Stallman: Jobs exerted ‘malign influence’ on computing

October 11, 2011 | Rants and Raves | By: Mark VandeWettering

Several people have forwarded this article on to me, where free software advocate Richard Stallman had this to say about Steve Jobs:

Stallman: Jobs exerted ‘malign influence’ on computing • The Register.

Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.

As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, ‘I’m not glad he’s dead, but I’m glad he’s gone’. Nobody deserves to have to die – not Jobs, not Mr Bill, not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs. But we all deserve the end of Jobs’ malign influence on people’s computing.

Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective.

I didn’t really find it surprising that Stallman would have some harsh comments regarding Steve. They represent two diametrically opposed views about computing after all. Stallman believes that anyone who hides any details about your computer from you is robbing you of your freedom. Jobs was slightly less of an ideologue, but was no real fan of that kind of free software, and was certainly comfortable with enforcing intellectual property rights to blunt competitors.

The odd thing is that I have some respect for both men, even though I disagree with some of their ideas most whole heartedly.

Stallman is an ideologue, in both the best and worse sense of the word. His work was absolutely fundamental in shaping the landscape of the open source and free software movements, but very early I diverged with his views. To me, software is like any other creative work protected by copyrights: it is ultimately the author who decides how and by whom it may be used. The users have no default rights. If they choose to accept the terms under which the authors distribute a work, then there is no basis for complaint.

Stallman has never been above pointless, inflammatory rhetoric either. Way back in 1989, I had an exchange over USENET with Stallman where he tried to draw comparisons between Apple and the oppressive governments of China, Panama, and South Africa. It was an absurd comparison, and for me, a polarizing one. My own response was the start of my own re-examination about just what goals I thought free and open source software should serve.

Ultimately, I found that the model that the GNU license upheld was for me simply not free enough. The GPL is coercive in a way that I don’t find particularly attractive: it says “look, if you want to use my stuff, you have to let me use your stuff”. And of course it uses the copyright system itself (which is one of the ways that companies hold power over users) to gain a legal basis to enforce that idea.

I’ve always found the BSD license to be far more attractive, and I use it for my own works that I release. The basic idea is that you shouldn’t pretend that you wrote anything that you didn’t, so don’t do that. Give the authors their credit, but then feel free to build on what they did. I’ve found that to be more akin to my own goals and ethics.

Steve (and by extension Apple) wasn’t a huge fan of either of these models, although Apple certainly benefited by adoption of some free software projects. But if I was going to really complain about Apple, it’s more about the idea that they insist on interjecting themselves as intermediary in the process of software distribution. Even if I wish to give my software away, I have to get Apple’s permission to let anyone else use it. That’s seriously not good.

But as in all decisions one makes, ultimately you have to make a pragmatic decision. I have an iPhone despite my fundamental disgruntlement, because in the long run it still saves me time, and provides me with enough of value that I think it’s the best product for me to buy. Far from being “jailed”, I simply have made a pragmatic choice, and it’s presumptuous for people like Stallman and Raymond to claim otherwise.

There are worse things to be in than a walled garden. As long as you have the freedom to leave, calling it a jail is just pointless hyperbole.


Comment from Josh Myer
Time 10/11/2011 at 12:31 pm

FWIW, I have a slightly different (and somewhat twisted) view of the GPL. I release most of my code as GPL, under the principle: “Please, use this, make it better, work with everyone! If you make money on it, my ‘royalties’ are that you help make the world better by releasing your code. If that doesn’t work for you, pay me directly for a different license.”