RMS: why open source needs Free Software's ideals

To fight MS lobbying, argues Stallman, the community needs to stop downplaying its origins

The following is an open letter from Free Software Foundation President Richard Stallman to SecurityFocus' Jon Lasser, in response to his article Lobbying for Insecurity:

I read your article about Microsoft and Security-Enhanced Linux with interest, and saw your advice to the open-source community.

I do not advocate open source, but I wrote a free software license, the GNU General Public License, that is described by some as "open source". I also launched, in 1984, the development of a free software operating system that is "Linux" by some. I hope this makes my response worth reading.

The article said:

"None of which is to say that Microsoft is doing anything wrong. They're a business, and they are doing what they need to do to win in the marketplace. What's wrong is the rest of the industry allowing them to get away with it."

I beg to differ: Microsoft is doing plenty of things that are wrong. For one thing, it is developing proprietary, non-free software - software with licenses designed to keep users divided and dependent. That is fundamentally wrong.

Beyond that, Microsoft is pressuring our government to abandon a useful public-service project simply because that might help more people escape dependence on Microsoft. That is wrong too; Microsoft is wrong to ask for it, and the government is wrong to give in.

The purpose of a company is profit, but profit can be made in various ways. Some methods respect the freedom and well-being of others, while some trample other people's rights and lives. When the executives of a company have no principles or scruples to restrain them, it is only natural that they will try the latter methods. It is natural, but that is not an excuse. To accept selfishness as an all-purpose excuse for mistreating others is to reject the whole idea of right and wrong.

Your advice is that the community should begin practicing politics, which seems to mean, working in nontechnical ways for success. This is ironic because the term "open source" was coined to avoid politics.

The free software movement, since its inception in 1984, has had a political goal, political in the highest sense of the word. We are concerned with the question of what kind of society we should live in. We believe that computer users should have the freedom to share and change software, and we developed the GNU operating system for that purpose. (Linux, the kernel that Linus Torvalds wrote, is normally used together with GNU, in the GNU/Linux combination; see Linux and the GNU Project.)

The open source movement was founded in 1998 by people who wanted to talk about our system without mentioning the political ideals that motivated us to develop it. They got lots of publicity, and as a result most of the users of our software think it was developed under the name of open source for apolitical reasons. A recent survey showed that more developers prefer the affiliation with free software, on account of our principles, but the users get a misleading picture of this. That picture contributes to the political weakness in our community.

You can help our community become stronger politically simply by informing the public that GNU/Linux comes out of the free software movement, whose central motivation was a political insistence on freedom. Condemning harmful corporate behavior from an ethical viewpoint will help too.

See Why Free Software is better than Open Source for more explanation about the difference between the free software movement and the open source movement.

Richard Stallman
President, Free Software Foundation
Cambridge, Mass

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