Advocate: free software is good for businesses

For want of a functional printer driver, Richard Stallman created a philosophy.

The Free Software Foundation creator and architect of the GNU Project spent nearly two decades establishing and explaining the principles of the free-software movement. On Tuesday, he took to a podium at New York University (NYU) to discuss the history and goals of the movement – and to rebut comments made earlier in May at NYU by Microsoft Corp. executive Craig Mundie.

Mundie snagged headlines by detailing the flaws Microsoft perceives in the open-source model of software development. He aimed particular venom at the GNU General Public License (GPL), a free-software license developed by Stallman.

The GPL requires that the source code of software publicly distributed under the license be available to users for sharing, modification, and redistribution in both original and modified form. Mundie charged that commercial enterprises considering releasing software under the GPL often aren’t fully aware of all that the license entails. He termed the GPL “an attempt to create a vortex that pulls a lot of other peoples’ intellectual property in.”

In Tuesday’s speech, Stallman countered that it’s Microsoft that’s fuzzy on the details. In the prepared text of Mundie’s speech at NYU, the Microsoft executive blasted “open-source software based on the GPL.” But the GPL is not an open-source license, Stallman emphasized in his speech. It’s a free software license — and free software and open-source software are two very separate things, he said.

The open-source software movement focuses on the pragmatic advantages of collaboratively developing software. The free software movement, however, regards access to freely available source code as an inalienable technological right, and one with moral and social implications, Stallman said.

“(Open-source software proponents) only cite the practical benefits. They deny that this is an issue of principle. They say, ‘It’s a useful thing to let people (share software).’ They say to companies, ‘You might make more money if you let people do this thing.’ To some extent they lead people in the same direction (as the free-software movement), but for fundamentally different philosophical reasons. On the ethical questions, the two movements disagree,” Stallman said.

Ethics and philosophical justifications are integral to Stallman’s free-software crusade. The movement’s origins trace back to his days as a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the 1970s. He was working in the university’s Artificial Intelligence Lab when Xerox Corp. gave the group a laser printer. The lab staff soon discovered the state-of-the-art printer’s Achilles heel: It frequently jammed.

The staff came up with a techie solution to the problem. They wanted to tweak the printer driver code so that when the printer jammed, it would alert the system’s users and someone could go clear out the jam. But the printer driver software was in binary form, and Xerox wouldn’t give the group access to the driver’s source code.

“We were completely helpless to add this feature to the printer software. It would print for three minutes and be jammed for 30 minutes,” Stallman said. “The thing that made it worse was knowing we could have fixed it, but someone else, in his own selfishness, was blocking us from the software.”

That frustration gave rise to a belief that proprietary software not only hinders technical advances, but also plays into a troubling ethical code, according to Stallman.

“For beings that can think and learn, sharing useful knowledge is a fundamental act of friendship. This spirit of goodwill, of helping your neighbor voluntarily, is science’s most important resource. It makes the difference between a livable society and a dog-eat-dog jungle,” Stallman said. “I think this is the most important reason software should be free. We can’t afford to pollute society’s most important resource. It’s not a physical resource, it’s a psycho-social resource, but it’s just as real for all that.”

Free software doesn’t necessarily translate to no-cost software, Stallman emphasized. Free software is about ensuring that users have the liberty to examine the source code of the programs they run, modify it as needed, and publish those modifications. “I don’t want prices to be low — that’s not the issue at all,” Stallman said. “Think of free speech, not free beer.”

A frequent criticism of the free software movement is that its goals preclude programmers earning a living by plying their trade. Not so, countered Stallman. He estimated that 95 percent of software development is focused on creating custom software not intended for public release.

He also noted that free software can be commercial software. Shortly after he left MIT to work full-time developing free software, Stallman created the GNU Emacs text editor. He put a copy of the program on MIT’s network, but many who wanted the program didn’t have Internet access. Stallman offered to mail out copies of the program for $150 each. Despite the availability of GNU Emacs free of charge online, he fielded eight to 10 orders a month.

At a press conference following Stallman’s speech, representatives of several companies focused on free software talked about how their enterprises profit from non-proprietary software. Ada Core Technologies Inc. is a company spun off by NYU that maintains the Ada 95 GNAT Pro Development Environment, a development system for complex projects requiring high levels of reliability. The company serves a specialized niche market, and its services are relatively expensive — its cheapest package of software and support costs $12,000 per year, said President Robert Dewar.

The free-source GNU system is integral to GNAT Pro, Dewar said, and GNAT Pro’s source code is distributed with the software. He said the source code availability is “a big part of our pitch.”

In his speech, Stallman detailed several reasons why free software can be a boon to businesses. First off, higher quality support is available, he said. A company using a proprietary software product has to rely on the manufacturer for updates and bug fixes. A company using a product to which it has source code rights, however, can hire a programmer to make any needed modifications. If that programmer doesn’t do a satisfactory job, the company can take its business to another programmer. “Any business that cares about support will find tremendous advantages in free software,” Stallman said.

Additional privacy and security are other key benefits of free software, Stallman said. If source code for an application is publicly available, programmers can’t sneak in features that users won’t like. Source code availability also safeguards against programming errors leading to security-compromising bugs — such as those Microsoft keeps discovering and plugging.

Those advantages — better support and increased privacy and security — are a key selling point for Ada Core Technologies, Dewar said. “We have a very big incentive to provide people with good support,” he said.

In addition to explaining the tenants of free software, Stallman discussed the history of the GNU Project, an initiative launched in 1984 to create a free-source operating system. The Free Software Foundation, a charity Stallman co-founded in 1985, funded work on GNU in the 1980s.

Pieces of GNU gradually became usable, but the system lacked one key component: a kernel. Then Linus Torvalds released the Linux kernel in 1991, Stallman said, and by combining GNU and Linux, a completely free operating system was available.

One of Stallman’s crusades is his insistence that GNU/Linux is the proper name of the complete operating system, generally referred to simply as Linux.

“The practice of calling the system Linux has been a great blow to the GNU Project because we don’t generally get credit for what we’ve done,” Stallman said. “I want the GNU Project to get credit for it for a very specific reason: These days, if you look around in the community, most people don’t mention GNU and don’t ever mention these goals of freedom, these social and political goals. Linux is the apolitical philosophy of Linus Torvalds. When people think the whole system is Linux, they think his philosophy must be the one that we should look at critically,” Stallman said.

“If they only knew that the system they like — or, in some cases, love and go wild over — is our idealistic political philosophy made real, they still wouldn’t have to agree with us, but at least they’d see a reason to take it seriously. They’d at least consider it with an open mind. I want this philosophy to get the benefit of the credit for the results it has achieved.”

Audience member Pierre Arami said Stallman’s talk prompted him to think more critically about what to call the operating system. “From what (Stallman) says, the public has it backward. I’ll ask other people, but it sounds like Linux is just a part of it,” Arami said after the speech.

Arami came to the talk after reading about it on the New York Linux User’s Group mailing list. Although he said the free-software philosophy doesn’t interest him, he’s intrigued by “copyleft,” a concept coined to explain the free-software movement’s distribution philosophy. The GPL’s protection of “copylefted” software is enforceable because of traditional copyright laws, a legal trick Arami said he appreciates. He said he’s curious about how the copyleft concept could be extended beyond the software field.

The Free Software Foundation, in Boston, can be contacted at