September 2, 2008

Actor/author Stephen Fry endorses free software

Author: Bruce Byfield

The Free Software Foundation (FSF) has kicked off a month-long celebration of the GNU Project's 25th anniversary with a video in which British actor and comedian Stephen Fry expresses his support for free software.

The GNU Project, as most free software community members are aware, is a collection of free software projects whose creation is usually taken as marking the start of the free software movement. Today, GNU software makes up slightly less than 15% of the typical GNU/Linux distribution, according to Matt Lee, a campaigns manager at the FSF.

However, neither GNU nor the free software philosophy is well-known outside of select computer circles. One of the main goals for the video, says FSF director Peter Brown, is to help to correct that low profile -- a goal, that, given Fry's popularity, as well his professional delivery and writing, the video would seem to have a high chance of accomplishing.

Fry outed himself as a supporter in a blog entry on February 2. "The two great pillars of Open Source are the GNU Project and Linux," Fry writes. "I shan't burden you with too much detail, I'll just make the outrageous claim that your computer will be running some descendant of those two within the next five years and that your life will be better and happier as a result."

The blog entry attracted the attention of Matt Lee, who contacted Fry and arranged the recording of the video last spring in London.

The video

Entitled "Happy Birthday to GNU," the video shows Fry sitting in an armchair on the second or third story of an old brick building. Fry starts by saying that he has been a computer enthusiast ever since the introduction of the personal computer. "But recently," he says, "my mind has turned, as many people's have, to this whole business of 'free software.' But there's a lot of concern about what this all means, and I'd like to help clear this up."

Fry continues by making an analogy between software and plumbing, pointing out that, even if you don't know how to fix the pipes yourself, you reserve the right to do so -- but, in the case of software, proprietary companies like Microsoft and Apple would deny you similar rights.

He then compares free software to the academic tradition of sharing knowledge. "If it isn't [shared], it's bad science and a form of tyranny," he says, leaving listeners to complete the analogy with software.

Interspersed with cuts to a Windows license, a picture of a young Richard Stallman, and other stills, Fry goes on to describe the free software community and its history. He wraps up by urging listeners to use completely free distributions such as GNewSense, or to contribute code if they can.

"Either way, I hope you'll join me in wishing GNU a very happy birthday," says Fry, picking up with both hands a lighted birthday cake that has been out of shot until now. Calling GNU/Linux "the operating system of the future," he exclaims, "Freedom!" and blows out the candles in whirls of smoke.

A moment later, licking his fingers, Fry exclaims, "Chocolaty good -- the tastiest operating system in the world."

Other anniversary celebrations

The release of the Fry video is only one of the events the FSF has planned to mark the anniversary of the GNU Project. "We're planning a month long celebration," says Brown, "starting with this video and running through Software Freedom Day [September 20] to the anniversary itself, which is September 27." At least one campaign and an essay by Richard Stallman are also planned.

In celebrating the GNU project, the FSF has several goals, according to Brown.

The first "is to make people realize just how expansive the scope of GNU is, how much GNU [software] there is out there," says Brown. "I think a lot of people would be surprised at the amount of new GNU stuff that is coming all the time."

More importantly, at a time when Microsoft is make overtures to the free software community, ostensibly to help free software work better with and on Windows, Brown says the anniversary is a good time to re-emphasize the ultimate goal of the movement.

"If we end up in a world where some free software applications are very, very popular and we don't end up with software freedom, that will be to the detriment of everyone. So this is our way to remind the community that there's a goal in mind, an end point that's more than having your software work well on the Microsoft platform," Brown says. "It's about having a complete environment of free software that we want everyone to use. We want to push that final goal of replacing all proprietary software."

In this sense, Brown says, the anniversary is not just about GNU itself. "It's not just that we want our particular project to be successful and popular. Promoting GNU is great, but we have to realize that's only one part of the puzzle. It's only by getting there jointly that we will succeed."

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