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.
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.