miércoles, 1 de octubre de 2008

Freedom, software and society

I've been working these past days on a book review about the free software movement, and have thought it could be a good idea to post it here (not the whole text, just an excerpt) because it is really related to the main topic of this blog. The book is “Free Software. Free Society”, by software freedom activist and programmer Richard M. Stallman.

“Work for something because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.” Vaclav Havel.

“A business making proprietary software stands a chance of success in its own narrow terms, but it is not what is good for society” Richard Stallman


Considered the father of the free software, Richard M. Stallman has spent years solidifying a career devoted to a single cause: the fight against a proprietary software model established at the end of the 70's. The birth, and subsequent boom of this model, personally affected him, not only as a software programmer and developer, but as a political and culturally committed citizen. The work "Free Software. Free Society", published in 2002, is product of those over thirty years of struggle, a compendium of articles and essays Stallman himself has been accumulating since the very beginning of his project: to initiate a free software movement on his own, and not only by an act of rebellion, but with a firm belief of social duty.

The intersection of ethics, law, business and computer software is the main subject of these essays and speeches: a collection that includes historical writings (related to the beginnings of the free software movement, like The GNU Manifesto1) along with new ones on hot topics in copyright, patent law, and the controversial issue of “trusted” computing. In some of the essays, Stallman takes a critical look at several issues related to the software and its social implications, such as common abuses of copyright law and patents when applied to computer software programs, and how these abuses damage our entire society and remove our existing freedoms. In others, he also discusses the social aspects of software and how free software can create community and social justice.

The structure and content of the whole text is already outlined in the prologue, written by lawyer Lawrence Lessig2 -author of two well-known books on similar topics3-. After a brief introduction to the author, whom he considers "a philosopher of the 20th century ", the text falls squarely in the problematic issue of the term "free", a confusing word in English by the ambivalence of its meaning (not free as in costless, but free as in limited in its control by others), undoubtedly the cornerstone that bases this essays collection. According to the free software community, a program is free when the user can basically exercise four freedoms: the freedom to run a program, whatever its purpose; the freedom to modify it; the freedom to distribute copies free of charge or in exchange for money; and the freedom to distribute modified versions, so that the community can take advantage of the improvements. Contrary to what has been often criticized, the free software movement has nothing to do with a monetary issue and, as may be noted, this idea of "freedom" -in the more political and socially committed sense of the term-, constantly repeated throughout the text, is not only the key to understand Richard Stallman's project (and, of course, his work “Free Software. Free Society”), but also constitutes the anchor for the free software movement to legitimize its existence.

Free software. Free society” in the social movements context. A personal view.

Beyond the sympathy Stallman himself or his movement work may arouse, it is necessary to review some interesting points of the book. First, it must be recognized that the free software movement is not a trivial matter, and that it is so powerful that even Microsoft Corp. has acknowledged this is its biggest threat, and possibly end up agreeing to join the movement4. In this regard, the set of essays in "Free Software. Free Society" reflects the spirit of the movement (and does not focus on a historical perspective) and the fundamental principles that led Stallman to respond against proprietary software.

Undoubtedly, the essays cover a wide spectrum and include many not very well-known arguments (it is remarkable the particularly intelligent assessment on the changing circumstances that have made copyright a bit suspicious in the digital era). Moreover, the book is didactive, and easy to understand for non-techicians: the essays cater to a wide audience, thus readers do not need a computer science background to understand the philosophy and ideas herein. Actually, the book includes a “Note on Software”5, to help the less technically inclined reader become familiar with some common computer science jargon and concepts, as well as footnotes throughout.

However, "Free Software. Free Society" is not exempt from criticism. Stallman himself has sometimes been criticized for being somewhat dogmatic and unreasonable. His uncompromising attitude on ethical issues concerning computers and software has caused some people to label him as radical and extremist6. And some of this radicalism is distilled in "Free Software. Free Society", especially in some chapters where readers can percieve proprietary software companies as the “incarnation of evil". Paradoxically, many important keys for the free software movement have been criticized for not being radical alternatives (such as the copyleft license).

Despite these criticisms, I personally find very important - and this is the main reason why I chose “Free Software. Free Society” for a book review- the fact that free software movement is beyond an IT issue. It is a technical-political revolution with very valuable ethical principles: it proves that it is possible to activate social mechanisms of production innovation based on the massive and open cooperation; that alternative tools can possibily be developed; and that there are different kinds of ways of thinking about copyright. In fact, this book talks about freedom in the IT field (access to the source code is something that, after all, only affects software developers and not ordinary citizens), just as an excuse to defend freedom in other areas of life.


1 Published in March 1985 in “Dr. Dobb's Journal of Software Tools” as an explanation and definition of the goals of the GNU Project. It is held in high regard within the free software movement as a fundamental philosophical source. The full text is included with GNU software such as Emacs, and is available online (http://www.gnu.org/gnu/manifesto.html)

2 Lawrence Lessig is a professor of law at Stanford Law School and founder of its Center for Internet and Society. He is also a noted legal expert on copyright law and a committed political activist. http://www.lessig.org/

3 Code and other laws of cyberspace (1999) and Free Culture: The Nature and Future of Creativity (2004), both released on the Internet under the Creative Commons Attribution/Non-commercial license, and published later in paperback format.

5 This note includes a good and concise an explanation of the meaning of "source code," "compiler," "assembler," "machine code" and "operating system", among others.

6 DANIEL LYONS “The Problem With St. Ignucius”, 08.31.06 (Forbes)


1 comentario:

PHex dijo...

I think it too mild to say RMS is considered the father of as opposed to is the father of.

And I think (sorry no reference) RMS does distinguish proprietary from closed software. Just because it is owned by a company does not make it closed but does mean it is proprietary.

You may gather I'm a FS advocate but will acknowledge there are things to be critical of in that collection of essays. On the whole though the robust position of RMS is essential to progress.