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Richard Stallman: The Free Software Movement *Is* Politics

The Free Software Movement teaches computer users to value freedom

[Dee-Ann LeBlanc mused recently here at LinuxWorld.com on the vexed question of whether in the Linux community we are letting politics have too much sway over and above the technology. Here are Richard Stallman's thoughts on that same issue, just received...far from sharing this worry, on the contrary he is concerned that a narrow focus on technological developments "might distract our best activists from doing their best work..."  ]


"Dear editors of LinuxWorld,

When I read Ms LeBlanc's surprised reaction to the idea that "Linux" is about politics - initially negative, followed by an acknowledgment that it may have become so - I was struck above all by the irony. This operating system was launched to be about politics, starting with its announcement 20 years ago this month:

Starting this Thanksgiving I am going to write a complete
Unix-compatible software system called GNU (for Gnu's Not
Unix)... I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like
a program I must share it with other people who like it... So
that I can continue to use computers without violating my
principles, I have decided to put together a sufficient body of
free software so that I will be able to get along without any
software that is not free.

If the idea that the GNU/Linux operating system is about politics comes as a surprise to many of its users today, this is because they have forgotten its origin. The practice of calling the entire system "Linux" has led many to suppose it was started by Linus Torvalds in 1991. (Torvalds developed a kernel which, once freed in 1992, filled the last gap in the nearly complete GNU operating system.) They often say that the GNU project developed "tools," diminishing its real aim.

The only idea of the GNU/Linux system's purpose that they have encountered is Torvalds' self-described "apolitical" vision, the vision of the Open Source Movement, so many of them make this vision their inspiration. Some go so far as to say that technology should not be sullied by non-technical concerns - espousing an idea of "pure technology" that explicitly rejects the lesson, so painfully learned from World War II, that engineers have a duty to consider how their work may affect society.

But you cannot keep your freedom by making technical advance your only goal. In 1983, we computer users had lost our freedom to cooperate: the only way you could buy a modern computer and run it was to sign a nondisclosure agreement, promising not to share with your friends, you could not tell what the program really did, and you could change it only by patching the binary. Regaining this freedom required 20 years of persistent effort, but we can lose it again much more quickly if we fail to defend it.

The Free Software Movement teaches computer users to value freedom, so they will defend it. Recognizing the value of freedom yourself is the first step in helping to do this.

Sincerely
Richard Stallman
Chief GNUisance of the GNU Project"

More Stories By Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman is the founder of the Gnu Project, launched in 1984 to develop the free operating system GNU (an acronym for "GNU's Not Unix"), and thereby give computer users the freedom that most of them have lost. GNU is free software: everyone is free to copy it and redistribute it, as well as to make changes either large or small. He is the principal or initial author of GNU Emacs, the GNU C Compiler, the GNU Debugger GDB and parts of other packages. He is also president of the Free Software Foundation (FSF).

Any copyright notice in his articles supersedes all copyright notices on the SYS-CON and Ulitzer sites.

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Most Recent Comments
Eduardo "Tião" Barbosa 06/22/04 11:04:18 AM EDT

I believe Mr. Handley´s point of view is very interesting. The movement is not "simply" about politics and the ideal of freedom that started it all. The political issue is a contitutive part of the movement, as much as the technological "advances" in software development are the horse-power that keeps us on our feet, strugling with proprietary software users/developers about our side of the tide.
I believe the point here is not to forget our political responsabilities. The Free Software movement makes a statement to the world, that we cannot deny. And we say "let code be free!", because we understand, by living within this major industrial revolution, that the work we do CANNOT be taken away or be restricted. It must return to were it came from, your local community, the gnu/linux community, other developers, the users, the world wide web.
This, of corse, is lost within the repressive enviroments, be those of "Dilbert" or Orwell´s "1984".

Daniel C. Handley 03/07/04 09:24:31 PM EST

I mistakenly placed all of the free software movement under the "Open Source" banner, and for that I apologize. But what I was getting at is that the movement, whatever the title, has moved beyond simply being "political". There are those who still maintain that ideal, and that's wonderful. But to simplify GNU/Linux in such a manner is faulty. That was the mentality that started it all, but it is not, by any means, the only motive that sustains the movement.

The Free Software movement is what began the push to return to shared code, and marvellously so. But it's the Open Sourcers that have become the "flagship" (for lack of better term) which is publically driving it. I share the belief that freedom is the ideal we should all live by, but that ideal is not what prompts an organization like IBM to pour billions into development. It's the stability, security, and availability of a worldwide development community that promotes such involvement.

Perhaps I was mistaken when I read RMS's article, but it almost seems like a total abandonment of all ideals which are not his own, much like a religious fundamentalist would reject all others who don't agree. I am simply trying to make the point that free software licensed under the GPL or GPL-like licenses are proving to be highly effective, regardless of the ideal or motive it is developed under.

Daniel C. Handley 03/07/04 09:24:21 PM EST

I mistakenly placed all of the free software movement under the "Open Source" banner, and for that I apologize. But what I was getting at is that the movement, whatever the title, has moved beyond simply being "political". There are those who still maintain that ideal, and that's wonderful. But to simplify GNU/Linux in such a manner is faulty. That was the mentality that started it all, but it is not, by any means, the only motive that sustains the movement.

The Free Software movement is what began the push to return to shared code, and marvellously so. But it's the Open Sourcers that have become the "flagship" (for lack of better term) which is publically driving it. I share the belief that freedom is the ideal we should all live by, but that ideal is not what prompts an organization like IBM to pour billions into development. It's the stability, security, and availability of a worldwide development community that promotes such involvement.

Perhaps I was mistaken when I read RMS's article, but it almost seems like a total abandonment of all ideals which are not his own, much like a religious fundamentalist would reject all others who don't agree. I am simply trying to make the point that free software licensed under the GPL or GPL-like licenses are proving to be highly effective, regardless of the ideal or motive it is developed under.

J.B. Nicholson-Owens 03/07/04 06:59:08 PM EST

Handley misattributes the community to the wrong movement. The community we're a part of is the free software community because it was started by RMS to pursue software freedom. The open source movement exists within the free software community and the open source movement didn't start for over a decade after the community had been built. Thus, it would not be fair or reasonable to give the open source movement credit for the work in building our community.

Also, it's not "free source" advocates, it's free software advocates. RMS, unsurprisingly, mentions the name a number of times in his essay.

The license that is the most widely used came from the Free Software Foundation--the GNU General Public License (or GPL). It was in use well before the open source movement came to be. So, let's try to give credit where credit is due and learn recent history so we understand what the two movements are saying and then we can make informed choices about which movement we want to back.

Daniel C. Handley 09/26/03 10:03:44 PM EDT

I am glad to see Mr. Stallman's much-needed response. But there is something he seems to overlook. To "free source" advocates, it is very political, in a moral and ethical sense. But there are many views about shared source. My view is that open source is more economically viable in the long run.

No matter how one feels, the greatest thing about open source is not a matter of one view over another. We all see things differently. In the open source community, we can all agree to disagree, and still accomplish miraculous things. That diversity is our greatest advantage.

I'm glad to see those like Richard Stallman fighting for free speech and free technology. Mr. Stallman is right. But so are Linus Torvalds, Eric Raymond, IBM, HP, and all other open sourcers. Each has his or her own motive, but together, our differing views can only strengthen the magnificent and powerful force that is the open source community!

V. Aldridge 09/26/03 09:31:54 PM EDT

Freedom is so easily given up every day. Unfortunatly, most of us simply try and drag ourselves through the day and the idea of politics and loss of freedom rarely grace our thoughts except in a small passing way. Simple truths are what we can deal with and simple truths are what we are willing to accept. Freedom requires you to be engaged in the world and to perceive the desires of some few to mislead us and trouble our thoughts with lies and half truths so that we surrender those treasured freedoms and be controlled for their sakes. As an MCSE I understand the MS approach but I also understand what GNU/Linux means to the world as a whole. It will change society, and freedom of the heart and the mind is never ever a bad thing. Through those things are found peace, not through absolute control.

Mr. Stallman and Mr. Torvalds have my deepest admiration and support....

Jonny L Gent P.E. 09/26/03 08:56:45 PM EDT

Thank you Richard for the consistent message. It never waviers and is right on the mark. I enjoy the benefits and security of many peoples work and say thank you everyday.

Thank you and I will continue to support Free software and GNU/Linux.

M Graeber 09/26/03 06:49:10 PM EDT

What Stallman and Torvalds have initiated will some day be viewed as the greatest cultural achievement of the 20th century.

W. Grimm 09/26/03 09:15:07 AM EDT

I think Mr. Stallman is correct; we had better get political if we are not already, because there are people out there who will take away our freedoms and our software if we do not. The "richest man in the world" wants to force you to run his software, and no other, on your computers.

I also believe that if the US is to continue to play a major role in the worldwide computing industry, that we should embrace Open Source- this is where the future lies. The world is not going to accept proprietary products like MS Windows for much longer.....

A Smith 09/24/03 12:14:49 AM EDT

There's been a lot of speculation about SCO's motivation for their war on Linux. GROKLAW appears to have discovered the definitive documents from way back in February (before SCO filed suit against IBM).

In short, it all started about shared libraries, the idea was to combine UNIX/Linux and possibly wipe out all SCO's competitors, to put SCO on top of the food-chain over Red Hat and other Linux companies, and to force IBM to settle because of SCO's claimed ability to revoke IBM's AIX license.

For full details, read http://www.groklaw.com/

Terrell Prude', Jr. 09/22/03 04:50:51 PM EDT

Actually, Stallman says that "Free Software" is political, not "Open Source." The "Open Source" movement came about as an effort to *remove* talk of freedom--a political subject--from the conversation and speak pretty much only of technical benefits to business. The Open Source folks, like Perens and Raymond, are right in that there are certainly benefits to business on merely technical merits (witness the Internet and what powers it). I also thank those two for their work in promoting Free Software ("Open Source" is billed as a marketing arm for Free Software). However, it is the Free Software movement that made so prevalent today the mindset of people collaborating together--by example. It is the Free Software movement's GNU GPL that is now our strongest buttress against the likes of SCO. It is the Free Software movement that made the ethical decision to create a truly Free operating system (GNU). Without the Free Software movement, "Open Source" would never have had a foundation on which to exist.

No, I am not Richard Stallman--I can only wish to be that intelligent. I simply recognize the wisdom in what he says. I thank him and the Free Software movement every day I use a computer, and yes, I proudly use and deploy GNU/Linux (several distributions).

Alex 09/22/03 03:48:39 PM EDT

People say "everyone should live under a democracy". A democracy is more and more becoming about individuals `human rights', our personal freedoms.

Free/libre software including Linux is for the people that have made it happen about having tools with which they are free to do what they wish in the ways described in the Free Software Foundations software freedoms. The ability to do such is a right.

I think these days unlike at Stallmans outset freedoms are dissolved gently rather than cut off. So people grow accustomed to their absence and don't notice and don't realise what they have lost. So we live in a ever more cosy and safe world, that would be as boring as hell but for tv

Randall Poznan 09/22/03 11:39:22 AM EDT

Richard Stallman thanks for what you do! This work is appreciated, and greatly important.

As long as large companies want monopolistic control of computing, politics will come into play. Keep fighting for the right to build, use, and distribute open src.

George X 09/22/03 08:28:59 AM EDT

Being involved in GNU/Linux for just one month i am sure it is politics. It is made with the purpose to spread knowledge and not to restrict it. But i don't think forgetting this is a matter of memory, it's mainly the way people "consume" products including software, without caring for the side effects of the use of these products.

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