Richard Stallman Is Not The Father Of Open Source - InformationWeek

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12/1/2015
10:06 AM
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Richard Stallman Is Not The Father Of Open Source

Richard Stallman is absolutely certain of many things. One of them is that he is not the father of open source software.

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Richard Stallman wants to make one thing completely clear: He is not the father. "I'm not the father of open source. If I'm the father of open source, it was conceived by artificial insemination without my knowledge or consent," he proclaimed from the keynote stage last month at Fossetcon 2015. It wasn't close to the strongest statement he made from that stage.

When the keynote speaker walks to the podium bare-footed, it's not likely to be a typical business-audience speech. Of course, when the keynote speaker is Richard Stallman, the expectation doesn't tend toward the buttoned-down. Stallman has been preaching the gospel of free software for more than 30 years and his passion for the subject shows no signs of flagging. Free software is good, non-free software is evil, and the line between free and not-free is bright and clear. That is the essence of Stallman's message in 2015.

(Image: Richard Stallman via stallman.org)

(Image: Richard Stallman via stallman.org)

The bright line in Stallman's software world centers on control. "With any program there are two possibilities: The users control the program or the program controls the user. When the user controls the program, we call that free software," he said. For Stallman, "free" isn't about price but about the lack of restrictions. He has explained it on the web site for the GNU operating system in a motto that has spawned thousands of t-shirts seen at conventions like Fossetcon: "Free software is a matter of liberty, not price. To understand the concept, you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer."

The difference in free is stated somewhat more elegantly by those who call for software that is "free as in libris" rather than "free as in gratis." For IT executives who struggle to incorporate "free and open source" software, the difference can be critical -- and that difference is the reason Stallman wants nothing to do with the label "open source."

Stallman pulled no punches when he turned to the subject of open source software. "Another obstacle to free software activists are the open source boosters," he said. "They want to talk about free software without talking about the social implications. They wanted to talk about free software without upsetting business executives. By coining the term 'open source' they were able to change the focus to appeal only to practical convenience arguments," he explained.

(Image: Thesupermat via commons.wikimedia.org)

(Image: Thesupermat via commons.wikimedia.org)

Two of Stallman's problems with this approach are the ability of someone to wrap open source software in a proprietary package, and open source software's focus on the software alone. Stallman has described free software as an integral part of a free society and free human existence: He feels that too many people are willing to accept a few convenient not-free software components while they feel good about the free (or open source) software they support.

"In order for a collection of software to be free, every piece of software in the collection must be free. A single non-free program renders the collection of programs not free," he said. And he was not afraid to point fingers at software, even if it is popular in the open source community. "Ubuntu is malware because it uses a desktop that spies on users. Even if that is fixed, they still install non-free software as part of the system," Stallman said. "The values of Ubuntu are practical convenience only, not freedom. That approach is not conducive to winning and establishing freedom."

Most IT managers have little interest in bringing politics -- even the politics of software -- into the discussion about which software to buy and deploy. It can be useful, though, to have someone in the conversation who reminds everyone that there's more to software than simple functionality. There are licensing terms beyond the financial and data sharing details that can add risk to applications that seem innocuous. Richard Stallman is eager to point out each of those terms and details, as he's eager to point out that he is the father of free -- not open source -- software.

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Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio
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Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
12/2/2015 | 1:16:37 PM
Re: He's partly right
@jries921 I got the strong impression that it's not the "father" label that bothers him as much as the association with "open source" software: He's proud of everything he's done with the free software movement (and just a touch prickly about making sure that he and the FSF get credit for their accomplishments) but sees a clear distinction between that and the open source movement -- which he really wants nothing to do with.
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
12/2/2015 | 1:13:44 PM
Re: Stallman is a prophet; Bill Joy a candidate for 'father' of open source
Thanks for a great comment, @garrettt392. Several things to think about in there...

I think that Stallman's great contribution to "free" software was his recognition that copyright is the key to preventing subsequent users from making the software not-free. I would liken it to a conservation easement on a piece of real estate to make sure that future buyers don't cut down the trees to put up a parking lot.

I know that I was using free software back in the 70s -- DECUS had tons of it that was used and shared by owners of DEC computers. What was missing was the notion that using the software meant that you embraced a wider societal notion of "free" -- we were just trying to get cheap software to help us do our jobs. And that, in a nutshell, is the difference Stallman sees between free and open source.

And he was in pretty good form, even though the airline had mis-placed his luggage. That wasn't the reason he was barefoot, but it could have put him in a far worse mood than he was in!
Curt Franklin
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Curt Franklin,
User Rank: Strategist
12/2/2015 | 1:07:09 PM
Re: Stallman is a prophet; Bill Joy a candidate for 'father' of open source
@Charlie, I could certainly accept Bill Joy as at least one of the founding fathers of open source software. He was certainly doing the work at the right time and place.

One of the big differences between "free" and "open source" in Stallman's definition is that open source software is just about the software, with no implications that stretch to the human side of the keyboard. Free software, on the other hand, is just a component of a free life, defined as one in which there are minimal controls that can be placed upon the individual, with none of those controls imposed without the individual's approval and consent.

Another point that Stallman returned to several times was the importance of copyright (or, as he styles it, copyleft). He feels it's important to exert copyright, rather than just releasing software into the public domain, because copyright gives you the legal right to insist on terms for the software's release and distribution: You can insist, through copyright, that everyone who uses a piece of software maintain the free nature of its distribution. That is no small thing in the world of software packaging.
Charlie Babcock
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Charlie Babcock,
User Rank: Author
12/1/2015 | 1:34:54 PM
Stallman is a prophet; Bill Joy a candidate for 'father' of open source
I've always thought Bill Joy was a better candidate as the father of open source software. He worked on Berkeley Unix at  a time when its breakthroughs were criticial to the academic, research and start up communities and ultimately the formation of the Internet. He made taped copies that he sent out to other academic users around the country at no charge. That's staying late to take the extra strep for free software, after long hours of development work. He then did excellent work at Sun Microsystems. Richard Stallman is the Old Testament prophet of free software, enunciatiung its principles before they were understood by anyone outside the MIT Lab.
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