Why does Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation get so much hate?

Why does Richard Stallman and the Free Software Foundation get so much hate?
Simon Phipps

Over on the Linux section of Reddit, someone asked the following question:

“Within the community, there seems to be many people that dislike the Free Software Foundation, the GNU Project, and Richard Stallman, being the leader of them both. Why is this? I am unable to understand this; I value free software and the aforementioned people that have made it possible, and I do not understand why they get as much hate as they do.”

It’s a good question.

Within the open source and free software worlds, Stallman (and the Free Software Foundation—the FSF) hold an almost deity-like position in the hearts of many. For other people, well, they have the exact opposite feeling towards the man.

Then there are the people who feel both positively and negatively (in equally strong measures) towards Stallman. If you made a Venn diagram comparing “People who revere Stallman” and “People who despise Stallman” my guess is there would be an awful lot of overlap of those two circles.

For my part, I understand both positions.

In years past, I was highly critical—bordering on hostile—of both the words and actions of Stallman and the FSF. While some of my criticisms of Stallman were not entirely unfounded, there was certainly a deeper reason behind much of it.

When someone acts as a messenger to point out a core problem in society—in this case, software freedom (and overlapping issues) —the messenger is quite often vilified (many times, subconsciously) by those who are a part of the existing, problematic system.

+ Also on Network World: The World We Leave Our Children: How I became a free software extremist +

In my particular case, I had spent many years in the proprietary software world. It was my business and the way I put food on the table. So the seemingly hardcore "free software only" stance of Stallman and the FSF caused me to (as a sort of primitive reaction) attack Stallman and the FSF. I'd always been a supporter of open source and free software, but I wasn't prepared to "go all the way" with it. Stallman’s hardcore, no compromise stances cause me to feel immediately defensive.

This reaction is fueled by the fact that Stallman makes some hardcore, sometimes difficult-to-defend, statements that are unrelated to free software or free culture. And the tactics of the FSF are at least occasionally—let’s just say they’re not always the most well thought out. There’s plenty of good stuff to attack them with should a person feel so inclined.

Over the years, as I spent more and more time talking with leaders in the free software world (and I had my own life experiences), I began to realize that most of the free software-related stances of the FSF, and Stallman, are astoundingly logical and simply represent an interesting and positive way forward for humanity.

Hardcore and uncompromising? Yes, without a doubt. But positive and logical.

Hate turns into understanding

As time went on, my respect for Stallman increased many fold—to the point where he and I have done a few video projects together. Do he and I see completely eye to eye on a lot of things? Not a chance. In fact, I remain critical of some of the tactics and language used by both Stallman and the FSF. But their hearts are in the right place, and they've done a huge amount to push the entire industry (and the world) forward in a great direction and towards an amazing goal.

But I do understand why so many instantly react to the unrelenting and unwavering free software message—often by vilifying the person (and organization) making the statement.

Because I did the exact same thing. The notion of “free software” being the only ethical approach to software—and, thus, “closed software” being simply unethical—is a tough pill to swallow for someone who has made “closed software” a core part of their lives.

If someone makes a living by building or using closed-source or proprietary software, or relies upon such software or services in one way or another, that sort of declaration is telling that person flat out that what they’re doing is unethical. And that sort of statement can really piss a person off.

It sure pissed me off.

But you know what? He was right. He was completely right. And in the last few years, my stance on free software has grown to be pretty similar to Stallman's. 

I can’t speak for everyone, but this is a (very high-level) recounting of why I, as a free software advocate, was once pretty ticked off at both Stallman and the FSF. My guess is I’m not completely alone in having that reaction.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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