Saturday, June 16, 2007
Richard Stallman, the Programmer's Prophet
At the invitation of some friends who work in informatica (computers and information technology), I joined them on a trip into Rome on Thursday of last week to go and listen to Richard Stallman. In the world of computers and software development, Stallman is a living American legend.
The Harvard graduate and former MIT researcher was a special guest speaker at the University of Sapienza (Università degli Studi di Roma “La Sapienza”), one of Italy's foremost universities. The subject of his talk was free software. Stallman is the founder of the free software movement and now devotes much of his time to traveling the world talking about this complicated issue.
I've taken an interest in this subject lately. I became intrigued with it a few months ago when I interviewed an Italian IT expert. The young man, clearly in awe, talked for twenty minutes about Stallman. So I was more than little curious to see the famous guru, as he's sometimes described, and to learn what all the fuss was about.
Dressed in casual shirt and pants, and looking directly ahead most of the time, Stallman spoke for almost two hours. His recitative manner indicated that this was a talk he gives often. The audience was made up of a few hundred, enthusiastic students, some IT professionals, and others who filled up an auditorium-sized lecture hall. The sometimes mantric rhythm in Stallman's oratory style signalled a religious devotion to his cause. He acknowledged this prophet persona, and even parodied it at the conclusion of his presentation by comically donning a black robe, and a halo made from an old computer disc.
The meaning of free
I soon discovered that I was wrong in my assumption that the free software movement is about the various software programs that you can download free on the Internet. The free in free software is not free as in price, Stallman explained, but free as in freedom. Specifically, it refers to free access to the source code within all software programs, two wellknown examples being Windows or GNU/Linux.
Thursday I learned that there are two major positions of opinion about this source code. One, represented by Stallman and many others, is that this code should be freely available to anyone who wants to see it. Not only that, but programmers should be free to modify the source code, and free to share it with other programmers as and if they wish.
The other position, held by some companies whose products are so commonly installed on computers that by now they have become household names, is that source code is a commodity like any other. Software developers, this position maintains, are entitled to patents on their programs, and the right to treat the developed source code as a private investment, sacrosanct and secret.
Until I heard Stallman speak, I have to admit I considered the latter position to be just fine. Why shouldn't the creator have a right to monetary reward from the creation, as the logic goes in the business world? But Stallman's lecture presented another perspective that caused me to re-think.
As I understand it, Stallman and the others who share his philosophy see the source code that underlies all programming as core knowledge that is vital to the common good of society and its technological progress. Programmers who have access to source code of existing software can study it and develop improved or new programs. They can build on past discoveries in an open, collaborative and synergistic way, using the same process and methods common to all basic science.
And since software is the digital infrastructure of most aspects of our lives, ranging from entertainment and transportation to medical science and space exploration, this work is indispensable. Depending on the use, software often concerns the safety and security of human life. Software also has become omnipresent in government institutions and the election process. Closer to home, most people trust its use in their personal, professional and business activities.
As Stallman emphasized at length, a crucial reason for source code to be free and accessible is to protect the rights of the individual users. Sealing the code allows developers to control users and invade their privacy. Hidden barriers built into software, referred to as Digital Rights Management (DRM) are on the increase.
A simple analogy of this latter situation, one of my friends explained to me later, would be if I bought a car without being informed that it was electronically programmed to prevent me from turning on to certain streets. Worse, the restriction also could be designed in such a way that it would prevent me from even knowing those streets existed. My behavior and my choices would be controlled without me even being aware of it.
Considered on this basis, the role of source code took on a whole different status for me. I understood that the free software movement is about the basic civil rights of all versus the privileged rights of a few. I have become a convert to free software.
Profits are okay
Stallman emphasized that he is not opposed to profits, and neither is he opposed to developers charging people for their programs. What he is fighting against in this worldwide crusade he is waging is the patenting or copyrighting of the ideas.
Thinking all this over, I remembered what Ralph Waldo Emerson is reported to have said, in essence, “Build a better mousetrap and the world will beat a path to your door.” I've grown up hearing this old saying as a basic premise of free enterprise. But if the idea of catching a mouse is itself under patent or copyright? I wonder what Ralph W. would have to say about that? I suspect it might be something similar to what Stallman said in Rome last week.
Decide for yourself
For more information about the issues and people involved in the movement for free software, you can go to these sites: http://www.fsf.org/, http://www.opensource.org/, http://slashdot.org/. For information about current copyright issues, go here: http://creativecommons.org/. To read an article by Stallman detailing his views on patents on software, go here: http://technology.guardian.co.uk/online/story/0,,1511965,00.html. You can also see a short video of Stallman himself talking about what he calls the four essential freedoms of software, here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJi2rkHiNqg.
by Rebecca Helm-Ropelato
Copyright © Rebecca Helm-Ropelato