Is Software Freedom Really Free?

Thatcher visits NorthamptonIs software freedom really free? Or does it come at a price? Well, judging by the evidence I’ve seen it is most definitely the latter. Let’s take a look why I have come to this conclusion…

As most regular RefuGeeks will know, I’m a big open source fan, so this means that I take in a lot of content online about things like free and open source projects, software freedom and of course Linux & related products. This evening I was watching a few video’s on YouTube about Richard Stallman (RMS) and I have to say a lot of what I heard totally angered me.

I wasn’t sure whether or not to write this post on my personal blog; or even at all for that matter. But since it’s so closely related to the niche of RefuGeeks, I thought I might as well write it here. So please don’t hate me too much. :)

Is software freedom really free?

I watched numerous videos from numerous sources, but this particular interview on the Linux Action Show really struck a nerve for me (I’ll include the video below). First of all, throughout the interview RMS referred to users of non-free software as “morons” and “idiots”. Ok, I’m not the sharpest tool in the box, but I’m certainly no idiot just because I choose to use non-free software!

For me software freedom is about getting my devices to do what I want them to do. If I need to create some artwork then I’ll use GIMP, Inkscape, or on very rare occasions even Photoshop. The only reason I use these tools is because I feel they are the best for the job. I couldn’t care less if they’re free, proprietary, or otherwise. They do what I need them to do and that’s good enough for me.

“I don’t want any non-free programs just because they’re advanced”

This is a quote taken directly from Mr Stallman within the video shown above. So, what he saying here is that he will knowingly use an inferior product, thus making his own job more difficult just so he can remain ethical. Brian, one of the presenters of the Linux Action Show also picked up on this, and seemed noticeable confused by the comment. So who really is the moron here? Me, the guy who gets the job done with the right tools, or you, the guy who struggles through just because of some pipe-dream that will never some to fruition. Am I alone here?

Let me put it another way. If your pipe burst and yo called a plumber, you wouldn’t expect them to turn up with no tools just because they felt that because some manufacturers make their tools in a Taiwanese sweatshop, that this is unethical. No, you expect him/her to turn up, with monkey wrench in hand ready to fix your problem.

Stallman goes on to say that if Brian wanted a more advanced video editor then he can just write one. Well, that’s great for genius’ like Stallman but what about us un-washed masses? I couldn’t do that, and so that’s why I rely on non-free software. I couldn’t care less if the makers are “controlling” me, or being unethical. It’s not like it’s going to affect my personal life one iota. IT’S JUST SOFTWARE!

 The “Swindle” is evil…

The Amazon Kindle, or the Swindle as Stallman likes to call it ensures users have digital handcuffs on by stopping us from sharing. Stallman was also troubled by the fact that you cannot by a Kindle book anonymously. Why does this matter? Who cares if Amazon know that I’ve bought a series of books by Conn Iggulden about Genghis Khan (they’re brilliant by the way!)? I certainly don’t, and neither do most other people. Stallman often brings politics into his debates, touting about political extremists that rob a nation of it’s freedom. Well, I put it you Richard that you are a privacy extremist that is robbing me of my freedom to pick whatever software I want to use without being labelled a moron.

Does “freedom” exist?

I’d argue that yes it does, but not in the way that Richard Stallman thinks. To me, free software is software that allows me to accomplish a task. I can install MP3 CODEC’s and Flash on my machine so that I can watch video’s online and listen to music. These non-free, and apparently malicious pieces of software paradoxically give me the freedom to do those things, and without them it would be much more difficult. Sure I could use FLAC for example but why should I convert all my music? I’m a busy guy and it’s a pointless waste of my time.

I want to be free to pick the tools that will accomplish my goal in the quickest and best way possible so that I can have my time free to do the things that really matter to me like spending time with friends & family – and of course developing RefuGeeks and interacting with the awesome community!

Richard quickly spoke about the hardware he is running at the moment. He elaborated saying that his particular piece of free hardware isn’t made any more, but rather the manufacturers have opted to install an ATI graphics card in the new model. This means that he can’t/won’t upgrade. So Stallman is deliberately restricting his choice of hardware to a minuscule (if any) amount of usable hardware in his ever going quest for freedom. Again, this doesn’t sound very free to me. I’d much rather buy a nice Chromebook, or the right laptop for my needs and get on with living. What do you think?

“I wish failure to any business that makes non-free software”

What about the companies that make proprietary software for things like X-Ray machines, or CAT scanners? Should the worst happen and you get ill Mr Stallman (god forbid), would you refuse treatment because the machine that’s interpreting your CAT scans is running Windows? How far does one actually take this? Surely it’s an all or nothing approach, so you would have to refuse. At which point the mantra of software freedom is directly having a detrimental affect on your health. But hey, you’re living the freedom dream right?


I realise this post has been one huge rant, but I make no apologies for that. Richard Stallman expresses his views on a daily basis, heck, he’s even made a career out of it. So I thought I would openly provide my opinions for you to mull over, and hopefully reciprocate with yours…

I don’t disagree with everything Stallman stands for. I think free software is a good thing, and that things like DRM should be abolished. But taking it to the extremes that Stallman takes it is just plain ridiculous. Many people agree with Stallman, but many will also agree with me I imagine. This holy grail of free software will never come to fruition, simply because restricting yourself to only free software, is exactly that – restrictive. Therefore it contradicts everything that Stallman is trying to accomplish.


I’ve said my piece, now it’s time for you to say yours. I’d love to hear what you think about Richard Stallman’s views, and free software in general. You know where to comment…

Is Software Freedom Really Free?
User Rating: 4.9 (2 votes)
  • Brett Legree

    Agreed, 100 percent Kev.

    Quite a while ago, I wrote a lengthy piece that I never published which I called, “Freedom from a User’s Perspective”. I think I should clean it up and publish it.

    In essence, it captured the same things you said above.

    Really, what is freedom but a word, which has different meanings to different people. You and I consider ultimate freedom I think as the ability to choose to use the tools that let us do our work most effectively and efficiently. I don’t mind paying for software, and I know how to keep myself and my data safe, so I will choose whatever works best for me.

    Sometimes, that means free software too.

    But even to me, a person who uses free software and understands what that means, much of the “benefit” is actually lost on me.

    I have written code before, I know how to read it, but I am a busy person.

    I have not and probably never will look at the source code for (say) GNOME or the Linux kernel, which means that ultimately, I am putting “my freedom” in someone else’s hands anyway.

    Thus, practically speaking, what the heck is the difference between me using openSUSE 12.3 or Windows 8 or OS X 10.8?

    Practically speaking, if any of the three do what I want them to do and don’t “handcuff me” :) there is no difference whatsoever.

    If I have the power to audit the source code but choose to never use that power, then that power is effectively useless – to me.

    And why on Earth would I choose to make my life more difficult because of some software ideology?

    If I wanted to make a real difference for freedom and was willing to give up some of my personal comforts, I would go and do something that really matters, seriously – I’d join Engineers Without Borders and go build a hospital or something in a developing country.

    • Jens Reuterberg

      Well not to be too dramatic but in the same way one could say that if the state would forbid you from… I dunno… Skydiving or eating crisps after ten in the evening and you never do anyway – is that still a binding law? Of course it is. Liberty is not the choice, but the right to choose.
      Dragging that further – your choice to use for example Win8 is also a choice and one that you should act on if it is what you want. The problems when it is the only thing available.

      Further – the benefit of Open Source as a form of liberty goes beyond your skills and applies to the community around you as well. Say that the blueprints for building houses was not only forbidden to read and look into, but also something you where not allowed to copy. Floors+4 walls+roof = trademark. Now you may not be a builder and couldn’t do anything with the blueprints anyway, or you could argue that you have no interest in building your own BUT someone you know might. Or someone you don’t know but exists in the same socieo-sphere (it should be a word) as you can and does. You may benefit from his or her work, perhaps living in the house they built. Or using the OS they constructed or the software they created.

      Now Stallman is an individualist in many cases and would probably not argue it as such, seeing liberty as a half-religious movement of individual enlightenment – but ignoring that one can trace a path of social liberty within open source. What benefits a large group, benefits the individuals that are part of it.

      • Brett Legree

        But you aren’t allowed to look at the blueprints of any building you choose… that would be a security risk, right?

        e.g. a nuclear power plant

        Just teasing you there… yes, I know what you mean, and yes, it is good to have the right to choose, I do not disagree with that.

        The great thing is, Windows 8 is not the only thing available, we’ve always as long as I can remember had choices and when what was out there did not suit, someone built it e.g. GNU and Linux.

        Maybe the best thing I could say here is this – use what works best for you, and tell other people why you use it in a positive way.

        If we’re trying to spread the word when it comes to software freedom, my own opinion is that the best way to do it is to tell people why you like it (e.g. I am part of the GNOME Marketing Team, if you did not know – this computer is running openSUSE 12.3 with GNOME 3.8) – don’t run around telling people that they are stupid or giving up their freedom because they use Windows or OS X, unless you want them to think you’re a nutter.

        (Trust me – try that where I live some time, and if you keep it up, you’ll find out that Canadians are not as polite as the world thinks…)

      • Jens Reuterberg

        Absolutely! I’m not saying Stallman is on to something here (I am one of the people he refers to as “morons” not only because code is waaaaay beyond my skill set but also since I have proprietary software on my computer) but rather as a comment on the idea of liberty as an individual project.
        I completely agree with the sentiment that people shouldn’t be ridiculed or harassed or bothered based on what OS they choose to use and that the best methods for “spreading the love” (Linux as an STI :) ) is to say why you like the OS you use.

        I can mention that this is written using Ubuntu with Gnome 3.8 btw – so cheers for a great job :)

        Oh and btw yes you can see the blueprints for Nuclear power plants. Well here at least and the basics of nuclear power plants are available to all (remember that guy that built his own in a shed? A few years back? Brilliant). Not that it matters, just teasing back :P

      • Brett Legree

        Excellent :)

      • Kev Quirk

        The point here though Jens is that all of those points you make are completely hypothetical. What we’re dis using isn’t. To use your building analogy, I can get access to my buildings blue prints and I can interpret them somewhat. However, I’d be placing my trust in my architect as they’re the expert, not me. I’m doing this same thing with a software developer.

      • Jens Reuterberg

        Well yes – of course trust will be something inherent in that system. But is that a bad thing? The upside being that the larger the group from which to choose the better for you since then if your trust is misused you can switch to someone else. The upshot with Open Source is the capacity for choice inherent in it.
        Also there is an actual benefit of lifting the skirts and showing your work it will make criticism possible on a deeper level, speeding up the process of perfecting a system and making developers accountable for their claims on a deeper level. In the same way as open governance of a country or the way scientific papers are peer reviewed.

        Sorry for getting hung up at what is probably semantics and academia at best – but the concept of freedom is something that I’ve spent allot of time debating in the past so I tend to cling to it when it crops up.

      • jdkchem

        Why should your freedom come at the expense of mine? You are not entitled to the fruits of my labor whether that is the blue prints to a building or source code. There is no such thing as social liberty. That is just another form of ignorant posturing by the same folks who brought you the justice of the day make the world fair. You either have liberty or you do not. When you seek to create special forms of liberty or justice you do so at the expense of liberty and justice.
        As with all socialists you address liberty as an ever growing list of what you’re entitled to at the expense of others. Perhaps instead of being self centered you should look at the price paid by others for your liberty.

      • Jens Reuterberg

        “there is no such thing as social liberty” is a red flag to me (pun intended) so I guess I should reply here. :)
        No you are absolutely right – I dont have any direct right to your labour. No one but YOU have the right to say whether or not you want to make a source code open or not. But I never argued for a “force all devs to make an open source code” point. I rather argued for the benefits of Open Source – whether or not someone wants to make it open or not, is not within my ability.

        But more importantly – liberty – to lend a phrase often used by (what I assume is) your side of the ideological fence: its not a zero sum game. Your liberty to say “nope I want my code to be closed” doesn’t in any way affect my liberty to do the same. Just because YOU get it doesn’t mean someone has to take it away from me to “weight it out”. You seem to think that Liberty is easily defined – a stand-point you are rather lonely of holding btw since what “Liberty” is has been debated since at least the reneissance and the jury is still out.
        The reason I chose the term “Social Liberty” is because it is a liberty that either effects a large group or is irrelevant for the argument. It was an attempt to specify what I ment since “Liberty” is such a complex term (to most people) and I wanted to avoid misunderstandings.

        But in the same way that my liberty to reply to you is hinging on your liberty to reply to me (without which this post and argumentation would never have existed, making my liberty irrelevant unless yours exist also) – one could talk of the benefit of shared liberty; a liberty existing in full only if it exists within a larger social setting. If only I and “other socialists” would have the liberty to freely debate, this discussion would never have existed and whatever you and me take away from it would never have been. My liberty to read your opinion would never have existed without your liberty to write them – and my liberty to think about them, talk about them with others, would be pointless.

        Liberty on a desert island, all alone, can perhaps be liberty but it can be a “liberty in a prison”. Hence my use of the term “Social Liberty” when referring to the benefits of Open Source – which gains strength from not only the work of others but others reactions, criticisms and add-ons to your work. Like the difference between peer reviewed and open science instead of “the lone scientist that doesn’t have to prove anything to anyone”.

        It was, as perhaps is clear, NOT an attempt to define what liberty should be to you, or an attempt to force you are anyone to “give up your work” – but rather an attempt to define the benefit of Open Source or Peer Review and for that the term “Liberty” is simply to broad and inspecific.

      • Kev Quirk

        That’s a great way to put it Jens. There really isn’t anything to add to that. What I would like to say though, is that I was expecting to get a lot of trolls and we haven’t had a single one. Every comment we have received has been constructive debate, and not petty insists or slanging matches. So thanks to all of you. It just goes to show how awesome the RefuGeeks community is!

      • jdkchem

        Perhaps I’m more irritated by the Stallman defenders and it showed in my comment. I do not see open source as socialist or a social liberty. I see a free market where the participants are bound by a very simple rule. We agree not to profit off the labor of the other. I am also most definitely not against open source. Stallman would gladly deny me the right to choose in order to make the world of software fair.

        I will say that liberty is most definitely not a complex term. “Social liberty” is nothing more than a “progressive” rationalization for theft and oppression. Making life fair has never worked.

        I find it especially amusing that you point to science as being open when in fact it is an incredibly closed environment. If you’re not a member of the mickey mouse club and don’t know the secret handshake you get nothing.

      • Jens Reuterberg

        Ok I wont go into politics here since it seems like the wrong forum for it. But its safe to assume that we have drastically different opinions on social liberty and the idea of liberty as such (maybe not the ideal, but the idea of it). Not to be a party pooper but I guess this is one of those “agree to disagree moments”. Hope you will agree. :-)

        Science has the upside of being peer reviewed and as for the flaws inherent in the current system, the past system – without peer review and openness to it, was allot worse.

        I guess I am sorta-kinda, one of the Stallman Defenders in that I see his inclusion in the Open Source world as something beneficial. Not without problems – but mostly beneficial. Since he can’t sneak into your house and mess up your computer he can only argue for his point and with that he also creates a space for those who agree with him where they can belong – a subgroup within the larger community or society. Same as, I am sure, you have a subgroup of likeminded from which you benefit. You and Stallman can both be a part of the larger, looser society of Open Source and the small arguments that may crop up are as I see it nothing in comparison to the benefit of having you both here.

      • jdkchem

        I refuse to defend anyone who uses “freedom” as a means to take what I’ve worked for. Stallman sounds all warm and fuzzy until you’re on the wrong end. It’s really hard to take anyone seriously who has the luxury of grant money telling me the fruits of my labor should be free to anyone who wants it.

        As for science the current system is really not any better than whatever it replaced. If you try to publish something that goes against the current dogma you get the boot to the curb. Then you have organizations/journals like JACS which maintain a stranglehold on research. The majority of the work published in JACS is tax payer funded good luck trying to access to any work. I work in the field and it just plain sucks.

      • Jens Reuterberg

        Well no one is forcing you to defend Stallman – I am merely pointing out why I prefer him in the tent pissing out, as it where.

        As for science – I guess you’re a chemist? Since thats the Journal of the American Chemical Society… I have absolutely no insight into the world of Chemistry in the US, I’m afraid. Either way, I think the example is still valid considering the former situation – but its still just an example and not the proof of some axiom and it feels as if we are pouring allot of text into it. :-)

      • jdkchem

        Stallman would be a better advocate if he dumped the all or nothing attitude. Sometimes all you have is closed software and the lack of open source alternatives do not put the brakes on your business.

        Yes I’m a chemist who wishes he had gotten more and better information before jumping into the field. And yes ACS is absolutely dreadful. They’re nothing more than over-hyped lobbyists anymore. I do have to say that when you deal with most other chemists they are really great at giving feedback and/or assistance.

    • Kev Quirk

      Brett my man, you have just summed up the entire article perfectly. I really don’t need to elaborate any more. You and I tend to agree closely on so many things. It’s just software, if you want to campaign against something Stallman, do something that matters.

      • Brett Legree

        PS – thanks ;) I think we’d have some great chats in person – maybe someday!

  • Guillermo Garron

    I think that he is no moron. He defends what he believes is correct. He decided to sacrifice himself in order to get to a goal. The rest of us can’t afford do the same thing, just like you said we need the job done, and done fast in an efficient way.

    I’m happy to have him and others fighting for my own benefit, if he calls me moron is just a small thing compared to walk the streets with no cellphone :).

    He is pursuing a dream world that will never arrive, some even die for that, like Aaron Swartz.

    Is he an extremist? Yes, he is.

    Maybe he should not call other stupid, as a matter of fact he should not. I can get over it considering what I’ve got from him.

    • Kev Quirk

      I agree, he is definitely no moron, I’m pretty sure I use the term genius to describe him somewhere in the article. The world needs people like Richard Stallman, but I don’t think it needs Richard Stallman. He goes about advocating software freedom in completely the wrong way (IMHO of course).

      He shouldn’t ridicule those who he says he trying to help by labelling them morons. He should do as Brett describes below, simply inform people that there are great alternatives our there and they are FREE to use what they wish. I think everyone here who had commented so far uses a mixture of free and proprietary software because we are free and choose to do so. Are nay of us morons? Well, by Stallmans estimations yes. But by mine, absolutely not. We’re a collection of intelligent people who are having a mature and healthy debate. What’s moronic about that? :)

      • Guillermo Garron

        We are definetly no morons.

        As a guy in love with technology myself, I use GNU/Linux in two desktop PCs, I also own a Macbook Pro (My only one laptop).
        I have two mobile phones (Galaxy S3 and Blackberry bold). And I go jogging with my iPod Touch.

        I do not try to convert anyone to GNU/Linux or to Apple. As a matter of fact I do not like Apple fanboys, even tough I read their blogs :) Marco Arment and John Gruber’s periodically.

        Maybe RMS is more or less like Arment or Gruber, they all think only they own the thruth, and that is not good. I respect RMS for what he gave to the society, and I am ready to forgive his extremist. I respect Gruber too for Markdown (great contribution to Open Source).

        That said, you are right about it is not good to be an extremist. Maybe this post also apply to RMS. But, because of my inmense respect to him I prefer not to argue him, even though I do not agree with him in some points.

        Thanks for the article, and the discussion, I really enjoy this site, and tone of the conversation here is great too, as you said “We’re a collection of intelligent people who are having a mature and healthy debate”. I am happy there are not trols here, at least for now.

      • Brett Legree

        Yes, this has been a great discussion – this is how it should be, I believe, the sort of chat you’d have by a campfire or in a pub, lots of ideas and lots of smiling.

  • Roberto Lim

    A all or nothing acceptance of FOSS is the same kind of tyranny RMS is advocating against.

  • jdkchem

    Freedom is never free and no one is entitled to the fruits of another’s labor, period. Stallman is in no way an individualist as he religiously advocates sacrificing the freedom of others for the good of the collective. There was a time when advocating a right to the labor of another was called slavery.

  • Chris Timberlake

    Stallman may defend what he believes to be correct; but in the grand scheme of things he’s hypocritical and anti-business. The GPL isn’t as much about freedom as it is about forcing his opinion of what freedom is.

    If someone has true freedom with something they have no restrictions. They can modify it, share it, spread it, close it up, fork it, sell it, etc etc. The GPL through copy-left however is the most aggressive and anti-freedom open source license there is. You simply can’t force freedom upon people; they have to chose it.

    MIT/BSD Licenses have MUCH more freedom; and are more freedom based. Stallman has a bias against businesses and such; it shows through. What he fails to understand and realize is how some products simply explode. Simply utilizing a license that does not have copy-left; opens the door to indie developers like myself to use that software for a client and then add to it or fix bugs and release that to the public. In a way i’d be getting paid to advance the MIT/BSD Software.

    GPL loses out big time in this area. That’s why most GPL based software advances at snail speed and partly why some OSX/Windows based software simply works better.