Free Software Foundation: Free as in "do what I say"

Stallman-headed group's increasing politicization leaves a sour taste

When Richard Stallman created the Free Software Foundation  (FSF) in 1985, it was organized 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 that 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 that can be given 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 and take seriously. 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.

All the more reason to be disappointed by the FSF's recent, regrettable spiral into misplaced neopolitical activism, far removed from its own stated first principles. In particular, the FSF's moralistic opposition to DRM (digital rights management) technologies, which first manifested itself in early drafts of Version 3 of the GPL (Gnu General Public License), seems now to have been elevated to the point of evangelical dogma.

[ Talkback: Has FSF gone too far? ]

The FSF's most recent effort -- an anti-DRM protest staged at Microsoft's WinHEC conference last week, complete with demonstrators costumed in hazmat suits -- was particularly troubling. It signals a shift in the FSF, from an advocacy organization to one that engages in hysterical activism cut from the PETA mold.

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 right here in the United States put 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 like 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 said, "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 to a grade-school student.

You know what customers would do with a car that couldn't steer? Run like hell. If their MP3 files were really similarly crippled (though perhaps not quite as deadly, Mr. Brown), 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 average 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 favor 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." But why go there? If free software is going to maintain its relevance to the broader user and business community, it must resist the temptation toward further radicalism, give up the name-calling and demagoguery, and re-embrace the rationality that Richard Stallman has demonstrated in the past.

Free software has proved its worth. That good reputation can only be damaged by turning a movement into a crusade.