If we value our freedom, we can act to
maintain and defend it.
software Can Be Bad
The idea that we want software to be
powerful and reliable comes from the
supposition that the software is designed to serve its users. If it is powerful and reliable, that means it serves
But software can only be said to serve
its users if it respects their freedom.
What if the software is designed to put
chains on its users? Then powerfulness
only means the chains are more constricting, and reliability that they are
harder to remove. Malicious features,
such as spying on the users, restricting
the users, back doors, and imposed upgrades are common in proprietary software, and some open source supporters
want to do likewise.
Under the pressure of the movie and
record companies, software for individuals to use is increasingly designed specifically to restrict them. This malicious
feature is known as DRM, or Digital
Restrictions Management (see Defec-
tiveByDesign.org), and it is the antithesis in spirit of the freedom that free
software aims to provide. And not just
in spirit: since the goal of DRM is to
trample your freedom, DRM developers try to make it difficult, impossible,
or even illegal for you to change the
software that implements the DRM.
Yet some open source supporters
have proposed “open source DRM”
software. Their idea is that by publishing the source code of programs
designed to restrict your access to encrypted media, and allowing others to
change it, they will produce more powerful and reliable software for restricting users like you. Then it will be delivered to you in devices that do not allow
you to change it.
This software might be “open
source,” and use the open source development model; but it won’t be free
software, since it won’t respect the freedom of the users that actually run it. If
the open source development model
succeeds in making this software more
powerful and reliable for restricting
you, that will make it even worse.
fear of freedom
The main initial motivation for the term
software can only
be said to serve
its users if it respects
“open source software” is that the ethical ideas of “free software” make some
people uneasy. That’s true: talking
about freedom, about ethical issues,
about responsibilities as well as convenience, is asking people to think about
things they might prefer to ignore, such
as whether their conduct is ethical.
This can trigger discomfort, and some
people may simply close their minds
to it. It does not follow that we ought to
stop talking about these things.
However, that is what the leaders of
“open source” decided to do. They figured that by keeping quiet about ethics
and freedom, and talking only about
the immediate practical benefits of certain free software, they might be able to
“sell” the software more effectively to
certain users, especially businesses.
This approach has proved effective,
in its own terms. The rhetoric of open
source has convinced many businesses
and individuals to use, and even develop, free software, which has extended
our community—but only at the superficial, practical level. The philosophy of
open source, with its purely practical
values, impedes understanding of the
deeper ideas of free software; it brings
many people into our community, but
does not teach them to defend it. That
is good, as far as it goes, but it is not
enough to make freedom secure. Attracting users to free software takes
them just part of the way to becoming
defenders of their own freedom.
Sooner or later these users will be
invited to switch back to proprietary
software for some practical advantage.
Countless companies seek to offer such
temptation, some even offering copies
gratis. Why would users decline? Only if
they have learned to value the freedom
free software gives them, to value freedom as such rather than the technical
and practical convenience of specific
free software. To spread this idea, we
have to talk about freedom. A certain
amount of the “keep quiet” approach to
business can be useful for the community, but it is dangerous if it becomes
so common that the love of freedom
comes to seem like an eccentricity.
That dangerous situation is exactly
what we have. Most people involved
with free software say little about freedom—usually because they seek to be
more acceptable to business. Software
distributors especially show this pattern. Nearly all GNU/Linux operating
system distributions add proprietary
packages to the basic free system, and
they invite users to consider this an advantage, rather than a step backward
Proprietary add-on software and
partially non-free GNU/Linux distributions find fertile ground because most
of our community does not insist on
freedom with its software. This is no
coincidence. Most GNU/Linux users
were introduced to the system by “open
source” discussion, which doesn’t say
freedom is a goal. The practices that
don’t uphold freedom and the words
that don’t talk about freedom go hand
in hand, each promoting the other.
To overcome this tendency, we need
more, not less, talk about freedom.
As the advocates of open source draw
new users into our community, we
free software activists must work even
more to bring the issue of freedom to
those new users’ attention. We have
to say, “It’s free software and it gives
you freedom!”—more and louder than
ever. Every time you say “free software”
rather than “open source,” you help
1. Joe barr wrote an article called “Live and Let License”
that gives his perspective on this issue.
2. Lakhani and Wolf’s paper on the motivation of free
software developers (see http://freesoftware.mit.edu/
papers/lakhaniwolf.pdf) states that a considerable
fraction are motivated by the view that software
should be free. this was despite the fact they surveyed
the developers on sourceforge, a site that does not
support the view that this is an ethical issue.
Richard Stallman ( firstname.lastname@example.org) is the author of the free
symbolic debugger gDb, the founder the project to develop
the free gnu operating system, and the founder of the free
copyright © 2009 richard stallman
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