More on Free Software and Copyright:

As a follow-on to the discussion here about Richard Stallman's recent talk about reforming copyright law, and his objections to my use of the terms "free software" and "open source software" interchangeably, Stallman sent me the following message (which I reproduce here with his permission, and indeed at his request):

"I see you posted part of my message. Could you please post all of it? If you post just part, readers are likely to conclude that I had no other criticism and agreed with everything else."

Although I am not at all sure I agree that readers would be "likely to conclude" that he had no other criticism of my original posting, I'm posting the other parts of his message below. He continues:

"Did you change "open source" to "free software" in the original posting?"

That's an interesting one. Here's what I wrote back to him in response:

"No, I did not. I have several reasons for not doing so. First, I said what I said, and I'm uncomfortable (as a general rule) with going back and re-writing the history of the discussion -- among other things, the ensuing comments about the use of the terms "free software" and "open source software" would be incomprehensible to a reader if I changed the original posting that way. More significantly, I'm uncomfortable with the notion that you get to decide what the terms mean for others. I didn't use the terms incorrectly - I used them in a manner you disagree with. I've given you the opportunity to explain to my readers your disagreement, and they will decide for themselves whether they agree or not with your position. My job is to communicate with them as best I can, using the lexicon so as to make whatever point(s) I'm trying to make, and I don't think changing the original posting is the right move in that direction."


Stallman's original message to me in regard to my original posting:

I am disappointed that you describe my work as "open source", because I disagree with that camp and I constantly struggle against the misinformation which labels my work that way. You might as well call my work "Republican". For instance, this sentence

"Stallman understands this thoroughly ­ though the vast majority of commentators on the open source movement have missed this point."

is likely to lead readers to suppose erroneously that I am a supporter of the open source movement, when in fact I disagree with it fundamentally.

See for an explanation of this disagreement.

Would you please replace "open source" with "free software" in this posting about my work?

". . . he has concluded that copyright law is broken, in fundamental ways, that it no longer functions to encourage the production of creative works, but in fact has quite the opposite effect, serving primarily to stifle creative activity."

But I did not say that. That is not what I think, and I don't say it either. This is because I reject the more basic supposition that encouraging the production of works is the sole or principal goal. I do support that goal, but I think it is less important than another desideratum: to respect the public's important freedoms to use published works.

I am willing to trade freedom for the benefit of encouraging production of works only when it is a matter of an inessential freedom (which, in the age of the printing press, it generally was).

I suspect that his ultimate aim is not merely to substantially weaken copyright (as in his proposal) but to eliminate it entirely,

I do not wish to abolish copyright; if I did, I would say so. I often speak with people who advocate abolishing copyright, and I tell them that I do not agree.

I remain am willing to trade inessential freedoms to encourage production of works, and there are freedoms which I think are still inessential and fit to be traded in this way. The proposal in my speech is based on that. It reduces copyright power by restoring to readers the essential freedoms, but it continues the copyright bargain in regard to other freedoms which are substantial in economic importance but not essential in my view.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. More on Free Software and Copyright:
  2. Open Source and Free Software:
  3. Free Software and Copyright Law:
Gabriel McCall (mail):
I'm sure Mr. Stallman feels very earnestly about this issue, but from the outside it's really looking more and more like a reenactment of the Judean People's Front/ People's Front of Judea bit from Life of Brian.
4.1.2009 1:19pm :
Good one Gabriel McCall. I was getting more of a "Todd Zywicki on Dartmouth governance" feel from this debate.
4.1.2009 1:36pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
I think that this also gets to a question I asked elsewhere which is "What sort of freedom of speech does Mr Stallman want to associated with Free Software? Does this include compelled speech, as we see in the GNU EMACS manual where political portions of the document may not be changed?"

If I characterize Stallman as insane, it is over how his actions bring out problems in his views on free speech, which he associates with free software.

Certainly Stallman is an important thinker today on this issue but I would highly recommend looking instead to more sane folks in the Free Software movement. For example, I think a lot of the lawyers in the Software Freedom Law Center might be worth talking to on thee issues. One of Stallman's problems is that he is not used to friends telling him when he is out of line, so he tends to treat such folks as enemies (for example, Thomas Bushnell told Stallman publically he was out of line on the Debian lists and was subsequently removed as HURD architect).
4.1.2009 1:45pm
It's a losing battle to even talk with Stallman past the first message of "here is what he said". Unless he gets his exact way--without compromise in any form--he will come to you again and again, insisting that he might be misunderstood--he's like a teenager who never figured out that his parents really do understand, but even though they do, still won't go along with him.

Generally, the people with whom Stallman has a beef don't actually misunderstand him, they just either disagree with his beliefs, or the best way to implement them.
4.1.2009 1:56pm
Gabriel McCall pretty much nailed this.
4.1.2009 2:01pm

I think that this also gets to a question I asked elsewhere which is "What sort of freedom of speech does Mr Stallman want to associated with Free Software? Does this include compelled speech, as we see in the GNU EMACS manual where political portions of the document may not be changed?"

Nobody is compelling you or anyone else to distribute the GNU EMACS manual.
4.1.2009 2:04pm
Samir Chopra (mail) (www):
Given the number of fundamental misunderstandings that still exist about free software, its associated licenses, its stance on copyright for anything other than software, its political stance or ideology, and many other issues, I'm not surprised Stallman feels misunderstood. People still think free software has something to do with price, that its licenses "compel" you to do something, that it's against all private property, or has something to do with how novels should be sold, and, well, I could go on.
4.1.2009 2:13pm
Anderson (mail):
Okay, the first correction was interesting inasmuch as it illustrated that two seemingly synonymous terms can be distinguished.

Now it's just petty.
4.1.2009 2:16pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):

Sure. However, it is disingenuous to talk about how freedom of speech should directly translate over to Free Software and then add "oh but you MUST advocate my views if you distribute the documentation." In short, freedom of speech to Stallman as it addresses free software does NOT imply a freedom from compelled speech. This is a big part of the reason why Debian considers such manuals to be "non-Free."

So.... my complaint boils down to one of hypocrisy. I think that a lot of the software-related documentation that the GNU project (associated with the FSF and Stallman) produces is not Free. My view is not alone and many, many people in the Free Software community feel the same way.

Compelled speech is incompatible with free speech and hence incompatible with free software if we link these concepts. Stallman does not seem to understand this, and his general response is one of special pleading, saying that GNU is different and deserves a different standard.
4.1.2009 2:34pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
To qualify my last statement, he asked Debian to exclude GNU manuals from other considerations as to what would be Free.
4.1.2009 2:37pm
M. Gross (mail):
His pedantry was vaguely amusing the first time, but it grows weary the second.
4.1.2009 2:38pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
BTW, my blog entry from 2007 goes into my concerns about RMS's actions not being supportive enough of Freedom.

But it doesn't really matter because the folks at Debian are FAR more influential with developers than RMS is because they actually control distribution of software. I am not involved directly with the Debian community but I do look to their views on what is Free or not because I want my software and documentation to be distributed by them as Free. I don't give any consideration to RMS's views because I have found them to be arbitrary and inconsistent.
4.1.2009 2:42pm

Given the number of fundamental misunderstandings that still exist about free software....

Cue teenage voice: "You just don't understand...."

No, we understand, we just think you are wrong.
4.1.2009 2:46pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
BTW, Thomas Bushnell's letter complaining about his treatment presents a good summary of the GNU "Free" Documentation License issues. "Free" in scare quotes because the license is fundamentally Unfree.
4.1.2009 2:47pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
BTW, lest people misunderstand, there is a difference between forced distribution of the source code (ala GPL) which you may modify however you choose and distribution of technical documentation which REQUIRES that it be bundled with political advocacy material. In the former case, there is a contractual obligation to provide speech relating to functionality, but that this must also be modified to do exactly what you want it to do. The latter case is one where an individual or business is compelled to distribute ideas.

For example, if I don't like a part of the GCC, I can remove it, create a new functional part to replace it, and if I distribute it, I must also distribute my source code. That is fair enough. However, no such freedom exists with regard to the invariant sections in the GNU EMACS manual. The sole goal of these sections is to require someone distributing the manual to also distribute non-Free statements about the political views of someone else.

Suppose I were to create a program under the GPL but add a clause stating that the help files must include material about how RMS's views are wrong? Would that still be Free Software? Would that impinge on Stallman's freedoms?

So what we are left with is a world where Debian is still the only consistent and neutral arbiter as to what "Free Software" is and there are many, many points of disagreement between them and Stallman. For example, the GNU EMACS manual is non-Free to them but Free to Stallman, and the old Qmail license was Free to Debian but non-Free to Stallman. However, Debian's standards in this matter have been consistent while Stallman's have been arbitrary.
4.1.2009 3:03pm
Sunshine is good:
If anyone here also reads Slashdot, they have a lot of RMS-tagged articles that sum up his strident personality.
4.1.2009 3:10pm
Why doesn't Stallman believe in the abolishment of copyright? This is something I am very much in favour of, and I would be very curious in seeing a debate on this on Volokh from Stallman, Tucker, and others.
4.1.2009 3:45pm

Cue teenage voice: "You just don't understand...."

No, we understand, we just think you are wrong.

I know it's April Fools' day, but are you serious? One of the key points of this post is Mr. Post essentially conceding that he got some things wrong about Stallman's ideologies. This whole series of posts and the large number of comments is further evidence that misunderstandings do take place, even amongst those that take an interest in free/open software.

Is it really even a question that misunderstandings exist among the vast number of people that don't know much about free/open software?
4.1.2009 3:56pm
Dan Weber (www):
Anononymous said:
Why doesn't Stallman believe in the abolishment of copyright?
Free software is legally enforced via copyright. If copyright laws just vanished, I could redistribute a modified Emacs at will without the source code.
4.1.2009 4:00pm
I think Prof. Post overstates the boldness of Stallman's idea. Free, public-domain, and open source software predates Stallman. Copyleft is a clever idea, no doubt, but it's not the first or last word in open source or free software.

Stallman's dogmatism may be admirable, but it's hampered more than a few open source projects including gnu emacs and gcc.
4.1.2009 4:18pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):

And it has also strongly hampered HURD, which by now should be the perfect example of Vaporware. Maybe they are syncing their release times with Duke Nukem Forever?

Actually, the affect on HURD is fairly direct, with Stallman "dismissing" the main architect over his willingness to publicly call the GNU "Free" Documentation License "anti-free."
4.1.2009 4:31pm
Bob White (mail):

Is it really even a question that misunderstandings exist among the vast number of people that don't know much about free/open software?

Much like with First and Fourth Amendment law, there are important conversations to have, and then there are debates that are deeply important to insiders that seem not particularly important to those not inculcated in the relevant mysteries. From his comments, Stallman fails to recognize this.
4.1.2009 4:39pm
Sunshine is good:
and speaking of Slashdot and the conflict of Free / Open Source:Link
4.1.2009 4:46pm

Is it really even a question that misunderstandings exist among the vast number of people that don't know much about free/open software?

Medieval scholars were quite sure that there was widespread misunderstanding about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin too.
4.1.2009 6:23pm
Stallman says you mischaracterized his work and asks you to correct your post.

You insist that no, you know better than Stallman himself what he stands for, and Stallman is just wrong.

You're being both churlish and rude.
4.1.2009 8:02pm
Soronel Haetir (mail):
I have to agree with Post here, to go back and edit blog posts in a manner that disguises the heart of the ensuing commentary would be less than helpful. Doing that sort of thing is entirely different from correcting typos or minor factual errors that are unrelated to the actual discussion.
4.1.2009 8:27pm
Angus Lander (mail):
I'm in the Gabriel McCall camp on this one. But nor am I above worrying over minutia. So here's a question for DPost: your post "Open Source and Free Software" ends

(quoting Stallman) Would you please replace "open source" with "free software" in this posting about my work? (/quoting Stallman)


The impression I got from the "done" was that you were going to replace "open source" with "free software" in the post Stallman was complaining about. But in this post you say you're not going to do that (and don't seem to think you committed yourself to doing so in the penultimate post). Am I missing something?
4.1.2009 8:34pm
Roger Schlafly (www):
I agree with Stallman's emails. David has seriously misstated Stallman's past actions and current views. David said:
The entire open source system relies on a complex licensing scheme (of Stallman's invention), under which ...
No, that is not right. Stallman invented the GPL, and likes to call it "free software" or "copyleft". You don't have to agree with his notion of "free" but it is wrong to say that the entire open source system relies on a scheme that Stallman invented. Much open source software uses non-GPL licenses that Stallman does not even like.

Stallman's views are controversial, but they are well known and widely published. I agree with mariner that David is being churlish.
4.1.2009 8:49pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Furthermore, I think BSD-style licenses predate any version of the GPL. Therefore, it is hardly true to say that all Open Source OR Free Software depends on a complex licensing scheme invented by Stallman. Rather "Copyleft" does and that is a subset of the Free and Open Source Software world.
4.1.2009 9:06pm
If you post just part, readers are likely to conclude that I had no other criticism and agreed with everything else.

Ah ha ha ha ha. That would only happen if your post consisted of something like this:

Blue is blue.

2 = 2

And even then, you never know. RMS might take issue with the implications of your use of the present tense in the first line and your use of "=" instead of "==" in the second. I doubt there breathes a man better suited for this career.
4.1.2009 9:36pm
Source was widely available to mainframe and minicomputer customers. Early personal computer software was often written in BASIC which meant the source could be inspected. UNIX was distributed in source code format to its licensees. BSD UNIX was unemcumbered specifically to make it and its source available without paying licensing fees. The Apple ][ shipped with source code and hardware schematics.

Though it may appear that copyleft and the GPL were a response to the commercialization of personal computer software, I think that Stallman was responding to the productization of efforts of the MIT AI Lab. Infighting between Lisp Machines, Inc. and Symbolics over intellectual property rights destroyed his community. His big contribution was turning those IP laws toward protecting his preferred way of doing software development; but copyleft didn't invent, define, or ensure the success of open source or free software.

Copyleft is kind of reactionary and pessimistic, not unlike DRM. Other open source licenses (e.g., MIT/X-windows, BSD, Apache) seem less restrictive and more optimistic about human nature. I find the results/rhetoric ratio at, for instance, much higher than at
4.1.2009 9:44pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):

I used to prefer the GPL v2 license (and still use it for a lot of code for upstream licensing reasons), I also prefer the BSD-style licenses for a number of reasons. In general I have noticed that some BSD-licensed projects are able to turn commercialization into a source of contributions. PostgreSQL and Apache are great examples, with PostgreSQL being the better of the examples.

The real key is community development and and rate of development. The GPL here is like a crutch, but the BSD license is not as dangerous to development as Stallman, etc. suggests.
4.1.2009 9:55pm
Whadonna More:
I think it's meta-funny that all this angst around copyrights is largely caused by dumb trademark choices.
4.2.2009 10:42am
MCM (mail):
I think it's meta-funny that all this angst around copyrights is largely caused by dumb trademark choices.

Maybe I don't know what you mean but I don't think that's true at all. Much of the "angst" is caused by the regular extension of copyright terms, particularly terms extended retroactively and terms extended after they have already lapsed.
4.2.2009 12:02pm
Samir Chopra (mail) (www):
"Copyleft is kind of reactionary and pessimistic, not unlike DRM."

Au contraire, copyleft finds the Aristotelean mean between the excessive generosity of a patsy and the excessive stinginess of the miser.
4.2.2009 12:16pm
Samir Chopra (mail) (www):
"Stallman invented the GPL, and likes to call it "free software" or "copyleft". "

Stallman does not equate free software with copyleft. "Free software" is any software whose accompanying license meets the conditions of the
Free Software Definition
. The Open Source Intiative's Open Source Definition is based on the Free Software Definition. The GPL is a free software license; so is the BSD. They also meet the conditions of the OSD.

Just because someone calls their product "open source" because they let you see the code doesn't mean their code is released under a license that meets either of these conditions. The same goes for free software; just because someone gives the product away doesn't mean it has been released under a license that meets the conditions of the FSD.
4.2.2009 12:24pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Samir Chopra:

First, I see copyleft as a crutch. It is important where one develops software slowly but is a hinderance where software is developed quickly. A slowly evolving system will benefit from the GPL, while a rapidly evolving system will benefit from closed source spinoffs sharing code back due to maintainability considerations (PostgreSQL is a good example of the latter category of project).

Now, on to what is Free Software. One of the difficulties in relying on the FSF's definition is that they tend to be somewhat inconsistent about how much freedom is required and how this applies between various media. For example, what would be fundamentally unfree in software to them (obnoxious advertising clauses), they use in so-called free documentation. Similarly, the old Qmail license did not substantively affect the 4 Freedoms but was seen as un-Free by Stallman.

I think a better set of guidelines to look to for what is Free Software is found in the Debian Free Software Guidelines (scroll down on that link). Debian actually has had to look at these issues from a question of what licenses require regarding freedom as a practical (rather than ideological) matter, they have decent peer review and don't base their views on the political aspirations of one individual. Consequently, their views tend to be far less arbitrary and more internally consistent than RMS's.

For example, Debian agreed that, although the old Qmail license was not optimal regarding freedom, that it was Free enough because it did not substantively burden the freedoms regarding the software. On the other hand, Stallman's GNU Emacs Manual is not Free because it insists on bundling advertising in a way which would not be Free if it were part of the software (even by Stallman's statements-- see his statements regarding the Original BSD License).

Furthermore, as a software developer, I am far more concerned about whether Debian can distribute my software as part of their core distribution than whether I use a license which the FSF lists as Free. Thus I think Debian has a larger PRACTICAL influence in determining what is Free Software than Stallman does. In short, they have both more influence and more credibility on this matter.

BTW, the OSI's OSD was copied almost word for word from the DFSG, as you will note. However Debian tends to be far more concerned about Freedom in how they evaluate the guidelines than the OSI is. For example, the OSI certifies "licenses" while Debian evaluates software. For this reason there are many licenses where covered works may or may not be considered Free Software depending on what options in the licenses are used. Such gray-area licenses include the GNU Free Documentation License and the GNU General Public License, version 3.
4.2.2009 2:35pm
Samir Chopra (mail) (www):

The linux kernel is a rapidly developing project (sure, kernel releases are spaced out but the codebase changes a lot everyday). It is also GPL licensed. Surely that has not impeded its development in any way? Indeed, Torvalds himself seems to think it wouldn't have gone as far as it did if it hadn't been GPL'd. Plenty of other counterexamples can be found given that 70% of FOSS projects are GPL-licensed. More to the point, I'm not sure why rate of development is germane to license choice. Actually, I don't understand why "a rapidly evolving system will benefit from closed source spinoffs sharing code back due to maintainability considerations ". Is there something missing in this sentence?

About defining free software. I wasn't trying to define the "free" in some broad sense that would meet everyone's intuitions but just trying to clarify in what sense Stallman uses it. He's always been perfectly consistent in what he thinks "free software" is: its that software which has the four freedoms. Of course, theres plenty of scope for discussion about what "free software" could be, but thats a different debate. The reason I offered the clarification is that people accuse Stallman of saying things he has never said, like "So you want people to just write code for no remuneration!" or "You want there should be no software industry" and so on. None of which is implied by what he says.

Whether the DFSG should be the basis for defining free software is a very interesting question and its one the FOSS community has wrestled with, and will probably continue to. Still, its interesting to me how much the DFSG and FSD agree upon. They certainly don't disagree about the four freedoms! Will Debian really approve a license that doesn't include the four freedoms?

I don't disagree that Debian by virtue of their technical leadership might have more practical weight in the FOSS community. But still, that wasn't a point I was originally contesting. All I wanted to do was clarify what Stallman meant by "free software".
4.2.2009 4:50pm
einhverfr (mail) (www):
Samir Chopra

He's always been perfectly consistent in what he thinks "free software" is: its that software which has the four freedoms.

My issue with consistency is how those freedoms are rated on GNU vs non-GNU projects. For example, the BSD advertising clause is deemed "obnoxious" but similar clauses in the GNU manuals are seen as invaluable. On further reading it looks like these cases are seen by RMS as Free but not by Debian, so my inconsistency argument is probably somewhat disproven as regards what is labelled "Free" but it does show a different treatment between GNU and non-GNU projects.

Interestingly, it seems to me that Debian has the tightest standards on the whole regarding software freedom, and the most consistency in applying the principles across projects. This still seems to be the case however.

Hence your points are valid.
4.2.2009 5:35pm

Post as: [Register] [Log In]

Remember info?

If you have a comment about spelling, typos, or format errors, please e-mail the poster directly rather than posting a comment.

Comment Policy: We reserve the right to edit or delete comments, and in extreme cases to ban commenters, at our discretion. Comments must be relevant and civil (and, especially, free of name-calling). We think of comment threads like dinner parties at our homes. If you make the party unpleasant for us or for others, we'd rather you went elsewhere. We're happy to see a wide range of viewpoints, but we want all of them to be expressed as politely as possible.

We realize that such a comment policy can never be evenly enforced, because we can't possibly monitor every comment equally well. Hundreds of comments are posted every day here, and we don't read them all. Those we read, we read with different degrees of attention, and in different moods. We try to be fair, but we make no promises.

And remember, it's a big Internet. If you think we were mistaken in removing your post (or, in extreme cases, in removing you) -- or if you prefer a more free-for-all approach -- there are surely plenty of ways you can still get your views out.