Software freedom

On Richard Stallman's personal homepage it says, "America means civil liberties. Patriotism is protecting them." Words that sum up the philosophy that created the Free Software Movement (fsm) that is giving owners of mega corporations like Microsoft sleepless nights. The guru of fsm talks to Down To Earth on the ethical and political issues that the movement raises, and its relevance in other spheres of life. Excerpts from a freewheeling interview with Rustam Vania

By Rustam Vania
Published: Monday 15 April 2002

What is the idea behind the fsm?
I looked at the kind of social structure of the society I wanted to live in, and I said, since I am not allowed to live in that society with proprietary software, I just won't use them. The aim of the fsm is to make a free software alternative, so that we are allowed to choose our own social structure. The question is whether software companies can control the way computer users live and treat each other, shaping our social structure to fit what those companies want. When software publishers talk about 'enforcing' their 'rights' or 'stopping piracy', what they actually 'say' is secondary.

The real message of these statements is in the unstated assumptions they take for granted. One assumption is that software companies have an unquestionable natural right to own software. If this were a natural right, no matter how much harm it does to the public, we could not object. Interestingly, the us constitution and legal tradition reject this view; copyright is not a natural right, but an artificial government-imposed monopoly that limits the users' natural right to copy.

Another assumption is that we would have no usable software if we did not offer a company power over the users of the programme. This assumption may have seemed plausible before the free software movement demonstrated that we could make plenty of useful software without putting chains on it. If we decline to accept these assumptions, and judge these issues based on ordinary commonsense morality, placing the users first, we arrive at very different conclusions.

How do you see the fsm and the issues it raises affecting other spheres of our economic and social lives?
I don't think the free software movement itself is going to do anything about any other issue. It is a movement in one area of life, that is relevant to people who use computers. Which means that it is relevant to villages, to people who live in villages, only to the extent that they start having computers. This means India can set up computers in villages for them to get access to the Internet. It does give the people in those villages the chance -- if they are interested in, and have the talent -- to learn about computers and software and how to use them...a chance they might not have right now. It's not going to solve all of life's problems. Free software is just an issue in one area of life, namely software. I don't think it's supposed to build a bridge, but it does suggest a certain way of thinking that is relevant sometimes in some other areas of life, which is that it is wrong for people to dominate and lock up knowledge.

You have said that the term 'intellectual property' is misleading. Why?
The term intellectual property sucks people into thinking about several unrelated issues as if they were one thing. Copyrights have nothing to do with patents, and trademarks are even more different. If you lump these together, you cannot think clearly about any of them. It also encourages people to ignore most of the details of these issues, and see just one thing about them, which is that there are monopolies that companies can buy and sell. There is nothing intelligent you can say about 'intellectual property'.

Say you were a negotiator from India in a World Trade Organisation (WTO) round of talks on intellectual property rights, like Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (trips)...
I would say, first of all, these are separate issues, and you must deal with them separately. I would object to the name of the treaty, instead of calling it...what ...Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights, trips ...I would call it Trade Related Impediments to Productive Endeavour or tripe ... (laughs)

You have used the example of medieval artists not signing their works to explain the ownership issue in software creation? Please elaborate.
I am responding to a very specific argument there. An argument made in favour of proprietary software. And the argument is one essentially of ego. When it comes to arguing against us, they speak as if they had a tremendous personal attachment to the programme, and therefore deserve to have a power over the public use of it. Yet, they don't criticise the practice of signing over the programme to a corporation, or impersonal organisation, which then leaves the individual programmer with no say. The medieval artists, when they were making things, did not have the same ego attachment to the things that they made. This demonstrates that you can teach yourself to view the matter in different ways. It is not inevitable that people have to regard the software they have written as their personal domain.

Can we think of a parallel between the use of the ecological commons and free software?
The important point to recognise is, physical resources can be limited, and you can have the tragedy of the commons, where people try to overuse the resource that is supposed to be of use for everyone. A solution to that is to divide up the resources as private property so that at least somebody, somehow has the incentive not to overuse it. But there is no such thing as overuse of a computer programme. You can't wear out a computer programme by making too many copies it for lots of different people. So, the only way that the tragedy of the commons can happen with software is if people fail to contribute to the commons. The only thing we need to ensure is that there is enough contribution to the software common.

Any interactions of the fsm with other civil liberty groups working in the area of human rights or social justice?
Human rights and social justice organisations hadn't noticed the social arrangements for the use of computers -- which is exactly what the fsm is all about. It is not something most people think about.

I went to the World Social Forum in Brazil, and gave some speeches there on free software. There is already a recognition there that free software allows for a participatory system of software development. In fact, the government of Rio Grande de Sul, which hosted the event, is strongly endorsing free software. They are planning to set up computers using free software in schools, for a million school children, this year. In the state data processing agency, they have established a bureau to encourage other organisations to switch over to free software. In the state, a left wing party is in power, which has endorsed free software. The federal government is right wing. They don't particularly like free software.

In the us, does it matter to the fsm whether the Democrats or the Republicans are in power?

(Smiles) No, there is no huge difference anymore...since Clinton, the Demo-crats switched over and became just like the Republicans. And now both support running the economy for the benefit of the rich. They care only about pleasing the businesses that pay them to get elected. It's a system that is described as a form of legalised bribery -- the us campaign fund system.

Do you see a link between the fsm and democracy?
fsm is specifically about empowerment. Free software empowers the user. Proprietary software divides users, and keeps them helpless. These issues directly concern democracy and self-empowerment on the one hand, and cooperation and decency towards your neighbours on the other.

In a more and more networked world, where information is dominant, wouldn't you consider software as a resource?
No, it's not. The use of a programme is not limited unless somebody limits it, and creates an artificial scarcity. The crucial thing about a resource is that the supply of it is limited.

The idea of 'science for cooperation' has been attacked badly by the commercialisation of the past few decades. That is a testimony to how bad things have become in science. Results of the research are corrupted by the funding source, for example. There are also problems where companies that fund the research get explicit veto powers to prevent the release of a result. It is the same with proprietary software companies. There is now a World Intellectual Property Organisation (wipo) trying to get a treaty on intellectual property. And that's dangerous.

One's intellect is influenced by the social and environmental background...
I was not collecting influences and noting them's hard for me to judge where my social experiences come from. What I do know is that when I was a child, I applied the ideals of freedom and the disgust for dictatorship to my own family equations. I felt that my mother was a tyrant, and that it was unjust. And I said so!

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