“Free” Software Morality, Richard Stallman, Paperwork Bureaucracy

By Xah Lee. Date:

This essay discusses Richard Stallman, the Free Software Foundation's moral stance on software, and how legal paperwork required by FSF impedes the progress of FSF's software projects.

Richard Stallman, contributed to society in 2 significant ways. One is his coding, producing many major software, such as emacs, gcc. The other, with far greater impact, and is the reason he is remembered in human animal history, is the creation of FSF with its GPL.

His technical, coding, contribution is unquestionably a positive contribution. His “free” software movement is, however, questionable. The reason that society recognized this social contribution, is partly, if not significantly, due to the fact that he has achieved success in his vision. For example, to illustrate, if Hitler was successful, today he would be a hero, leader, founder, as opposed to a hateful criminal. As another illustration, if US lost the war to UK, then the “founding fathers” of US would be considered criminals today who got punished by death. In fact, many of the leaders in the US at the time is doing quite morally questionable things besides treason. (including, copyright violation to the scale perhaps beyond any in the history of human animals)

Richard Stallman, also did some morally questionable things before he started FSF. In one perspective, you can consider him a software criminal. Lucky for him that at the time there was not much of software law yet. Else, he'd be in jail before he had a chance to mouth his manifesto. So, in this perspective, he is someone who breaks the law, got dissed by MIT, got pissed, with vengeance he starts the FSF to recoup his ego.

The above is one perspective. A perspective neutral, where human animal's behavior is considered foremost as ethology, sans a context of any particular moral system.

How FSF Paperwork Requirement Impedes Software Projects

The FSF requirement of legal paper signing is a significant problem for FSF's software to progress forward.

First, let's presume that it is something that needs to be done in order for FSF to protect GPL.

Now, imagine, there are 2 software A and B. In A, there are paperwork going by postal mail, as part of how A grows code. In B, no paperwork required.

Today, thanks to FSF, vast majority of open source software use model B. Just look at all the code at Google Code, SourceForge, numerous other open source code depositories and all linuxes. Today, the internet age is at a point where people watch movies streamed online and all sort of online transactions, the paperwork and postal mail legal rights transfer model is a major time drain and impetus killing.

To help see this, imagine, if all open source software today, those hosted by Google Code, Source Forge, all linux development, or any code on emacswiki, requires a postal mail legal paper signing before the code can be published, then, to what degree do you think will slow down the progress? Can you now see?

So, now you see, GNU emacs's requirement for signing legal document thru paper mail is a significant obstacle for GNU emacs to progress.

I have thought about how to remedy this situation yesterday, but didn't see any solution or conclusion. First, we presume that the paperwork is in fact necessary, as FSF says so. Ok, then what can we do? I don't really know. If the paperwork is necessary, and of course FSF is practically the leading organization to protect the GPL, in a sense allowing the thousands other open source or “free” software to progress freely without paperwork. It appears to me we have run into a inherently unsolvable problem. I was thinking, perhaps GNU software can be considered as kinda sacrifice, by requiring the legal paperwork in order to protect GPL, for the good of the broad open source community, but meanwhile sacrifice GNU software's progress due to the very nature of paperwork bureaucracy … but this model of “GNU software as sacrifice for greater goods” cannot sustain itself, because eventually GNU's software will become so bad that most people will use other open source software, and if that is so, then FSF's GPL leadership role will rot out too, because only a very small percentage of people is actually using FSF's “free” software …

The above paragraph is a bit of rambling. In any case, i do doubt the necessity for FSF to require the paperwork. Maybe it was critical in the 1980s or 1990s when FSF just started, but maybe not today. It is even questionable if FSF itself was necessary in the 19980s. For example, there was BSD unix and its license. And there's also the much simpler “public domain” release. Arguably these do not propagate the ideal software licensing philosophy adhered by FSF. GPL in my opinion is the primary cause of FSF's success. (Richard calls it “fighting fire with fire”.) But in any case, consider today, with huge participation of Google, Apple, and quite several large organization and commercial entities participating in open source projects in major ways, it is questionable today that even GPL itself, is needed at all. Richard has been successful in spreading his moral philosophy of software. FSF's role in spreading this moral stance on software use, is today successful and arguably mission complete, in the sense that it is already part of standard practice in the industry. So, in this perspective, FSF can in fact today close shop, and the existing open source and “free” software world may not fare worse.

Today, software from FSF has already rotted to little significance in the industry. Consider Perl, PHP, and all the software written in them. Consider JavaScript, Firefox, and around ~2000, Java itself. None are FSF's software. FSF's software have almost no presence in the web development area, where it is today probably the largest sector in software industry. Multitudes of languages, tools, apps, that are open source or “Free” software crop up daily some hundred or thousands of times faster than the number of FSF's software. FSF's software today probably is less than 1% of all Open Source or “Free” software out there. In fact, if we imagine as some kind of disaster that causes all FSF's software to disappear, the Open Source and “Free” Software out there probably wouldn't suffer a dent. (For example, in Operating systems, the BSDs can replace the whole Linuxes that use significant portion of software produced by FSF.)

Note: in the above, we didn't even discuss whether Open Source or “‘Free’ Software”'s moral stance is itself good for society. This is still a hotly controversial subject with no agreement in human animal society. For example, see:

[A Case Against Open Sources By Mathias Strasser. At https://journals.law.stanford.edu/stanford-technology-law-review/online/new-paradigm-intellectual-property-law-case-against-open-sources , accessed on 2015-05-10 ]

For me, i believe that “Free” Software idea is indeed a good idea, but far from the degree of Richard's fanaticism. The gist is that, software is a piece of goods, and by the very nature of software, it can be copied without cost. So, the traditional copyright law, usually allowing one single copy, may not be the best benefit to human animals on a whole, long term wise, when compared to the “‘free’ software” moral philosophy. In the moral philosophy of “‘Free’ software”, software industry more becomes a service oriented industry, where coders get paid to modify and customize existing software. This is also arguably a better business model, more fitting to the nature of software, when compared with existing copyright software laws or practices, where software is closed to public extensions and customizations, and is being rented out as a permission to use.

For some detail on the idea of the above paragraph, see: Responsible Software Licensing .

This essay is a edited version of a newsgroup post in gnu.emacs.help. Source groups.google.com

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