Fundamentalist Software Foundation in the making

Pressure group's tactics stray far from its founding principles, says Neil McAllister

When Richard Stallman created the Free Software Foundation (FSF) in 1985, it was organised around a radical idea: software should be free, not just as in free of charge, but free as in the concept of liberty. During the next 20 years, this idea turned out to be not just radical, but surprisingly practical. Beginning with Stallman’s Emacs text editor, to the various Gnu utilities, the Linux kernel, and beyond, free software has proved to be an enduring success.

Much of the credit for this must go to Stallman himself. Through his tireless campaigning, he has transformed this idealistic notion into something that the wider world, and even the business community, can accept. Although it may not always be easy to agree with him, his arguments have been rational, and, if nothing else, intellectually consistent to the last.

Therefore, there’s all the more reason to be disappointed by the FSF’s recent and regrettable spiral into misplaced neopolitical activism. In particular, its moralistic opposition to DRM (digital rights management) technologies, which first manifested itself in early drafts of Version 3 of the GPL (Gnu General Public Licence), now seems to have been an evangelical dogma.

The FSF’s most recent effort — an anti-DRM protest staged at Microsoft’s recent WinHEC conference, complete with demonstrators costumed in yellow suits — was particularly troubling. It signals that the FSF is shifting from being an advocacy organisation to one that engages in hysterical activism.

Emblazoned across the demonstration’s home page is the alarming statement, “There is no more important cause for freedom than the call for action to stop DRM from crippling our digital future.”

Sure. And if you buy that one, I’ve got a bridge to sell you that stretches from North Korea to the Sudan.

For starters, market realities in the US give the lie to the FSF’s histrionics. Apple’s iTunes store, which sells DRM-encoded music and videos to millions of iPod owners, is going gangbusters. Clearly, despite DRM’s widely discussed inadequacies and regular aggravations, more than a few consumers are willing to put up with it when the price is right. That’s just basic free-market economics.

In a statement regarding the demonstration, FSF executive director Peter Brown says, “A media player that restricts what you can play is like a car that won’t let you steer” — a false analogy so patently absurd as to be laughable.

You know what customers would do with a car that couldn’t steer? Run like hell. If their MP3 files were really similarly crippled, I’m willing to bet they would do the same — to non-DRM competitors such as eMusic, perhaps, or even to plain old-fashioned CDs. For DRM to fail in the entertainment industry, all that needs to happen is for customers to choose not to buy it, which in turn should convince artists not to use it.

But the FSF has chosen a different path. Convinced, perhaps, that consumers are too stupid to know what’s good for them, it’s embarked on a mission that’s even more insidious than the DRM it opposes. No DRM system ever told an artist what notes to play or what lyrics were OK to sing. But the FSF seems intent on doing just that.

One of the original tenets of the GPL was that users of software should be free, not just to run the software and make copies of it, but to examine its code and improve on it. Free software means, among other things, the freedom of programmers to write code.

But not, apparently, under the new FSF order. In this new worldview, DRM is wrong. It is verboten. And who knows what other algorithm or subroutine might be cast out next; but who are we to question? By abandoning social and economic arguments in favour of a moral one, the FSF is, in effect, telling us that God is on its side.

This shift is very troubling. Among its other devices, the FSF has chosen to unilaterally re-christen DRM as “digital restrictions management.” If I were to stoop to that level, I might describe the FSF as the “Fundamentalist Software Foundation”. If free software is going to maintain its relevance to the broader user and business community, it must resist the temptation towards further radicalism, give up the name-calling and demagoguery, and re-embrace the rationality that Richard Stallman has demonstrated in the past. A Crusade can only hurt free software’s reputation.

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