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Free software and the necessity for idealism

Free software idealism is a necessary and desirable part of the software landscape, says Richard Hillesley…

“We cannot solve our problems with same thinking we used when we created them” – Einstein

Free software is sometimes characterised as extremist because it is implacable and accepts no compromise. Richard Stallman has a simple explanation for why taking and holding a position is important to the long term uptake of an idea which was often dismissed as unrealistic and impractical.

“The only reason we have a wholly free operating system”, he once said, “is because of the movement that said we want an operating system that is wholly free, not 90 per cent free. If you don’t have freedom as a principle, you can never see a reason not to make an exception. There are constantly going to be times when for one reason or another there’s some practical convenience in making an exception.”

“It’s not about money”, he has said, “it’s about freedom. If you think it’s about money you’ve missed the point. I want to use a computer in freedom, to cooperate, to not be restricted or prohibited from sharing.”

The role of Stallman and the free software movement and the idealism they represent has been to keep the open source software development model on track, and to prevent it from being subsumed into an entirely commercial view of the programming universe.

Over the past three decades, Stallman and the free software movement have played a central role in raising awareness of the legal and proprietary obstacles to the free distribution of software and ideas – and the universal language of contributors to open source projects (and the software industry in general) has been informed by the philosophical and political grounding provided by Stallman’s writings, especially his insights into the nature of the law surrounding software copyrights and patents.

But his greatest achievement may still be the GNU General Public License (GPL).

The license and its preamble are the profound exposition of Stallman’s idealism and clarity of purpose, to liberate software from the shackles of its proprietary chains, and to allow hackers (in the original meaning of the word, “enthusiastic computer programmers who share their work with others”), the freedom to develop and grow, and share their code.

The beauty of the GPL is that like a piece of elegantly written code, it has a simplicity and transparency all of its own. The license fulfills its demanding objective, of protecting and promoting the principles of free software, without ambiguity or compromise, and as such is a reflection of the determination and personality of Stallman, who could be said to have single-handedly willed GNU, the GPL, and the free software movement into being.

Any idea that doesn’t follow the crowd can be characterised as radical or extremist, but it is the radical idea that brings new things into existence, or as Einstein once put it: “We cannot solve our problems with same thinking we used when we created them”

Bradley Kuhn has his own take on this. “It so happens in debate that whoever has the most out there position is seen as the most radical, however moderate their position really is. Brian Behlendorf who is famous for helping start the Apache Software Foundation, once said he was really glad that there were free software advocates out there because it made him a moderate.”

“‘If you weren’t there’, he said, ‘I’d be the radical’.”