Richard Stallman on the Allchin Controversy

Richard Stallman, founder and president of the Free Software Foundation, has some comments about Jim Allchin’s comments last week in which he disparaged open-source software.

Richard Stallman, founder and president of the Free Software Foundation, has some comments about Jim Allchin’s comments last week in which he disparaged open-source software. Allchin, you’ll recall, said he was only talking about the GPL, the General Public License. Stallman says:

Microsoft describes the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) as an “open source” license, and says it is against the American Way. To understand the GPL and evaluate this accusation, you must first be aware that the GPL was not designed for open source.

The Open Source Movement, which was launched in 1998, appeals to narrowly practical goals and values, such as powerful, reliable software and improved technology. Many developers in that movement use the GNU GPL, and they are welcome to use it. But the ideas and logic of the GPL cannot be found in the Open Source Movement. They stem from the deeper goals and values of the Free Software Movement.

The Free Software Movement, was founded in 1984, but its inspiration comes from the ideals of 1776: freedom, community, and voluntary cooperation. The “free” in “free software” refers to freedom, not price; specifically, that all computer users should have the freedom to study, change, and redistribute the software that they use.

These freedoms are crucial because they permit citizens to help themselves and help each other, and thus participate in a community. They serve programmers and non-programmers alike: as a non-programmer, you can still copy and redistribute a program, and you can ask a friend who programs to make changes for you, or pay a programming company to make them. Powerful, reliable software and improved technology are desirable goals, but we should not obtain them at the cost of our freedom.

Microsoft says that we are against “intellectual property rights.” I have no opinion “intellectual property rights,” and if you are thoughtful you will have none either. That term is a catch-all, covering copyrights, patents, trademarks, and other disparate legal systems; they are so different, in the laws and in their effects, that any statement about all of them at once is almost surely foolish. To think intelligently about copyrights, patents or trademarks, you must think about them separately. My views about copyrights are too complex to fit in this article, but one general principle applies: they cannot justify denying the public important freedoms. As Abraham Lincoln put it, “Whenever there is a conflict between human rights and property rights, human rights must prevail.”

The GNU GPL is designed to uphold and defend these freedoms–in the words of 1776, it establishes them as inalienable rights for programs released under the GPL. It ensures that you have the freedom to study, change and redistribute the program, by saying that nobody is authorized to take these freedoms away from you.

For the sake of cooperation, we encourage others to modify and extend the programs that we publish. For the sake of freedom, we set the condition that these modified versions of our programs must respect your freedom just like the original version. We encourage two-way cooperation by rejecting parasites: whoever wishes to copy parts of our software into his program must let us use parts of that program in our programs. Nobody is forced to join our club, but those who wish to participate must offer us the same cooperation they receive from us. That makes the system fair.

Millions of users, tens of thousands of developers, and companies as large as Intel and IBM, have chosen to participate on this basis. Other companies say, “We will make an improved version of this program if you allow us to release it without freedom.” We say, “No thanks–your improvements might be useful, but not at the price of our freedom. We value our freedom too much.”

When Microsoft makes that offer, it has a specific reason. Microsoft is known generally for imitation rather than innovation. When Microsoft does something new, its purpose is strategic–not to improve computing for the users, but to close off future alternatives for them.

Microsoft uses an anticompetitive strategy called “embrace and extend”. This means they start with the technology others are using, add a minor wrinkle which is secret so that nobody else can imitate it, then use that secret wrinkle so that only Microsoft software can communicate with other Microsoft software. In some cases, this makes it hard for you to use a non-Microsoft program when others you work with use a Microsoft program. In other cases, this makes it hard for you to use a non-Microsoft program for job A if you use a Microsoft program for job B. Either way, “embrace and extend” magnifies the effect of Microsoft’s market power.

In 2000, Microsoft undermined the Kerberos secure login software in this way. They added a small secret feature to their version of the Kerberos software, simply to make it incompatible. The standard, free software version of Kerberos cannot communicate with Microsoft’s modified Kerberos server. The result: anyone who wants to communicate with the Microsoft server software has to run Windows on his desktop.

The Kerberos community was incensed when they saw this, but they had no way to stop it. Kerberos had been developed at MIT, and released as free software–but not under the GNU GPL. The lax license used for Kerberos was no bar to Microsoft’s plans. If the Kerberos developers had released Kerberos under the GPL, Microsoft could not have undermined it in this way.

Now Microsoft demands that we leave ourselves equally vulnerable in other areas. But defenselessness is not the American Way. In the land of the brave and the free, we defend our freedom with the GNU GPL.

RMS also had some issues with my column on the subject:

I disagree strongly with your view that free software “can and should co-exist with proprietary software.” But many people agree with you; in particular the Open Source Movement agrees with you.

The Open Source Movement is content to co-exist with proprietary software–that is why I do not support it. The Free Software Movement has a more ambitious goal, to replace proprietary software with free software that respects your freedom.

This goal is why we labored for a decade to develop a complete free operating system. This goal is why GNU/Linux exists. When our work is described as “open source”, that has the effect of attributing it to the wrong philosophy, a philosophy which does not ask people to do the work we did. The Free Software Movement is often forgotten because of this misattribution of our work.

By the way, thanks for saying that the system’s real name is GNU/Linux. However, it really helps to make things clear if you refrain from abbreviating it to “Linux”. Then you can distinguish between GNU/Linux, the whole system, and Linux, the kernel. That would only have required 16 more characters in this article–and you could have won most of them back by replacing “usually known as just plain Linux” with “often called `Linux'”

Author: Dan Gillmor

News Service: EJournal