Stallman was born in 1953 within New York. His early years showed a gift for sciences, including maths, physics and biology. In 1970 he enrolled at Harvard for a degree in physics and graduated magna cum laude in 1974. During his university years he showed a strong interest in computer programming and so he transferred to MIT as a graduate student within the A.I. laboratory. During this time he rubbed shoulders with a number of luminaries including Dan Murphy and Gerald Sussman. The former was working on a program called TECO which was a basic text editor. Stallman took the sources and greatly improved them, demonstrating his ability to take an idea, improve it and take ownership of a project.
The result, EMACS (Editing with MACros), became a favourite program editor at the lab and went through a number of additions and forks. In order to prevent the evolution of a number of inconsistent EMACS programs, Stallman insisted on an openness with respect of code (as opposed to what he later called 'hoarding') and centralised control.
In essence this experience and Stallman's response was the forerunner of Stallman's management of projects and the GPL license. His insistence on openness and free access to sources extended as far as hacking passwords and removing restricted computer access. In the late 70s and the 80s Stallman came into contact with the reality of closed source software; a reality to which, as expected, he did not take kindly. His response was to formalise his philosophy of sharing which he laid down in his Four Freedoms.
These are the Four Freedoms.
Looking at this list, it is hard to distinguish Stallman's position from Raymond's and indeed the four freedoms, as stated, could be used to justify the open source position that Raymond adopts. In order to see where Stallman's thinking diverges, we have to add something that is not stated in the Four Freedoms. In fact the manifesto should have in it Four Freedoms and one Obligation. The obligation is that software distributed under the Four Freedoms should, when modified, be distributed under the same Four Freedoms. This is an instance of the principle that we should do as we are done by; that which is given freely must be shared under the same conditions.
This natural codicil was later to bring Stallman in conflict with elements of the movement started by Raymond. The Four Freedoms and one Obligation (henceforth FFO) were embodied under the GPL license. This license requires that code shared freely under GPL be available under the same conditions; even if that code is embedded in some larger program. GPL code infects other code when incorporated, forcing the foreign code to be placed under GPL. This was the viral aspect of GPL lamented by Steve Ballmer of Microsoft who remarked on the GPLed Linux system.
Linux is a cancer that attaches itself in an intellectual property sense to everything it touches.
Before we go on to examine the ramifications of FFO, we should note that both Stallman and Raymond are guilty of talking about freedom in the abstract. The word 'freedom' occurs eight times in the Four Freedoms and ten times in Raymond's essay 'The Cathedral and the Bazaar'. Raymond's dedication to that essay reads
To the Memory of Robert Anson Heinlein
For interest, here are the nine other occurrences of 'freedom'. From the foreword by Bob Young, CEO of Red Hat.
Later he devotes a whole section to freedom.
All these passages ignore a fact about freedom: freedom is a vector and not a scalar concept. The distinction between scalar and vector concepts is a well understood distinction in physics. A scalar concept is only subject to questions of magnitude, but a vector concept sustain questions about magnitude and direction. The concept of velocity, defined as speed wrt direction, is an example of a vector quantity. The speed of an object wrt a direction A may be constant over time and yet varying wrt direction B.
Freedom is a vector concept; it needs to defined in relation to who and what. Your freedom to park your tank on my lawn restricts my ability to cultivate a perfect lawn. As we saw in the earlier essay, Open Source: Twenty Years On; the freedom to access source code may be antithetical to the ability of a start-up company to monetise its ideas. Your freedom to access the chemical formula and reproduce the anti-cancer drug I spent millions researching and testing may impede my ability to recoup on my investment; this in turn can discourage others from researching better drugs. Your freedom to protest a play interferes with my freedom to enjoy it - a fact which recently surfaced with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In fact in nearly all cases, social freedoms in one area are bought at the expense of freedoms lost in another. We accept this when we consider that the freedoms won exceed in value the freedoms lost. My freedom to walk the streets unmolested trumps your freedom to mug people you don't like.
Hence when we consider any argument concerning freedom, we have to consider the freedoms lost as well as the freedoms won. This insight is frequently missing from open source advocates who are insistent on their freedoms but care little for those of others. Bob Young's foreword is about the freedom of entrepreneurs to make money from people's work. Raymond's freedom is about hacker's freedom to get what they want. Neither freedoms may be good for other sections of society and it isn't clear that they are even compatible with each other in all cases. We need to retain this insight in what follows.
So far, I'd argue that Stallman is on target. It is reasonable to suggest that if software is made available under the Four Freedoms then it should, modified or not, be passed on to others under the same terms. Notice this is a conditional; in terms of deontic logic (the logic of moral reasoning), it has the form 'It is obligatory that if P then Q'. In this form, Stallman's program is consistent with closed source licensing. However this is not the direction that Stallman took the argument. Stallman added the extra assertion; he made P morally obligatory.
In deontic logic, the effect of adding 'It is obligatory that P' to 'It is obligatory that if P then Q' is to derive the proposition 'It is obligatory that Q'.
This was a momentous step and I would argue the fundamental error that Richard Stallman made in his thinking. This meant that the GPL was no longer a license amongst others, suitable for those of a certain purpose, it became a moral license and fundamentally the only moral license. The Four Freedoms became prescriptive to all code. Later Stallman swapped 'code' for 'digitisable media' and this gave rise to his 'Right to Read' initiative. Like many ideologues, Richard went on to apply his principle without regard to the practical consequences of doing so. Whenever an apparent absurdity was thrown up, Richard did not treat this absurdity as a refutation of his ideas. He did not re-examine his original fateful postulate; instead he accepted the absurdity as a necessary social cost for maintaining the purity of his vision. In this respect, Stallman followed the example set by the commissars of the Bolshevik revolution, who imposed their ideals on the proletariat even when those ideas were manifestly failing, as they did with terrible effect during the Ukrainian famine of the 1930s.
If we can characterise the difference between Raymond and Stallman it revolves around this moral issue. Raymond did not make this categorical moral assertion nor did he embrace FFO, preferring to drop the obligation condition. In other respects he embraced the Four Freedoms. The analogy with the Catholic and Protestant churches is fairly accurate. Stallman was the pope of the older church. Raymond, like the Protestants, rejected the authority of the older church though much of his Cathedral and the Bazaar owes its arguments to ideas put forward by Stallman.
But first we need to examine why Richard made this strong assertion.
Much of Stallman's reasoning is laid out in his GNU Manifesto. GNU (short for 'Gnu is not Unix') is a collection of developer tools designed to form the basis of an operating system (this operating system, called Hurd, never actually materialised). The GNU Manifesto is not a long document, but it lays out the arguments that Stallman was to employ over the next decades. Here they are in numbered form.
1. The argument from the Golden Rule
What is the Golden Rule? The term stems from Immanuel Kant, but here Stallman seems to be using it in the sense that most people use it today; namely that we should be willing to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. But does this ordinary sense support Stallman's assertion? How about we swap out 'program'.
In this form the assertion appears unfounded. I don't expect other people to share their teacakes with me even if I like teacakes. By parity of reasoning if I am enjoying a teacake, then I do not feel obligated to share it with a stranger who happens to want it.
If there is any defence here, it might revolve around pointing out that by sharing a teacake we forfeit part of the teacake but by sharing a program we do not lose the program in part or whole. But this is fallacious because by sharing the program we can lose the financial benefit that might accrue from selling it.
The Golden Rule appears again in the Manifesto.
But this is not how the Kantian Golden Rule works. The idea of the Golden Rule is that one shows a maxim to be morally obligatory by asking what would happen if everybody disobeyed it and showing that the result would be undesirable. For example, I can argue that stealing is wrong by imagining a society in which everyone was free to steal. Such a society would collapse because there would be no property and thus nothing to steal.
But it is not clear that a society which ran on closed source would become poorer through mutual destructiveness. In fact closed source programs like Microsoft Word have succeeded as wealth generators for thousands of people and many millions use them happily. What Stallman is saying is that Stallman would not like such a society. This is true, but so what?
At this point the Argument from the Golden Rule pretty much collapses or requires rescue by other elements in the Manifesto. We'll look at those next.
2. The argument from punishment.
This argument illustrates the way in which Stallman's 'freedom' actually issues in a totalitarian system. But ignoring whether programmers should be punished for writing closed source programs, let's dissect the argument. It appears to run as follows.
The argument fails in the move from A. to B. It does not follow from 'X should be rewarded for doing Y' that 'X should be punished for not doing Y'. The reason why this fails is because of the existence of supererogatory actions. A supererogatory action is a good action that goes beyond the requirements of morality. For example, suppose A and B are walking on a beach during a storm and both see a swimmer C in danger of drowning. A dives in and saves C while B watches. Later A is rewarded with a medal for bravery. Though A deserves to be rewarded for saving C it does not follow that B deserves to be punished for not risking his life.
Similarly if A creates a valuable piece of software and forgoes financial benefit by giving it away the this is a supererogatory action. It does not follow that he should be punished for keeping it to gain money and hence it does not follow that he is morally required to share it.
3. The argument from friendship
This argument seems to run as follows.
Let's test this argument by two scenarios.
I would suggest that in both cases my behaviour is not reasonable. If we test my behaviour by universalising it to be a universal law as Kant advised, all property could be seized and shared in such a society. In that case there would be no motive to acquire property through work and society would wither. The concept of property therefore has to be factored into the concept of sharing. It is integral to sharing that we share what is ours, and sharing, carried out wisely and in proportion, is good. Premise C. is false unless it is amended to reflect ownership. But if we actually own the work ourselves then we cannot be prevented from sharing it. So A and B wither and we are left with.
This as I pointed out, is fallacious, because sharing is often supereroragatory.
4. The argument from utilitarianism
The argument from utilitarianism is not a separate argument from the argument from friendship. Rather it seems to underpin it as a tacit assumption. Utilitarianism is a philosophy of action espoused by Jeremy Bentham and developed by John Stuart Mill. In its simplest form it says that we should so act as to maximise the greatest happiness of the greatest number. Utilitarianism does justify sharing in the way that Stallman suggests because it does not recognise the rights of property.
The problem is however, that utilitarianism is generally rejected by philosophers of ethics for good reason. The central problem of utilitarianism is that it affords no place for rights at all. If it pleases the multitude that non-conformists should be publicly executed, then executing non-conformists is the right thing to do. If gladiatorial combat for felons shows great TV ratings then it should be introduced as a crowd pleaser. One could say that utilitarianism introduced the idea of trial by Twitter two hundred years before Twitter was invented.
Utilitarianism also makes no distinction between doing the right thing and supereroragatory action because duty is measured in purely in utility. As with any moral philosophy, utilitarianism cannot be shown to be false. But it can be shown to have unpalatable consequences unless your palate is very strong. Stallman's digestion in this aspect is very strong; he swallows wholesale the consequences of utilitarianism which leads one to believe that Stallman may be the last leading living apologist for this 19th century philosophy. Ironically he is right now (2019) undergoing trial by Twitter.
5. The argument from quality.
This argument places us on familiar ground and it is the one argument that Raymond imports from Stallman and develops at length. Stallman gives it less prominence because it is broadly a pragmatic argument rather than a moral one. But as we've seen in Open Source: Twenty Years On, making a program open source does not necessarily result in a better product because the economic engine of open source is seriously underpowered.
6. The anthropomorphic argument
Interviewer: Would it be ethical to steal lines of unfree code from companies like Microsoft and Oracle and use them to create a "free" version of that program?
Stallman is obviously anthropomorphising computer programs here. Is the anthropomorphism justified? We object to slavery because it violates what we consider to be a person's natural rights. But can inanimate objects have rights? In England we have buildings that are listed. A listed building is a building of historic interest that must be maintained to a certain standard. It is subject to compulsory purchase if those standards are not maintained. Could we say that a listed building has rights?
Stallman seems to believe that inanimate objects have rights and this is reflected in his description of GPLed programs as being 'free' or 'libre'. The 'free' here he says is to be compared to 'free speech' rather than 'free beer'. But what does 'free speech' amount to? Free speech is the capacity to speak one's mind if one wants to. But programs do not have minds or wants. Though proponents of open source use phrases like 'information wants to be free', information doesn't want anything. Information wants to be free in the same way that a bicycle wants to be free. In both cases unless you take steps to protect it, people will come along and steal it.
Rights exist to protect things that animate objects reasonably desire; like free speech, liberty, clean air and in the case of animals, freedom from cruelty. For this reason they cannot be extended to inanimate objects because they have no desires. A listed building has no rights but we have a right in England to expect that our heritage be preserved. Stallman's belief in the rights of inanimate objects marks his descent away from his concern for the welfare of people to the concern for the welfare of what people produce.
7. The argument from history
This is perhaps one of the least convincing arguments in the Manifesto. In ancient times, the Declaration of Human Rights had not been made, the Women's Movement did not exist and technology progressed at a crawl measured in centuries. If we measure our standards by ancient times we would still be using eunuchs and practising slavery.
In an essay written in 2009 I pointed out that there was problem in selling GPL software.
Near the end of the Manifesto Stallman comes to grips with the nitty-gritty of making money.
Stallman's examples are very specific to certain classes of software. Programmers today do not build operating systems because of the vast effort required (back in the 80s this was still (barely) feasible). The handholding/support model, as covered in Open Source: Twenty Years On, does not provide an adequate financial returns and is anyway unsuitable for those programs which do not require it. Donations are hard to come by (as someone who has worked this model I know this) and dry up continuously. The sad story of OpenSSL and OpenBSD shows the parlous state of projects funded by charity. The suggestion of contracting with programming companies begs the question of how they are funded. The final suggestion - a software tax - is interesting, but this is not a solution that can be instituted by the individual programmer but requires a social movement. Stallman never really developed this into an initiative. At the heart of the 'free' software model there is an economic hole.
In Bryan Lunduke's interview with Stallman, broadcast in 2012, this hole opened up. Lunduke sought Stallman's advice on how to move his business to free software. Lunduke's business was selling video games for a few dollars. Not something that required support, teaching or handholding. Writing programs was, Lunduke asserted, one of the few things he could do well and feed his family. How could he give away his work under GPL and make money? Stallman simply asserted that Lunduke should not engage in making money from closed source. Lunduke was shocked to realise that Stallman had no economic ideas to offer.
At the time this interview was conducted, records show that Stallman's organisation, the Free Software Foundation, had been in receipt of a $30,000 per year donation from Oracle - a company making money from closed source. This fact amongst others led me to write a page condemning the FSF for hypocrisy and listing reasons why the FSF should not be supported. But could Stallman be excused in taking this money and condemning Lunduke at the same time? I have come to consider that Stallman takes this 'tainted' money because he perceives it as for a worthy cause. But then to consistently condemn Lunduke, one has to ascribe to Stallman the belief that the cause of free software trumps Lunduke's ability to provide a decent living for his family.
So to avoid convicting Stallman of hypocrisy, we have to believe that he considers that programs are more important than the people who write them. It appears that this is exactly what Stallman thinks. The belief that the ends of Free Software justify the means was to characterise his attempt to justify the illegal relicensing of BSD code under his GPL. This move led to a 900 message thread and the divorce of the OpenBSD project from friendly relations with the FSF.
Stallman disavows the Open Source movement.
Raymond rejected the Categorical Assertion and therefore Stallman's moral crusade. Raymond embraced the corporations.
Lunduke observed that Stallman's views were not restricted to software, and that the collective ownership he believed in extended to all digitisable media - arts and books included. Stallman followed through by starting the Right to Read initiative which encouraged the 'sharing' of books, or what is generally called piracy. Stallman argued that one should be free to share e-books in the same way that one could share physical books since with physical books:
Key points here are false or misleading. A reader is not required to sign an license but nearly all books are issued with a license prohibiting copying. It is rarely lawful under copyright to scan books in their entirety.
But Gutenberg's e-books are often out of copyright and hence in the public domain. Moreover, in the case of copyright, it is often independent authors who decide both the price and the copyright.
Book piracy is not popular with authors as it removes the source of income from one of the most creative segments of our population. With exceptions, most authors make a slender living. How then do authors live? Stallman gives two answers - by some form of government support (which does not exist) and by charity, which as we've seen rarely works and must be corrosive in a society in which other professions make their living by being paid for their labour. As one observer wrote, the effect of making the arts free in a society which expects to be paid for services is to turn the arts into a slum.
Stallman's vision for free information was built upon a lifelong disinterest in dealing with the human consequences of his ideas. Having formulated his Four Freedoms and justified them to his satisfaction, he pursued their logical consequences with no regard to the human costs. Stallman's interactions with his fellow programmers. and the media reflected an often startling disregard for the human aspect. This lack of empathy eventually surfaced in his remarks on child sexuality in the Epstein case. These views, long closeted in the hacker community, were sympathetic to sexual interaction between adults and children. The resulting outrage swept him from his presidency of the FSF. For many people, including members of the FSF, the end of Stallman's rule was greeted with relief.
Stallman's contributions came from the software he wrote, the formulation of the GPL license and the Four Freedoms it was designed to enshrine. His criticisms of the Open Source movement were in part accurate. Stallman's distrust of corporate control was well-founded and open source was later to play into the hands of corporations. The problem was that Stallman's moral crusade was a wide-angled shotgun that brought down not only exploitive corporations, but creative programmers and later all producers of digitisable media.
His greatest mistake was to elevate the Four Freedoms into rights by his Categorical Assertion and to apply them to all digitisable media. This led to a quixotic and altogether flawed crusade against closed source software which dominated his later years and an alliance with piracy against the interests of authors. He failed to evolve a convincing economic framework for the monetisation of free media because fundamentally he had no interest in the human costs and no experience in business. This flawed legacy he was to pass on the Open Source movement and it was never resolved.