Richard Stallman and Free Software

At the recent NA-CAP, I had the good fortune to meet the legendary Richard Stallman, who gave an impassionated defense of free software.  According to him, it is unethical to use proprietary software.  Regardless of the degree to which you agree with him, Stallman is worth listening to and meeting in person.  Failing that, read some of his works.  I find his energy, clarity, and integrity inspiring.

In case you don’t know, Stallman is a former MIT researcher who quit MIT to found of the GNU Project, launched in 1984 to develop the free software operating system GNU.

Here is how the Free Software Foundation defines free software:

<<“Free software” is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer.”

Free software is a matter of the users’ freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. More precisely, it refers to four kinds of freedom, for the users of the software:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose (freedom 0).
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor (freedom 2).
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.

A program is free software if users have all of these freedoms… [more on their website]>>


  1. Well, I find the claim that using proprietary is unethical completely unjustified and false. Note that I do develop open source software myself (LanguageTool, a grammar checker for Polish, English, German, etc.) and member of open source projects (for example, a lead of Polish community). Anyway, software is protected by copyright – and rightly so, as most of the economical value this days will depend on abstract objects such as programs or knowledge representations. You can sell them the same way you sell a song, a book or anything else that you create, and there is nothing unethical with paying you for that. Otherwise, we would all have to do physical work – nobody can work for peanuts. At least not for peanuts only.
    In my opinion, if you want to give away your work, it’s OK, it’s your right. But this isn’t and cannot be your moral duty to do so. And this includes your right not to give out the code of the program. You don’t expect to have food for free at a fancy restaurant or that the chef will give in all his cooking secrets. So why should this be your duty if you’re a software developer? (Note that recipes are exactly the same thing as algorithms…)

  2. Charles

    marcin —

    You seem to have missed the first disclaimer: free as in “free speech” not as in “free beer”. Free Software is a philosophy, not a business model in itself. Here are a few very successful companies that give away software for free: MySQL, Sun, Red Hat, Netscape. Here’s a business that gives away a “product” (service) for free that you might have heard of: Google (admittedly, very much NOT a “free software” model, but illustrates the point).

    Here’s where your recipe analogy breaks down: not everyone wants to cook their own meals. Some people have no idea how to cook. Some people can but don’t want to be bothered. Some people would rather eat their food in an upscale atmosphere, away from home. Some people who want to cook need help when they get down into the details. Some people don’t want to write the recipe down and would rather have it well-presented in, say, a book (for which they’re willing to pay). [As an aside, to compare free software to free *food* (not the same as “free recipe”) is like saying the free software movement is advocating giving your computer away with the free software you developed.]

    This doesn’t touch on the “moral duty” aspect of your claims, which I’m unqualified and unwilling to address. However, your general approach to the subject was misleading.

  3. Charles –

    I am the member of the open source community and I perfectly know all these examples. I’m not saying you cannot have a good business model with open source, I’m saying that it’s absurd to claim that _using_ (and not only selling, mind you!) non-open-source software is a moral blunder. This is what Gualtiero quoted from Stallman.

    Anyway, most people don’t care how software works. They are interested in the meal, not in the recipe; in doing their work, not in learning C++. So the analogy is quite OK.

    The problem with the supposed dichotomy between “free” as in “free beer” and free as in “free speech” is that it collapses in case of the absurd claim against proprietary software. As soon as selling beer is vicious – and this is roughly what is being claimed – this difference makes no difference. What I’m saying is that selling and using proprietary software is morally neutral, just as selling any intellectual creation, like a book or a poem. You don’t have to give away all you do; sometimes you can sell it, destroy it or eat it. This is the creator’s decision, and arguing against that is arguing against human freedom. I haven’t yet come across a good argument against proprietary software nor proprietary novels or other intellectual creations. So until proven wrong, I’m happy to use at least some proprietary software, and a lot of open source software.

  4. One of the biggest barriers to Free Software and Open Source is the persistent perception that “free” means “no cost”. Read the GNU”>”>GNU GPL and the GNU”>”>GNU Manifesto. *Especially* if you are involved in open and free software projects. If the people on the inside don’t have a clear understanding of what they are working for, we can’t expect to propagate a clear understanding to the public at large.

  5. In my opinion, it is Richard Stallman that shares this misperception if he really claims that open source must be given away for free.

    I know that open source does not mean “given away at no cost”. I just claim that if you say that using proprietary software is unethical, you’re denying the very basis of the open source movement.

    In other words, I do claim that (if Gualtiero is quoting RS correctly, but I believe he is) Stallman is committed to an unjustified claim.

    It’s unjustified because:

    1) you want to be ethical, so
    2) you cannot sell proprietary software, nor even use it
    3) but you can sell and use free software,
    4) so the unethical point in using proprietary software would be that you cannot (easily) know how it works.
    5) in other words, you must open your source,
    6) and allow users to freely copy it (see above Gualtiero’s quote).

    The problem is that most open source projects have a kind of double life – they have a basic version, and a special rich version with non-free things such as services or additional features. Now, if you’re Stallman, you must say that you cannot sell additional features (they aren’t free). All you can charge is extra services such as user support.

    Now, the problem is that I haven’t found a single developer that would be eager to get money from user support. This can work for large corporations but not for individuals. So this basically supports large corporations capitalism and hinders individualism… And that’s against individual freedom, as far as I can see.

    But to the point of justification. I think it’s a conceptual truth that in case of abstract artifacts that you originally create you’re absolutely free to do anything with them, ceteris paribus (you can have an additional moral duty because of other reasons such as you promised to give them away). You can share them or hide them, or forget them. You can sell them under a contract but before a contract, you can do whatever you like, ceteris paribus.

    So the problem is why software should be different from any other abstract artifact? Why should it be your moral duty to share the code of it when sharing the code means you cannot simply charge for the software itself? Note that Stallman cannot sustain this point in general, as money is generally an abstract artifact but the national bank doesn’t have to share it for free nor share the secrets of its production… I just cannot see any justification for the claim that it’s unethical not to reveal the source code. In my opinion, it’s morally good to reveal the code most of the time (I wouldn’t be so sure if that would be the code of nuclear missile), as it benefits others, and that’s generally morally good. But it doesn’t mean that not giving away is evil. Non sequitur.

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  7. tony

    If you go to a backery and buy a cake, is it unethical if you don’t get the recipe as well?
    If you buy a radio, is it unethical if you don’t get the construction plans for it?
    If you buy some software, is it unethical if you don’t get the source-code?
    If you buy a processor, is it unethical if you don’t get the “hardware description language”-description of the processor?

    Richard Stallman sees it as an ethical issue. Maby he is ultimately right. I simply don’t know.
    He’s right that sharing is a good thing.
    But is it really an ethical issue whether or not you get some recipe, construction plans or source-code??

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