October 22, 2004

How to be a Free Software zealot

Author: Robin 'Roblimo' Miller

Hint: It takes more than tacking a life-sized poster of Richard Stallman as St. iGNUtius to your bedroom wall, although that's a good start.There are many people who prefer Free Software and support the Free Software Foundation with volunteer time, money or publicity but are not Free Software zealots. NewsForge's parent company is a corporate patron, and I have made personal donations to the FSF. This article is being written with Bluefish, a GPL text editor, running on GPL SimplyMEPIS, a Debian variant. You are viewing it through servers running Debian Linux, Apache, SLASH, and MySQL.

Zealot: He didn't call it GNU/Linux! And the Apache license isn't free enough! These people pander to corporate interests! They are trying to replace free software with that nasty open source thing, whatever it is! Boycott them!

Well, gosh. I guess I really suck, don't I? And OSTG (formerly OSDN) has "open source" right in its name, so it can't possibly pass a free software purity test.

To be a true Free Software zealot, you should avoid using software whose license is not compatible with the GPL, especially if it uses one of the licenses on this list.

Zealot: Yeah! These licenses aren't compatible with the GPL. But ... umm ... I kind of like Mozilla (and I like Firefox a lot), and my Web site runs on Apache, so ... umm ...

And then there's the FSF list of Non-Free Software Licenses. The Microsoft Shared Source License isn't taken seriously even by those heretics who use the dread phrase "open source" at least as often as they say "Free Software." The only purity test this license passes is Microsoft's.

The others on this list vary in their perniciousness. Some are awful, some are just a little bit out of bounds and need to be looked at with care. For example, while I am certainly no Free Software zealot myself, one of the biggest reasons I chose the realtively unknown MEPIS Linux -- excuse me, GNU/Linux -- over SUSE for my upcoming "Point and Click Linux" book was SUSE's restrictions on YaST redistribution. While SUSE was happy to allow redistribution as part of the book, I wanted people who bought the book to be able to share the contents of the bootable CD and the video DVD without any problem.

Zealot: You didn't call it "Point and Click GNU/Linux"! You suck!

Actually, Zealot, I have a whole chapter called "Joining the Linux Community" that starts with GNU, not Linux. I decided that, just once, a book about Linux was going to tell the story of how it came about from the beginning instead of starting with Linus Torvalds. I know that won't satisfy you -- nothing will -- and that's too bad. I did this in the name of factual accuracy, not to make you happy. (You are not the target market for this book, anyway.)

The difference between advocacy and zealotry

Attacking people who do not agree with you won't bring them around to your way of thinking. Radicals of all varieties -- software, political, religious, whatever -- seem to think that being nasty to anyone who doesn't share their world view will win hearts and minds. But it never does.

Getting angry because Microsoft buys booth space at LinuxWorld Expos or runs ads on OSTG Web sites will not win hearts and minds, either. Advertising maven Jerry Della Femina said, "There is a great deal of advertising that is much better than the product. When that happens, all that the good advertising will do is put you out of business faster."

This is a distillation of an anecdote from Jerry's 1971 book, "From Those Wonderful Folks Who Gave You Pearl Harbor", about the Piel Brothers brewery in New York, and how a series of famously personable TV spots featuring Piel Brothers Burt and Harry were tremendously successful in getting people to try their beer.

The only problem was that the beer was lousy, so after people tried it once they never bought another six-pack. (Piel Brothers Brewery was long ago bought out and closed.)

If Free Software is so good and Microsoft and other proprietary software producers' products are so bad, putting the two together for side-by-side competition will only hasten the demise of the inferior offering.

Most people don't care about software licensing

One way zealots, radicals, and life insurance salespeople turn people off is by assuming that what's important to them is important to everyone else.

Zealot: But restrictive licensing ruins software development! And software patents are evil! And what does life insurance have to do with this?!

Friend, I'm sorry to be the first one to tell you this, but hardly anyone spends much time thinking about software licenses or patents. They want to turn their computers on and use them for work (or play) with the least possible amount of hassle. They click on EULAs without thinking about them. They don't agonize over whether a browser plug-in is free software or worry about font licensing. They just want to look at the pictures and see the text clearly.

And life insurance salespeople -- some of them act like life insurance is the most important thing in the world. Maybe it is, to them, since it's their business. But I don't want to immerse myself in insurance jargon and point-to-point comparisons. I just want a simple term life policy that'll pay off the mortgage if I die and maybe leave my wife with a few extra bucks. (And I found one, thank you, so if you're a life insurance salesperson, please *do not* call or email.)

The same goes for packing and shipping supplies. Back when I ran an instrumentation lab and shipping was part of my responsibility, I was deluged with calls from packing supplies salespeople who wanted me to spend hour after hour going over the merits of this or that kind of box. They had trouble understanding that all I wanted was a reliable supply at a reasonable price, and to think as little as possible about packaging. I had other things on my mind -- like calibrating, repairing, and designing the humidity measurement devices that went into the boxes.

Apathy: the world's most popular belief

Some religions stress door-to-door evangelizing. But even though what they offer is eternal bliss (and avoidance of eternal hellfire), they are met by more slammed doors than open minds.

The United States is in the middle of a presidential campaign. Any candidate will tell you that this may be the most important election we've had since (fill in here). But the winner of this election, same as the last presidential election, is likely to be "I can't be bothered to go to the polls and vote." I will personally be surprised if more than 50% of eligible voters show up on election day, and shocked to the point of fainting if 60% make it.

And you expect people to care about software licenses?

Give people an excellent piece of software -- and then point out that it's Free/free -- and a few ears might perk up just a little. You then have a moment, albeit a short one, to explain why Free Software licensing and the development process it fosters leads to superior code development.

But waste that moment knocking your listener for talking about "open source," using Windows to run programs that don't yet exist for GNU/Linux or any one of 100 other anti-Free Software sins, and you lose a chance to sway someone (at least a little) toward your point of view.

This is when you either pass or fail the zealot/radical test. If you are an advocate, you want to convert someone. You speak to them on their level, you don't sneer at them, and you give them good reasons why they should hear you out. And perhaps, sooner or later, you get them to (at least partially) agree with you.

But if you are a radical or zealot, displaying your own righteousness to the world is more important than helping non-believers "see the light," so instead of persuading, you insult people who could easily be turned into allies. This is a proven way to make sure they think you -- and your beliefs -- represent a lunatic fringe they should avoid, not embrace.

In the end, though, despite this problem, I expect the Free Software concept to go mainstream. It's too good an idea to be derailed by a few people who, by their savage call

cause others to flee
and often fall
from a cause that would be best
if shared by all.

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