Richard Stallman the creationist

I've taken issue with Stallman numerous times in the past (as an early example, care for a slice of cake). Stallman's latest musings merely add to the stack of ideological positions with which I differ.
Written by John Carroll, Contributor

I've taken issue with Stallman numerous times in the past (as an early example, care for a slice of cake). Stallman's latest musings merely add to the stack of ideological positions with which I differ. Some notable quotes from his latest musings:.

Supporters of open source (which I am not) promote a "development model" in which users participate in development, claiming that this typically makes software "better" -- and when they say "better", they mean that only in a technical sense. By using the term that way, implicitly, they say that only practical convenience matters -- not your freedom.

I don't say they are wrong, but they are missing the point. If you neglect the values of freedom and social solidarity, and appreciate only powerful reliable software [NOTE: emphasis mine], you are making a terrible mistake.

In other words, the open source movement asks what works, and the free software movement says that we should all live in tents and forego participation in the modern economy if that enables us to achieve the standard of freedom as defined by "free software" advocates. Practical convenience be damned...there are principles involved here (more on that later, and no, I don't think the preceding is an exaggeration, as when you define moral red lines, there IS no room for compromise).

The most choice quote, however, and the one that proved most popular in news resports related to the interview, was the following:

Stallman: Nobody knows who will win this fight, because the outcome depends on you and the readers. Will you fight for freedom? Will you reject Windows and MacOS and other non-free software, and switch to GNU/Linux? Or will you be too lazy to resist?

That fits well with my "living in tents" argument (and yes, Mac fans, Stallman hates you, too). It also, in a nutshell, puts into words the strong philosophical disagreement I have with Richard Stallman and the free software revolutionaries who follow him.

Stallman doesn't care whether the approach taken by proprietary software, which primarily involves keeping code secret in order to generate revenue from sale of software as such, "works" in the sense that it adds something innovative and useful to the software art. That outcome doesn't matter because, in Stallman's worldview, what's important is a moral absolute of his own creation that prevents those who agree with him from using such code.

Just to preempt an argument I know is bound to come up, this isn't like asking whether or not human slavery "works." I've I've said before and will say again, let's have some perspective. This is COMPUTER SOFTWARE, dammit, and we are simply asking whether we get MORE from a human creativity standpoint through the incentives created by sale of software as such (or even sale of proprietary software "services" as such over the Internet) than through an exclusively cooperative model as mandated by Stallman.

The "open source" people say yes, there is something to be derived from proprietary software.  Eric Raymond, in his seminal work, The Magic Cauldron, defended Id Software's right to keep the innovative rendering engine used in the landmark first-person shooter game "Doom" proprietary for a period, a period that in his opinion should be relatively short lived due to the productive power of open source development methods.  In contrast, free software advocates place a mental wall around the issue by defining it in moral terms such that compromise is not permitted. Proprietary software is evil...end of story.

That, to my mind, is like creationists creating mental walls of a religious sort that prevent them from thinking rationally about evolution.

Like I noted several years ago, I don't insist on the complete recipe to every meal I eat at restaurants. Computer software is a TOOL, not an issue of human rights. As such, it makes sense to think about how best to USE that tool as well as determine how best to advance the art of making better TOOLS. Stallman and his followers believe that it doesn't matter whether proprietary software makes better tools (or at the least, provides something that adds to the state of the art that wouldn't have been created in the absence of the profit motive). The open source side says he is wrong for being so dogmatic.

I bet if most programmers sat down and really thought about it, they would conclude they are more in the open source camp than the free software camp. Middle grounds ARE good. 

The open source development model has much to recommend it. All proprietary software does is create incentives that inspire creativity from directions it otherwise might not come, a principle that applies as much in software markets as the market for DVD players, clothing, and restaurants.

Saying "proprietary software offers something useful" doesn't mean that it should be granted software development exclusivity, nor that developers must approve of everything that proprietary software companies do. If it is extreme to claim that all proprietary software is evil, then it is equally extreme to absolve proprietary software companies of everything they do in pursuit of the profit motive. Open source programmers are right to criticize when red lines are crossed.

In the end, proprietary and open source software can complement each other, driving the software art to heights that neither could manage on their own.  Let's hope Richard Stallman doesn't succeed in his attempt to build intellectual (and legal) walls to that cooperation.

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