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Stallman Takes His Free-Software Crusade to Argentina

By Noam Cohen
August 25, 2009 10:50 pm August 25, 2009 10:50 pm Wikimania 2009

Two whirlwinds blew into Buenos Aires this week: the hundreds of Wikipedia supporters, editors and administrators here for their annual Wikimania conference, and the free-software activist Richard Stallman, who was in town as part of his never-ending tour of the globe to promote his cause.

Richard StallmanCourtesy of Nina Gerlach, licensed under Creative Commons cc-by-sa Richard Stallman

The two are set to meet Wednesday, when Mr. Stallman gives the keynote address at Wikimania in a theater across the street large enough to accommodate the expected crowd. But they don’t exactly blow in the same direction.

While Wikipedia’s officials were holding a news conference on Tuesday to introduce themselves to dozens of local journalists in a big hall with a booth to offer simultaneous English-Spanish translation, Mr. Stallman was into the second hour of his own news conference two floors above in a small room with a handful of technology-focused journalists. “I do have some criticisms of Wikipedia that I am going to save, I would rather save, for my speech tomorrow,” he said.

Mr. Stallman said he is generally a fan of the online, collaborative encyclopedia, but it is on the narrow grounds that befit a single-issue activist who has spent more than two decades preaching the cause that software wants to be free –- “free as in freedom, not free as in beer.” Translation: It’s not necessary that software be cheap, but once someone owns it, she should be free to do with it what she pleases.

This principle is true for Wikipedia, in that anyone is free to reuse its contents in any way he likes, as long as he follows the same ethic with a new product and credits Wikipedia. That applies to a blogger as well as to companies that have created businesses around Wikipedia content, including one publishing house that has republished German Wikipedia content in book form while agreeing to those terms.

But that is where the Stallman-Wikipedia concord begins and ends.

Mr. Stallman was asked whether he favors Wikipedia’s plan to impose an extra layer of vetting on some of its articles, as the English version will soon be doing for articles about living people? Does he worry that it will change the free-flowing, all-edits-are equal ethos of Wikipedia?

He hadn’t heard about the proposal and didn’t much care. “The wiki aspect is not inspired by the free-software movement,” he explained at his news conference. “Wikipedia’s text is free. It is released under a free license. That is the aspect to me that makes it ethical. How you write the text is a different question. I’m not so concerned with that. I’ll leave that to them. Whatever method seems to work is fine with me.”

In fact, the idea that anyone should be allowed to make a change is not quite the way he operates:

The way free software works is, I may write a program, and I will put my version in a site. And I might then let some other people work on it with me, but I’ll decide who can work on it. I’m not going to let just any unknown person install changes in my version. But you, once you download a copy, you are free to distribute copies, you can make changes, you can post your version wherever you want. And then you control your version. And then they could use my version or they cooperate with me, or they could use your version and cooperate with you or make their own versions and post them. So every user has freedom. But every version that is being distributed is under the control of some group.

Mr. Stallman’s talk to journalists on Tuesday, which came after a marathon session the night before in a different part of town, focused on the politics of free software. He explained that he had found that South American countries allied to the United States tended to oppose free software and favor the proprietary products of giant corporations like Microsoft.

“A lot of the questions were about how the government could help with free software,” said Sebastian Martinez, a producer for Radio America in Buenos Aires, who asked Mr. Stallman questions in Spanish, which he answered in Spanish.

When asked to describe the spectacle of Mr. Stallman sitting in front of a desk, twirling his hair, with his shoes discreetly removed underneath the table, Mr. Martinez said, “He reminds me more of a maharishi, a guru — an information guru.”

Another Argentine journalist, Juan Gutmann, who writes for Users magazine, said, “He knows he is the head of a movement.”

Mr. Stallman said there was room for the free software movement to grow in South America for practical reasons. “People are not happy about pirating,” he said. “The press keeps pushing the idea that if you illegally download software, you are committing a felony.”

Describing the attraction of free software, he said, “It is great to get the same deal for free.”

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