Beyond Software Quality: The Ethics of Freedom

Eric Raymond, like most advocates of “open source,” argues that allowing users to change and redistribute software is desirable as a way of producing technically superior software. That is the general position of the open-source movement, which was launched as a reaction to the free-software movement in which I am a leader.

But the open-source movement goes no further than that. The free-software movement, which is the origin of the GNU/Linux operating system used on tens of millions of computers today, is moved by stronger ideals.

We believe that users are morally entitled to the freedom to share and change software. To deny users those freedoms, as nonfree software does, is to keep citizens divided and helpless. This antisocial scheme is a social problem, and in 1984 we set out to correct it.

Success Breeds Reaction

Being few in number, we did not try to change the laws and contracts that restrict users of other software. Our forte was programming, so we used our programming skills to create an alternative world of software, a new continent in cyberspace where people could live in freedom.

The first software you need is the operating system, so we began by developing the free operating system, GNU. In 1991, GNU was complete except for the kernel. The Linux kernel, which was initially written in 1991 and released as free software in 1992, filled that gap. Since the early 1990s, the combination GNU/Linux system has enabled us to run our computers without being under anyone’s thumb. You can, too.

When a movement for change gets some success, there tends to be a reaction. Many of the users who came to appreciate various components of GNU in the 1980s, and the GNU/Linux system in the 1990s, valued only the technical advantages of the software and did not speak of the issue as one of ethics and freedom. In 1998, some of them started the open-source movement.

Deeper Issues at Stake

The open-source movement makes every effort to avoid presenting itself as a campaign for users’ freedom, and usually nobody is more firm about this than Eric Raymond. But even Raymond sometimes acknowledges there are deeper issues at stake than technical quality of software.

When Raymond compared our community’s work to Gandhi’s campaign for the independence of India from British rule (in his column “GandhiCon Three and the Antics of SCO“), he implicitly acknowledges that this is a matter of ending a system of domination — a social system that is ethically wrong. That is what we in the free-software movement have been saying since 1984.

See “Why Free Software Is Better than Open Source” for more explanation about the difference between the two movements.

Free Software Survives

Since the founding of the open-source movement, corporations often refer to our software and our community as “open source,” and journalists often follow the corporations. Many articles would have it seem that all the work was done under that banner, and you would never guess that the free-software movement and its ideals were part of the story. Some even name me as the father of the open-source movement. If so, it was conceived by artificial insemination using purloined sperm.

But even systemic cooptation cannot eliminate the free-software movement. We are still here, and our numbers are still growing, despite the tendency of corporations to promote our practical work without our philosophy.

The use of computers is still new in society, and it takes time for people to recognize the issues of freedom that affect what kind of society computer users can have. But they do realize, one by one, and when they do, they support free software.

Richard Stallman is the founder of the Gnu Project, launched in 1984 to develop the operating system GNU (an acronym for “GNU’s Not Unix”). GNU is free software. Everyone is free to copy it and redistribute it as well as to make changes either large or small. Today, Linux-based variants of the GNU system, based on the kernel Linux developed by Linus Torvalds, are in widespread use. There are estimated to be some 20 million users of GNU/Linux today. This article is copyright 2003 Richard Stallman. Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article are permitted without royalty in any medium provided this notice is preserved.

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