We need more of Richard Stallman, not less

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by Ploum on 2023-06-19


The Free Software movement has been mostly killed by the corporate Open 
Source. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) and its founder, Richard 
Stallman (RMS), have been decried for the last twenty years, including 
by my 25-year-old self, as being outdated and inadequate.

Drew DeValut’s FSF is dying

Free Software is not enough by j3s

Viznut asking if permacomputing should be the successor of Free Software

Myself arguing for RMS replacement in 2006

I’ve spent the last 6 years teaching Free Software and Open Source at 
École Polytechnique de Louvain, being forced to investigate the subject 
and the history more than I anticipated in order to answer students’ 
questions. I’ve read many historical books on the subject, including 
RMS’s biography and many older writings.

And something struck me.

RMS was right since the very beginning. Every warning, every prophecy 
realised. And, worst of all, he had the solution since the start. The 
problem is not RMS or FSF. The problem is us. The problem is that we 
didn’t listen.

The solution has always been there: copyleft

In the early eighties, RMS realised that software was transformed from 
"a way to use a machine" to a product or a commodity. He foresaw that 
this would put an end to collective intelligence and to knowledge 
sharing. He also foresaw that if we were not the master of our software, 
we would quickly become the slave of the machines controlled by soulless 
corporations. He told us that story again and again.

Forty years later, we must admit he was prescient. Every word he said 
still rings true. Very few celebrated forward thinkers were as right as 
RMS. Yet, we don’t like his message. We don’t like how he tells it. We 
don’t like him. As politicians understood quickly, we care more about 
appearance and feel-good communication than about the truth or 
addressing the root cause.

RMS theorised the need for the "four freedoms of software".

- The right to use the software at your discretion

- The right to study the software

- The right to modify the software

- The right to share the software, including the modified version

How to guarantee those freedoms ? RMS invented copyleft. A solution he 
implemented in the GPL license. The idea of copyleft is that you cannot 
restrain the rights of the users. Copyleft is the equivalent of the 
famous « Il est interdit d’interdire » (it is forbidden to forbid).

In insight, the solution was and still is right.

Copyleft is a very deep concept. It is about creating and maintaining 
commons. Commons resources that everybody could access freely, resources 
that would be maintained by the community at large. Commons are 
frightening to capitalist businesses as, by essence, capitalist 
businesses try to privatise everything, to transform everything into a 
commodity. Commons are a non-commodity, a non-product.

Capitalist businesses were, obviously, against copyleft. And still are. 
Steve Ballmer famously called the GPL a "cancer". RMS was and still is 
pictured as a dangerous maniac, a fanatic propagating the cancer.

Bruce Perens and Eric Raymond tried to find a middle ground and launched 
the "Open Source" movement. Retrospectively, Open Source was a hack. It 
was originally seen as a simple rebranding of "Free Software", arguing 
that "free" could be understood as "without price or value" in English.

RMS quickly pointed, rightly, that the lack of "freedom" means that 
people will forget about the concept. Again, he was right. But everybody 
considered that "Free Software" and "Open Source" were the same because 
they both focused on the four freedoms. That RMS was nitpicking.

RMS biggest mistake

There was one weakness in RMS theory: copyleft was not part of the four 
freedoms he theorised. Business-compatible licenses like BSD/MIT or even 
public domain are "Free Software" because they respect the four 

But they can be privatised.

And that’s the whole point. For the last 30 years, businesses and 
proponents of Open Source, including Linus Torvalds, have been  decrying 
the GPL because of the essential right of "doing business" aka 
"privatising the common".

They succeeded so much that the essential mission of the FSF to 
guarantee the common was seen as "useless" or, worse, "reactionary". 
What was the work of the FSF? The most important thing is that they 
proof-bombed the GPL against weaknesses found later. They literally 
patched vulnerabilities. First the GPLv3, to fight "Tivoisation" and 
then AGPL, to counteract proprietary online services running on free 
software but taking away freedom of users.

But all this work was ridiculed. Microsoft, through Github, Google and 
Apple pushed for MIT/BSD licensed software as the open source standard. 
This allowed them to use open source components within their proprietary 
closed products. They managed to make thousands of free software 
developers work freely for them. And they even received praise because, 
sometimes, they would hire one of those developers (like it was a 
"favour" to the community while it is simply business-wise to hire smart 
people working on critical components of your infrastructure instead of 
letting them work for free). The whole Google Summer of Code, for which 
I was a mentor multiple years, is just a cheap way to get unpaid 
volunteers mentor their future free or cheap workforce.

Our freedoms were taken away by proprietary software which is mostly 
coded by ourselves. For free. We spent our free time developing, 
debugging, testing software before handing them to corporations that we 
rever, hoping to maybe get a job offer or a small sponsorship from them. 
Without Non-copyleft Open Source, there would be no proprietary MacOS, 
OSX nor Android. There would be no Facebook, no Amazon. We created all 
the components of Frankenstein’s creature and handed them to the evil 

More commons

The sad state of computing today makes computer people angry. We see 
that young student are taught "computer" with Word and PowerPoint, that 
young hackers are mostly happy with rooting Android phones or blindly 
using the API of a trendy JS framework. That Linux distributions are 
only used by computer science students in virtualised containers. We 
live in the dystopia future RMS warned us about.

Which, paradoxically, means that RMS failed. He was a Cassandra. 
Intuitively, we think we should change him, we should replace the FSF, 
we should have new paradigms which are taking into account ecology and 
other ethical stances.

We don’t realise that the solution is there, in front of us for 40 
years: copyleft.

Copyleft as in "Forbidding privatising the commons".

We need to rebuild the commons. When industries are polluting the 
atmosphere or the oceans, they are, in fact, privatising the commons 
("considering a common good as their private trash"). When an industry 
receives millions in public subsidies then make a patent, that industry 
is privatising the common. When Google is putting the Linux kernel in a 
phone that cannot be modified easily, Google is privatising the common. 
Why do we need expensive electric cars? Because the automotive industry 
has been on a century-long mission to kill public transport or the sole 
idea of going on foot, to destroy the commons.

We need to defend our commons. Like RMS did 40 years ago. We don’t want 
to get rid of RMS, we need more of his core philosophy. We were 
brainwashed into thinking that he was an extremist just like we are 
brainwashed to think that taking care of the poor is socialist 
extremism. In lots of occidental countries, political positions seen as 
"centre" twenty years ago are now seen as "extreme left" because the 
left of twenty years ago was called extremist. RMS suffered the same 
fate and we should not fall for it.

Fighting back

What could I do? Well, the first little step I can do myself is to 
release every future software I develop under the AGPL license. To put 
my blog under a CC By-SA license. I encourage you to copyleft all the 

We need a fifth rule. An obligation to maintain the common to prevent 
the software of being privatised. This is the fifth line that RMS 
grasped intuitively but, unfortunately for us, he forgot to put in his 
four freedoms theory. The world would probably be a very different place 
if he had written the five rules of software forty years ago.

But if the best time to do it was forty years ago, the second-best 
moment is right now. So here are

The four freedoms and one obligation of free software

- The right to use the software at your own discretion

- The right to study the software

- The right to modify the software

- The right to redistribute the software, including with modifications

- The obligation to keep those four rights, effectively keeping the 
software in the commons.

We need to realise that any software without that last obligation will, 
sooner or later, become an oppression tool against ourselves. And that 
maintaining the commons is not only about software. It’s about 
everything we are as a society and everything we are losing against 
individual greed. Ultimately, our planet is our only common resource. We 
should defend it from becoming a commodity.

Copyleft was considered a cancer. But a cancer to what? To the 
capitalist consumerism killing the planet? Then I will proudly side with 
on the cancer side.

Disclaimer: I’m aware that Richard Stallman had some questionable or 
inadequate behaviours. I’m not defending those nor the man himself. I’m 
not defending blindly following that particular human (nor any 
particular human). I’m defending a philosophy, not the philosopher. I 
pretend that his historical vision and his original ideas are still 
adequate today. Maybe more than ever.

Picture of RMS by Frank Karlitschek

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