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1409579 story GNU is Not Unix Books Media Book Reviews

Free Software, Free Society 528

Posted by timothy on Thursday December 05, 2002 @02:00PM
from the path-of-pith dept. I've heard a lot of people describe Richard Stallman as "unreasonable." I find Stallman instead to be one of the most persistently, relentlessly reasonable people whose thoughts I've ever encountered. Stallman may be a dogmatist, but the dogma is sincere and his own, not borrowed. A new book from the GNU Press called Free Software, Free Society collects several of his essays (and some other material) into one slim book. Stallman's essays document what his actions (as a programmer and through projects like GNU) have demonstrated concretely -- that the software future can be one primarily of rigorously open and freely, explicitly shareable code: a nightmare of control is not the only option. Free software enthusiasts might find little actually new: Those readers are probably already aware that control exercised through hidden, inaccessible bits is becoming more odious, more ubiquitous and more invisible. This makes the book worth reading especially to people who are currently not interested in the distribution and disclosure of software's source code. Unless you can completely disentangle the future of society from the future of software, this should concern you. Free Software, Free Society authorRichard Stallmanpages220publisherGNU Pressrating9reviewertimothyISBN18822114981summaryPhilosophy and practicality don't have to clash; this book makes the case that software can be open, and why it should be.

What's between the covers

Free Software, Free Society is divided into four sections:
  • One: The GNU Project and Free Software (10 chapters)
  • Two: Copyright, Copyleft, and Patents (6 chapters)
  • Three: Freedom, Society and Software (5 chapters)
  • Four: The Licenses
Despite the division into chapters, the book's content does not conform to a single straight line, so I will deal with the chapters I mention out of the order in which they appear.

The book starts off on a good note. Key to understanding nearly everything in the book is a basic understanding of what source code is. Since Stallman's usual audiences don't need to have this explained, Richard E. Buckman and book editor Joshua Gay provide a three-page introduction ("A Note on Software") which is as good and concise an explanation as I've ever seen of the meaning of "source code," "compiler," "assembler," "machine code" and "operating system." Without quibbling over details that space has made them gloss over, this section is a good mental boot camp for anyone reading the book with no programming knowledge at all.

This note is followed by a topic guide which walks a prospective reader through the contents of the book better than a table of contents can, pointing out what concepts are dealt with in the book's chapters, a sort of micro-index. (And in a book this brief, it helps make up for the lack of a more thorough index.)

Lawrence Lessig's introduction largely repeats what Lessig has said in the past about the openness of software. One paragraph in particular sums up one of my favorite analogies when it comes to Free software, and one which I think translates well to those familiar with other fields, like art and architecture:

"... Law firms have enough incentive to produce great briefs even though the stuff they build can be taken and copied by someone else. The lawyer is a craftsman; his or her product is public. Yet the crafting is not charity. Lawyers get paid; the public doesn't demand such work without price. Instead this economy flourishes, with later work added to the earlier."

Old hat, new hat.

Those familiar with Richard Stallman will no doubt recognize at least some of these essays, or at least their cores, because of the persistence with which Stallman has spread the word of the origins and underlying philosophies of the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation. The first chapters of the book may bore readers who have heard dozens of times the story of Stallman's experiences with the Incompatible Timesharing System (ITS) in the MIT AI lab, the dissolution of the software-sharing society there, and how it directly led to his quest for a complete Free operating system. Stallman is an engaging writer, though, and I found myself enjoying it even though I have heard the story several times before.

The chapter in this section most likely to trouble those set in conventional thinking when it comes to software is Chapter 4, "Why Software Should Not Have Owners."

Despite the title, the book does not consist entirely of essays; it also includes a transcript of Stallman's speech at NYU in May of 2001, which shows how consistent Stallman's speaking is with his writing style. Some people have derided Stallman (and the FSF) as too academic, removed from the realities of normal computer users and the business world which right now implicitly favors non-Free software, so it's interesting to note the context of that speech -- it was a direct, welcome reaction to the prodding of Microsoft Vice President Craig Mundie's speech on the same campus earlier the same month, in which Mundie casually referred to the "viral aspect" of the GPL, and declared that Free software "puts at risk the continued vitality of the independent software sector."

There's also Stallman's short story "The Right to Read" and even (Chapter 10) the text and score of the Free Software Song. 'The Right to Read" may be the part of the book most appropriate for reprinting in tract form to leave around public libraries: this is a story, not quite hypothetical enough, about a future where every time a book is read, it must be unlocked with a password and authorized by those who hold the strings of copyright -- and sharing books is prohibited. Replace "books" with "e-books" and the story becomes less an allegory as a description of current reality.

Just as current are Chapters 12 ("Misinterpreting Copyright -- A Series of Errors") and 16 ("The Danger of Software Patents"). Stallman's arguments here, despite his protests that practicality is secondary to ethical interests, are eminently practical and should be read by everyone whose work touches either copyright or patents. And contrary to disparagement sometimes heaped on the Free software movement, he does not dismiss either of these in toto -- he simply points out forcefully ways in which these protections can be dangerously perverted.

Some of Free Software, Free Society's contents may strike readers (whatever their level of interest) as needlessly pedantic. I'm thinking here specifically of Chapter 21, "Words to Avoid," which lists 14 words and phrases Stallman discourages in the context of Free software as he defines it. On second glance, I think even this chapter is well suited to the book, since the reasoning presented for his objections to each word on this list (a paragraph or two apiece) will be most informative to people not already steeped in the lore and leanings of the Free Software movement. Some of these (I'll tease by saying that the entry for "content" is my favorite) squeeze in some humor as well.

Stallman's philosophy is what drives his attachment to Free software, but this book is not just a collection of harangues -- there's a great deal of practical advice as well.

Chapter 8, "Selling Free Software" is an essay found in earlier form on the GNU website, which in a few hundred words obliterates a persistent myth about Free software -- that it can't be sold or can't make its sellers a profit. Stallman emphasizes the differences that the GPL has on distribution terms, but lays out the terms clearly:

"Except for one special situation*, The GNU General Public License (GNU GPL) has no requirements about how much you can charge for distributing a copy of free software. You can charge nothing, a penny, a dollar, or a billion dollars. It's up to you, and the marketplace, so don't complain to us if nobody wants to pay a billion dollars for a copy."

Helpfully, that older chapter is preceded by one written earlier this year, "Releasing Free Software if You Work at a University." This is a particularly short chapter -- it takes up only two pages -- but the brevity is to Stallman's credit. I would like to see many more case studies beyond the single example presented (a GNU Ada compiler developed at NYU with Air Force funding, with a contract that specified its source code would be donated to the FSF) but these would probably be better in a book with a narrower scope. By not dwelling on unneeded specifics, Stallman has saved space to explain arguments and tactics which may be useful in persuading your school to endorse a Free software license. I also learned in this chapter that "The University of Texas has a policy that, by default, all software developed there is released as free software under the GNU General Public License." (Can anyone tell me more schools where this is true?)

The practical upshot of a philosophical book.

Free Software, Free Society is not a book for casual reading, and has no thrills, cliffhangers or suspense -- unless you apply the thoughts within to current, real situations, in which case you can probably find more excitement than you might care for. When Stallman wrote "The Right to Read," no one had yet been arrested for making eBooks accessible or copyable. This book is intentionally didactic and persuasive.

Your library (local or school) should carry a copy of this book because it is distillation of ideas that are philosophically important but by no means abstract. And if the libraries available to you don't carry it, I suggest filling out a book request form -- which you may be able to do right from your computer. (Here are two online examples from Yale and New York City's branch libraries.) Likewise for (as appropriate) your school's computer science department, law school and business school. It would also make a nice gift to your Congressional representatives, since many of them seem to have forgotten that preserving a free society supposed to be their highest aim.

This is a book worth buying, reading, and passing on.

* That exception is when source code is not physically included with binaries; the source code must then be available upon request from the binaries' provider.

You can purchase Free Software, Free Society directly from the GNU Press site. Slashdot welcomes readers' book reviews -- to see your own review here, read the book review guidelines, then visit the submission page.


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