now in the hands of the community?

No. I will still be making decisions. The committees are going to take all the comments and boil them down to issues. Then they will start addressing the issues and looking at the various options. They will also try and decide how to deal with these issues, but ultimately I will be making those decisions. And, of course, if the community has found a good solution, they make that job easy.

In other words, your input is all very nice, thank you very much, but I am king and will decide what goes into the GPL, though it would be nice if you agreed with me. That's democracy under a dictatorship. Ironic, indeed, given that companies such as IBM (a noted backer of open source) complained about the control Sun has over Java. Sun is a company with numerous people involved. Stallman is ONE PERSON.

Of course, everyone can choose to ignore GPL v3, if they want, assuming they didn't do something foolish, such as follow FSF recommendations and describe a software project as governed by version 2 or "any later version." I can't imagine why ANYBODY would want to do that (though lots did), as it essentially grants a great deal of licensing control over the code you create to ONE PERSON (who isn't you), a person who may decide to completely ignore your input in pursuit of whatever social engineering goals he has for the GPL license.

As for the second part - that Stallman is leading the movement straight over a cliff - I was surprised Stallman had the chutzpah to take the GPL in quite so partisan a political direction. I read rumors that DRM-blocking verbiage might be included in the license several months ago on various web sites, and even considered writing a blog about how wondrous and magical a thing that would be (yeah, right). I decided against that, as the rumor might have proven to be false, and besides, I wasn't in the mood for conflict at the time.

Now, the cat is out of the bag, and she is climbing the curtains and antagonizing the dinner guests at the open source restaurant. Linus Torvalds isn't interested in GPL v3 with its anti-DRM provisions, likely because he sees the writing on the wall and knows DRM in some form is inevitable. Why? Because the people creating the media we consume want it. I'm not just talking about big movie and music studios. Small bands, or even lone artists who hope to make a living as full-time musicians, want it. And it's not just creators of media who want it. Businesses want it to protect digital documents from getting distributed to competitors, a bigger problem in a globally networked world with many digital avenues of distribution. Hospitals want it to protect access to medical records. Home users will want it to protect their personal information in the event of theft.

In such a restricted environment (yes, DRM does involve restrictions on use of a digital asset), you aren't going to be able to run just any code. DRM requires TRUSTED code, which means there will have to be CONTROLS over what code is allowed to run. The common way to do this is to require that code be signed, but that's not nearly enough. Anyone can write a component that is signed (though at least signed code is more trackable, as you likely would use a signing certificate from from an authority like Verisign, which has some verification methods in place). More likely, some gating authority would have to sign the code after running tests to ensure that it only does what it's supposed to do with data to which it has access. This means that people couldn't use the code they receive under the terms of the GPL to write extensions to the system without access to the central signing key.

Shipping private keys is the only way to ensure end-users have the ability to modify a system, an essential goal of the FSF. Shipping private keys, however, would destroy the protections intended by a DRM system, which is, quite frankly, Stallmans' real intent.

It has been pointed out that a number of large production studios use Linux. How long do you expect that to last should Stallman manage an end-run around a resistant Torvalds and drag Linux to a version 3 license? Is it really Stallman's goal to put more barriers than already exist to adoption of open source software?

Though Stallman may wish otherwise, most of the world still uses primarily proprietary software. That means there are plenty of options should Stallman create a situation where GPLed code can't be used by businesses or individuals who want DRM (which in 10 years, will be most businesses and MOST users). Linus Torvalds surely realizes that, which is why he is balking at walking the path to the cliff's edge.

GPL version 3 isn't going to help the cause of open source and free software. With it's anti-DRM provisions, it's more likely to inspire a civil war, and if the Stallman side wins (which he might, given interdependencies between various GPL products and the fact that Stallman has convinced so many to give him arbitrary control over the licensing terms covering their code), open source loses as proprietary software rushes in to fill the void left by GPL code.

I remember an old Dukes of Hazzard's episode (don't remember which) where the General Lee JUST makes it across the state line, causing Enos to screech to a halt at the border and Boss Hogg to get out and stomp on his white hat because the Dukes are now out of his jurisdiction. Stallman has created a line in the sand beyond which GPL projects aren't allowed to go, and unlike Boss Hogg, he has done it entirely to himself.

Proprietary companies aren't constrained by such ideological walls. Guess who will occupy DRM territory?


You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
See All
See All