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Stallman: "we still have a fight on our hands"

"How could following the letter of the free software licence be a 'bad thing'?" he asked us (rhetorically). "You do realise that Tivo asked the FSF if what they were proposing to do with the BIOS key lock was going to be OK, and the FSF said that it was. That happened many years ago. So how could Tivo be doing anything 'wrong' here, since they are doing everything the FSF and the owners of the software who they are using asked them to do?"

The question was tackled in the recently published version 3 of the GPL, which prohibits technical evasion of Stallman's original freedoms when devices are sold to consumers. But despite broadly agreeing with the changes (and being involved with some of the Tivoisation amendments), Linus Torvalds has so far declined to switch the kernel to version GPL version 3.

This means that companies like Tivo can continue to use a modern Linux kernel in their products. It seems that the GPL has split the free software community into those who think of it as a model for improved software development, and those that see it as a flag for freedom.

Stallman thinks the issues surrounding freedom have been divisive. "Free software does not imply any particular development model. Our concern is not how a program was developed, but with our freedom (and yours) in using it as we wish. In 1998, people of the free software community who did not agree with our philosophy of freedom and social solidarity coined the term 'open source' as a way to avoid raising these ethical issues. Instead they promote a development model which is said to usually result in software that is better in a technical sense. If freedom brings us that benefit, that's nice, but I think freedom is essential anyway."

Why does it matter?

When we asked asked Stallman whether non-technical users should care about his free software philosophy, he answered by comparing your computer to your house. "If you are not a programmer, you won't know how to exercise freedom 1 directly by studying and changing the source code." he said. "Likewise, if you don't know carpentry you won't know how to exercise the freedom to change the walls in your house or office. Nonetheless these freedoms are still very useful, because you can exercise these freedoms indirectly by paying professionals to do the work for you."

This is a similar line taken by Stephen Fry in his recent video to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the GNU project. In this video, he talks about the what free software has achieved and what it has the potential to achieve. He does this, with apparently no irony, while sat next to a MacBook Air.

He likens free software to the household plumbing, where the the home owner may not have the knowhow to change or fix the plumbing themselves, but that doesn't stop them from getting someone else to do the job. What started off as a personal experiment in freedom has taken over the collective imagination of the whole internet, and free software can now be found on even the most stalwart proponents of proprietary software.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that free software has been a success. If success is judged by the number of people using free software, then the answer has to be undoubtedly yes. But if success is judged by the amount of freedom we enjoy while using our computers, then the answer isn't quite so easy, and that's because it's a difficult idea to communicate. Users are far more likely to understand and appreciate free cost than they are their freedom to mess around with the source code.