Friday, March 25, 2011

Richard Stallman

Until a couple of weeks ago I'd never heard of Richard Stallman. In another couple I expect I'll have forgotten him again, but for the moment he is exercising a part of my mind that I really need for other purposes. Mostly his ideas, but also the man himself.

He is the guru of free software. Free as in speech, not as in beer. He was lecturing in these parts last week and I would very much have liked to hear him, but real life intervened as it so often does. But I do a bit of work at the computer science faculty so I've been asking them all what they thought of him. What follows is a distillation of what I gathered each of them

Stallman is indeed a guru, an evangelist, a proselyte for free software, and he dresses and acts the part. He is a performer, playing the role he he has made for himself at all times, but he is also a genuine eccentric. He has no house and 'lives without money' (in fact, of course, he allows his followers to 'gain merit' by housing and feeding him and paying his expenses; he doesn't live on the streets). His call to change the economic model which dominates the software market is aimed at both the producer and the consumer of software, and is based partly on the belief that such a change would be good for both producer and consumer. He recognises that people are entitled to make a living by producing software, and that many of the benefits we enjoy from the advancement of ICT (the contribution it has made to healthcare and communications, and hence to general quality of life, is often not fully appreciated) would not have come about in other circumstances, but he considers it a great evil that companies hide the source code of their programmes. By doing this other people are prevented from using it, adapting it, improving it and from knowing what the originator is using it for. This seems to be his biggest beef- that unless the code is available for inspection the consumer doesn't know what is really happening inside his computer and how much information the company is gathering (not that most of us would know anyway, but he thinks someone should be able to check up).

Microsoft is, therefore, evil. Not because Bill Gates has made a lot of money, but because he hides the reality of how his programmes function, and only shows the customers what they want to see. If all software were free, that is, if the code could be freely accessed, altered and reused by the consumer, the market would be equally, if not more, competititve, greater benefits would accrue, and we would all be freer (and, one imagines, more spiritually pure).

This has been the shorter Richard Stallman. I hope I haven't misrepresented him or his ideas. I don't pretend to be able to evaluate them but he doesn't sound like a nut (well, maybe just a little bit, but his ideas sound reasonable). One of the questions I asked everyone I spoke to was whether he was in touch with reality, in the sense of knowing what real people want from their software and what it is that makes them change their behaviour. Everybody answered yes.

3 comments:

Vincent said...

Free as in speech, not as in beer? I am not currently in beer, or rather beer is not currently in me, but I don’t know what you mean. It must be time for a beer, to sharpen my brain. And to celebrate my retirement from the software industry.

Actually I own the copyright of an important piece of software, which has only one client at present. I am no good at marketing. Should I allow his organisation to distribute it, in hopes that it finds other users? At least I ought to get a few beers out of it. I've been wrestling for days with a little project to renew the Verisign digital signature, and that is too much like the kind of work that I don’t like to do for nothing.

CIngram said...

I understood almost nothing of your second paragraph, so I won't be giving you any advice on that one.

Free software means open source and with a licence to modify and use for other purposes, as I understand it. He's not advocating that software engineers and programmers should have to give their stuff away from nothing. That was my first question, and he is quite aware that if you don't let people profit from their productions they are rather less likely to produce them in the first place. Since a lot of people with beards don't understand this at all I was delighted to find that he wasn't some hippy spouting nonsense.

In Spanish we distinguish between speech, which is 'libre' (most of the time), and beer, which is 'gratis' (in practice, not very often).

It is also the case that free beer tends to lead to free speech, which is another source of confusion.

Vincent said...

Interesting distinction between libre and gratis, which is not well understood in English except as an opportunity for puns.

So whenever one sees that a pub is a “Free House”, the thought of a free pint lurks as a little joke too corny to express.