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GNU is Not Unix

RMS Says Free Software Is Good 215

A few city blocks and many philosophical lightyears away from the New York University auditorium where Microsoft Senior Vice President Craig Mundie extolled the virtues of proprietary software a few weeks ago, Richard M. Stallman spoke this morning instead on the reasons that software developers, CEOs and every citizen whatsoever should prefer the Free software movement's methods and results. Stallman, founder of the GNU Project and the Free Software Foundation, said a lot of things that he's been saying since 1984, but also threw in some zingers aimed at Microsoft's recent public criticism of open development models. Update: 05/30 01:56 PM by T : Correction: I incorrectly reported in the story below that David Touretzky of CMU introduced Richard Stallman at this speech; in fact, it was Mike Uretsky, Administrative Director of NYU's Center For Advanced Technologies (CAT) and professor in the Stern School of Business; the text below reflects this. With many apologies to both professors and to readers, timothy. (Read more.)

NYU Information Systems chairman Mike Uretsky and NYU computer science professor Edmond Schonberg briefly introduced Stallman to a standing-room-only crowd at NYU's Courant Mathematical Institute.

Stallman drew laughter and applause during Uretsky's introduction by calling out "I do Free software, Open Source is a different crowd" when Uretsky made a reference to Open Source software. Rather than a point-by-point rebuttal of Mundie's speech advocating Microsoft's current "shared source" initiative, Stallman's speech presented both an overview of the Free software movement -- several times emphasizing how it differs from the more pragmatic Open Source movement -- and a defense of Free software at several levels. Though peppered with jokes and historical asides, the bulk of Stallman's talk was devoted to explaining the benefits of Free software and comparing community-based, non-proprietary software development to the "deliberately inflicted waste" of proprietary software.

The publicity that Mundie's speech has stirred up around software licensing is obviously not forgotten, though. Stallman began by saying "I'd like to thank Microsoft for providng me the opportunity to use this platform. For the last few weeks I've felt like an author whose book was fortuitously banned somewhere, but all the articles about it are giving the wrong author's name, because Microsoft describes our license as an 'Open Source' license." Stallman emphasized at several points that the approach he and GNU project have is at its core philosophical, not merely pragmatic.

Beginning with cooking rather than computers, Stallman pointed out the advantages of being able to share functional documents in the form of recipes. He pointed that while nearly everyone cooks, "unless you're great, you probably use recipes. You've probably had the experience of getting a recipe from a friend -- and unless you're a total neophyte, you probably have also had the experience of changing the recipe. If you've made changes and you make it for your friends, and they like it, you can write down your changes for them." Imagine, he said, if recipes were packaged in black boxes, unavailable for inspection.

Stallman named the qualities he uses to define Free software. He began with "freedom zero" -- the freedom to run the software for any purpose -- noting, "If you're not even free to run the software for anything you want, it's a pretty damn restrictive license."

He went on to describe three additional freedoms which distinguish Free from proprietary software: the right to change software to suit user needs; to redistribute the software; and to publish improved versions.

These freedoms are absent in proprietary software, Stallman said, and cited what he said was his first taste to the evils of non-disclosure statements, which took place while he was working as an operating system developer at MIT's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

Stallman knew of a computer scientist at Carnegie-Mellon University with a copy of the Xerox source, and asked for a copy in order to add this feature. He found his request was denied, because his fellow academic had signed a non-disclosure agreement.

"He had refused to cooperate with just about the the entire population of the planet Earth, because he had signed an non-disclosure agreement. This was my first encounter with a non-disclosure agreement, and I was the victim -- my lab and I were the victims. The lesson it taught me is that NDAs have victims, they aren't harmless."

Toward the close of his speech, Stallman pointedly applied the advantages of Free software to businesses, giving examples of ways in which a community of more than 100,000 developers leads to more robust and maintainable software, all issues of price aside.

Describing his experiences after releasing GNU-Emacs in 1984, Stallman said "I got a msg that said 'I think I saw a bug, and here's a fix.'" Others emailed him with new feature requests and bug reports, and in many cases, the code to implement an improved version, "until they were pouring in on my so fast that just making use of the information I was getting was a big job. Microsoft doesn't have this problem."

The iterative, inclusive software development process resulted in constantly improving code for the GNU Project's various pieces of software, said Stallman. "What people began to note around 1990 was that our SW was better -- it was more powerful than the proprietary alternatives."

Since that time (before the Linux kernel was developed and employed alongside many GNU utilities), Free and Open Source software has increased dramatically in use and public acceptance.

Citing the large number of companies now paying to develop Free software, and that the majority of pages on the World Wide Web are served with Apache running on GNU/Linux systems, Stallman scoffed at claims that the GPL was unfriendly to business. "Microsoft says that busineses can't get along with the GPL. So if businesses don't include IBM, and HP, and Sun, then maybe they're right."

Addressing one persistent myth, Stallman said "It's not true, sometimes I wish it was true, that if a company uses GPL in any project, that the whole project has to be GPLd. If programs operate at arms' length from each other, then they're legally separate, in general."

Again, though, Stallman was careful to point out that the advantages and intent of Free software had more to do with ethics and social good in a variety of fields than any particular bottom line. Closed software, he said, "causes psychosocial harm which affects the spirit of scientific cooperation. Progress in science crucially depends on people being able to work together. Nowadays you see scientists act as if they're in gangs at war with other little gangs of scientists ... we're all held back." And not just scientists -- of anyone who uses computers in the workplace, Stallman said that in the absence of a broad right to modify and improve the software they use, "Their lives and jobs are going to be frustrating -- people protect themselves from frustration by deciding not to care. When this happens, it's bad for those people and for society as a whole."

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RMS Says Free Software Is Good (in progress)

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"You can have my Unix system when you pry it from my cold, dead fingers." -- Cal Keegan