June 5, 2001

Stallman embarrasses business ethic while rejecting Microsoft model

Author: JT Smith

Editor's note: This story was written by Sarah Brown, a friend of Richard Stallman's, after his speech at New York University last week.
By Sarah Brown

It's hard to imagine an individual more at odds with the corporate
culture of Microsoft than Richard Stallman, the founder of the Free
Software movement. In his own way, however, Stallman is as focused
on the needs of business and the engines of capitalism as Microsoft

And it was precisely this focus that was at the center of his
remarks at New York University May 29 -- remarks that were framed as
a response to Microsoft's recent efforts to discredit the Free Software
movement in general and the GNU/Linux operating system in particular.

It's not that Stallman, who has been labeled by Wired magazine, among
others, as "one of the greatest programmers alive," is known for his
embrace of the profit motive. His speeches, for example, typically
include an admonition that life-quality issues must come before the
needs of business: We work to live and not the other way around. At
business meetings, he's been known to hand out his satirical "Pleasure
Card," while everyone else gets acquainted by passing around business

But as his NYU remarks demonstrate, Stallman believes that his Free
Software movement has as much potential to fuel the growth of American
software development as Microsoft's famously aggressive business

Stallman's speech was hyped into a major media event, billed as a
response to Microsoft's executive Craig Mundie. Just weeks before
Stallman, Mundie had given a provocative speech at NYU in which he
criticized Free Software movement (mistaking it as "Open Source
movement"), saying it was bad for business and disastrous to the
American economy. He saved his harshest words for the GPL, the license
for Free Software which Stallman authored, saying the "viral aspect of
the GPL poses a threat to the intellectual property of any
organization making use of it. It also fundamentally undermines the
independent commercial software sector."

Of course, The goals of the Free Software movement, as well as the
GPL, have always been freedom, as consistently as the goal of
Microsoft has been profit. Free Software has been around since 1984,
and only this year did Microsoft begin to attack it so viciously. Why

Obviously, the Microsoft people are finally seeing the potential of Free Software might
hurt their bottom line. The Free Software movement has already changed
the landscape of software development, and Microsoft's terrified
it will loose their position on the hill as a result. I'd hurry and
download the OGG
file of Stallman's speech at NYU: It's sure to become a
collector's item -- sold on E Bay in a few years, the tag-line: "The
Famous NYU Speech where Stallman eloquently and convincingly described
Free Software as more useful business than proprietary software!!!"

Why Free Software is good for business

Stallman began his argument by cutting Mundie's remarks down to their
correct proportion. Most companies in advanced countries use
software. Only a tiny fraction of these companies develop
software. The freedoms of GPL licensed software are extremely useful
for the companies who use software, whereas proprietary software can
ofttimes be expensive, inefficient and even harmful.

The basic freedom the GPL gives the business that use Free Software is
the ability to adapt and modify the source code in any way they see
fit. This gives companies the ability to change the structure of their
software to fit the needs of their company -- something impossible with
proprietary software.

Law Professor Lawrence Lessig, now at Stanford, has written a book in which he
declared code to be a type of law. That is, the code controls one's
behavior. If this is true, then code also becomes management
technique, making proprietary solutions seem more and more invasive to
the was a company functions, its very structure.

You don't have to be a software company to take advantage of the
benefits of Free Software, all you have to do is hire someone to
modify the software. As Stallman said, "If you want to move the walls
in your building, you don't have to be a carpentry company, you just
have to be able to go find a carpenter and say ... 'what will you
charge?' " Free Software eases the expensive development costs of custom
business software, as the programmers they hire already have a huge
library of existing code to begin with -- companies won't need to pay to
get the wheel reinvented, only adapted to the uses of their company.

Free Software uses open standards, which greatly facilitates
communication between companies. This also eases development
costs -- for example -- in the case of an Internet start-up building
travel packages, a system that must interact with other companies'
systems, about half the development cost might be reduced if both the
companies will not have to translate each other's proprietary
systems. Compatibility is something Free Software does well, whereas
proprietary software often builds in incompatibilities on
purpose. Stallman noted, "They [proprietary software companies] often
find it advantageous to deliberately not follow a standard. And not
because they think they are giving the user an advantage that way, but
rather because they're imposing on the user, locking the user in. And
you'll even find them making changes in their file formats from time
to time, just to force people to get the newest version."

A Free Software model uses the free market structure of capitalism
to ensure better support for software. Companies must compete against
other companies, and if one company fails to offer the best support,
you can just move to a better one. Stallman says good
software support is not assured with proprietary software companies. "Once you're using their program, they figure you are locked into getting the support from them ... so you end up with things like paying for the privilege of reporting a bug. And once you've paid, they tell
you, 'Well, in a few months you can buy an upgrade and you can see if
we've fixed it.' Support providers for Free Software can't get away
with that. They have to please the customers."

If you can't see the source code of a program you use, even the best
programmers won't be able to tell what the program really does. It's
possible the software you use might have built in features you would
not like if you knew about, for example there might be a back-door so
the developer can get into your machine. The software might snoop on
what you do and send information back, something Microsoft software
used to do. If you use proprietary software, there is just no way to

Even if the company you purchase proprietary software from for your
company is completely honest, there might be bugs in the program which
will effect your company's security. Every programmer makes mistakes,
but when the source code is perused by large amounts of developers in
the Free Software community, there's more of a chance the bug will be
detected and fixed. No company, not even Microsoft, has the resources
to test as extensively as the Free Software community can. Also,
evil developers are much less likely to put in Trojan Horses or
snooping features if they know that people will be looking over their
code and it is likely they'll be caught. The proprietary software
developers count on the fact that no one outside their companies will
ever get a look at the source code, without the explicit permission of
their company (as well as a large sum of money).

Why Free Software is good for software businesses

Of course, Microsoft doesn't really care about most businesses, its
concern lies specifically with the software development
industry. Again, Stallman put Mundie's concerns with Free Software wrecking
the industry in their appropriate statistical place, in the realm of
the trivial. Stallman noted that 90% of the present software industry
is custom-built software, which is not affected at all by the GPL. The
GPL is a license for published software only, not relevant in custom
software or the software that exists in your microwave oven or

In fact, the GPL allows you to cannibalize its code and adapt it for
your custom software and keep the resulting software in-house, not
releasing the modifications you've made to the world. Custom software
already is free software -- the company has the source code, and can
modify it as they see fit.

Even if there were no Free Software companies paying their employees
to develop Free Software, 90% of all programmers would still be able
to find a job, Stallman said. Even so, Stallman stated in his speech, "there are free
software business, there are developers getting paid by companies to
write free software. And of course, there are companies which are not
free software companies, but do develop useful pieces of free software
to release."

Free Software and innovation

Mundie described the Free Software development model as devastating to
innovation, as software development might come to a screeching halt
without large sums of investment capital. Stallman noted that the
development model of Free Software doesn't need lots of capital, as does
the proprietary development model. Years ago, no one would believe
this is possible, but today we know it to be an empirical fact: People
develop software for many, many other reasons besides money; for fun,
because it's useful, for moral reasons, because they need to get a
certain job done, for status, to learn how to program, etc.

In his speech, Mundie falsely equated the Free Software movement with
the dot-com crash: "Software based on the GPL mirrors
the dot-com business models that proved the least successful during the
past year." This comparison is so outrageously false
because, obviously, the dot-com crash was caused by an excessive
amount of capital in and nothing out. The business model of Free
Software is immune from such a large crash --nothing in, and something
always comes out. It's impossible to lose the money you never spent
in the first place -- the innovation of Free Software will always exceed
the investment.

Idealism as a development strategy

Pure idealism -- the belief that citizens deserve the right to be able
to freely modify and distribute the software they own -- is what has
driven the Free Software since 1984. In 1998, a faction of developers
split itself off from the Free Software movement, calling themselves
"Open Source." They wished to appear more attractive to business but
distancing themselves from the Free Software movement's ideals, citing
the most important reason for developing Free Software is
practical -- it makes better software. The Open Source movement has
developed some important parts of the GNU/Linux operating system, most
notably, its kernel which was developed by Linus Torvalds. Torvalds
coded the kernel in 1992, and completed the last piece of software
necessary to turn the GNU system into a complete operating
system. Torvalds' inspiration for writing the kernel was because he
wanted to learn how to write a kerne l-- for fun.

Unfortunately, much of
the mainstream press has mistaken history -- leaving the Free Software
movement entirely out of the picture. One of the most interesting
parts of Stallman's speech was when he pointed out that it was the
Free Software's idealism that really built the system. Often, they
did the parts that were necessary but not glamorous or exciting,
because they wanted to develop a free operating system and knew it had
to be done. This is where Open Source as a development model
fails -- without the idealism, people tend to complete only the fun,
exciting parts of the program -- and get all the press while the Free
Software movement is left with taking care of the more mundane but
necessary programming in obscurity. This infuriates Stallman, who would
like the Free Software movement, and its idealism, to get the credit
it deserves for having the initial vision of a free operating system,
as well as developing a large part of the GNU/Linux operating system.

Stallman's concept of idealism as a development model is actually has
a long history in America. Many of our most important innovations were
built out of idealism alone. For example, Henry Ford's first
innovation was not the assembly line -- it was the idea that he would
give his workers a living wage, as well as a profit-sharing plan. He
decided this not for business reasons, but moral ones. Later, efficient
production line methods enabled him to cut the costs of his products
while simultaneously increasing wages so that his employees were the
highest paid in the industry. Many of the best ideas, honing the
production line to its maximum efficiency, came directly from his

Stallman speaks of an America where capitalism and democracy co-exist,
challenging each to innovate and improve. Capitalism is democracy in
the market place (hence, we call it "free market" not "open market"
like Eric Raymond and the Open Source movement might propose as a
more-business friendly term). Idealism and competition, both of which
Microsoft tries to eliminate, is what provokes innovation in a free
market --capital is secondary.

All this ... and freedom, too?

Stallman ended his speech by reminding those in the crowd of the recent
Memorial Day. All over America, people were making speeches
celebrating the great sacrifices Americans have made for freedom. In
comparison, switching your operating system from Microsoft to
GNU/Linux seems like a trivial sacrifice -- considering that the only
sacrifice is learning how to operate a new operating system which will
make work more efficient and their computers more reliable.

"You'll find that they [Microsoft] invite people to think in a narrow
way as consumers ... they don't want people to think as citizens or
statesmen, that's inimical to them, at least that's inimical to their
current business model."

In his speech, Richard described a business model which would enable
Americans to be both consumers and operate profitable businesses
and be citizens and statesmen without sacrificing a bit of their
freedom -- in a phrase, the American Dream.


  • Migration
Click Here!