Vyatta VP undresses Richard Stallman

Vyatta's Dave Roberts went to Hawaii and all Richard Stallman got was this undressing ... which, depending on your view of Stallman, either reeks of unfairness or fits the man to a T (my vote).

Roberts, vice president of strategy for Vyatta, an open-source router startup, begins his account of meeting Stallman at the Pacific Free and Open Source Software Convention by calling the founder of the Free Software Foundation "a shabby guy."

Then it gets personal. From the post:

The summary is that after meeting Stallman, I wasn't very impressed. I have been reading his writings, such as the GNU Manifesto, since the mid-1980s. I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I didn't get it.

Richard is not the best spokesman for the FSF. Sure, he founded the organization. And I wasn't expecting him to wear a shirt and tie. But to be honest, he's just a shabby guy. If you ever wonder why generally Free Software went nowhere inside corporate circles until Linux came along, this is one reason. Just at a personal level, Linus is a better spokes-model than Richard. He's just as geeky, without looking shabby.

Beauty is only skin deep, of course, whereas philosophical differences reach deep into the kernel. Roberts continues:

I react very negatively to Richard's use of "GNU/Linux" versus "Linux." Richard's contention is that all the userland for Linux came from GNU and thus Linux is really just the kernel while the whole OS should be called "GNU/Linux." Whether that is true or not, the fact is, Linus built his own operating system and he should have the right to name it. If Free Software is truly as Free as Richard wants to claim it is, naming should be one of the things where the Freedom shows.

Now that he's warming to the task, Roberts moves in for the moment of truth:

My other big takeaway from the conference is that I don't agree with Richard on the fundamental philosophy of free software. ... Sorry, while I like open source and believe there are certain advantages to it, I specifically reject Richard's moral basis for Free Software. Richard tries to portray access to source code and redistribution for no charge as abstract moral rights that every person should have, something akin to "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness."

Using proprietary software, Richard says, is to make an immoral choice. I don't buy it. ... In my opinion, this is why the FSF has been largely ineffectual in getting people to think about "Free Software" as opposed to "Open Source" (a term which Richard rejects as missing the point).

(Roberts isn't averse to invoking the word "freedom" himself, although the context is decidedly different.)

As someone who has never written a line of code but appreciates the instinct and need to protect intellectual property, I have always found the "moral" argument against proprietary software easily dismissible. Serious people simply don't take this kind of nonsense seriously, which is why Stallman's following will always remain scant (much like nudism, only without the gawkers).

What do I mean by nonsense? Take this example from an interview Stallman granted last year to Forbes:

Forbes: Would it be ethical to steal lines of unfree code from companies like Microsoft and Oracle and use them to create a "free" version of that program?

Stallman: It would not be unethical, but it would not really work, since if Oracle ever found out, it would be able to suppress the use of that free software. The reason for my conclusion is that making a program proprietary is wrong. To liberate the code, if it is possible, would not be theft, any more than freeing a slave is theft (which is what the slave owner would surely call it).

What does one say to a man who would equate - even for the sake of an analogy - the "freeing" of software to freeing human beings from slavery?

Right, the correct answer is don't waste your breath.

Which isn't to say that the occasional undressing isn't an appropriate response.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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