Word Fights. An Approach to the Normative Narratives of the Free Software Movement

This paper’s goal is to navigate some seminal documents produced by Richard Stallman in order to analyze the normative vaues that inspired the birth of the Free Software Movement (herafter FSM). The idea is to start thinking about this movement as a social force that can change the way the law, including the Constitution, is understood. I have been inspired by the works of Reva Siegel and Robert Post on the feminist, the civil rights and the gun rights movements, as well as Robert Cover’s theory of the social construction of legal meaning.

I have divided this paper in two, hoping that it can be the seed of a deeper research and analysis. In the first part, I will analyze the basic ideas that inspired Richard Stallman in the lunching of the GNU project. In the second part, I will focus on the FSM understanding of copyright.

Part One. An Angry Hacker

The FSM was born out of the discontent that Richard Stallman had for the way the software community was developing in the early 1980’s. He explains that, when he began working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971, he bacame part of a “software-sharing community that had existed for many years”.

Richard Stallman explains it himself (video).

Stallman lunched in 1983 the Free Software Manifesto, in which he expressed the core ideas of what was going to be the FSM.

Solidarity is probably one of the most important values in that document. He explains that the community of the MIT in the early 1970’s was characterized by this principle, and the sharing of source was the common way things were going back then. Everything changed (video) in the 1980’s, with the expansion of proprietary software.

So for Stallman, sharing is the golden rule (video).

The idea of cooperation in the software community has various reasons. First, as Stallman explains, sharing is not limited to the software community, and he uses the example of recipes to make his point. "Sharing of software was not limited to our particular community; it is as old as computers, just as sharing of recipes is as old as cooking. Second, he explains that the aternative is bad for programmers and users alike."

Second, he explains in the Manifesto that sharing was the way things were done back in the 1970s.

The idea of efficiency is also vital in the FSM. Free software would not only produce a sharable product that would benefit the community of programmers, but it would also benefit the public at large. By sharing a basic system, “wasteful duplication of system programming effort will be avoided”.

These values were being threatened by the "commercialization of system software".

In order to advance his ideas in a way respectful to the law, using copyright against copyright became a key element of the project. This idea is better represented by the concept of copyleft, a “general method for making a program or other work free, and requiring all modified and extended versions of the program to be free as well”. By using copyright law a a tool, the GNU project managed not only to produce free software but to make sure that derivations of free software were free as well. Stallman explains (video).

This idea derived in the GNU Public License, also known as GPL. As Stallman says, the GNU GPL is not “Mr. Nice Guy”. He explains that it "says 'no' to some of the things that people sometimes want to do. There are users who say that this is a bad thing—that the GPL 'excludes' some proprietary software developers who 'need to be brought into the free software community'. But we are not excluding them from our community; they are choosing not to enter. Their decision to make software proprietary is a decision to stay out of our community. Being in our community means joining in cooperation with us; we cannot “bring them into our community” if they don’t want to join".

These concepts of solidarity within a law abiding community are essential to understand the development of the movement. Community, solidarity, sharing and freedom. This values inspired Stallman in the launching of the FSM.

A Battle of Words

As I’ve said before, the purpose of this paper is to think about the FSM from the perspective of ‘popular constitutionalism’, best represented in the works of Siegel and Post and their study of the civil rights and the feminist movements. From that point of view, social movements that aspire to produce a political change are mainly engaged in a narrative battle. This take, I believe, explains why words are so important for Stallman.

The controversy between the FSM and the Open Source proves that point with enough clarity. That struggle is matter of words and a matter of principle. As Stallman explains, a part of the FSM community decided to stop using the terms free software and start using open software. Some of them did it in order to not confuse free as in freedom with free as gratis. But Stallman saw something else in the move.

Others, however, aimed to set aside the spirit of principle that had motivated the free software movement and the GNU project, and to appeal instead to executives and business users, many of whom hold an ideology that places profit above freedom, above community, above principle. Thus, the rhetoric of “open source” focuses on the potential to make high-quality, powerful software, but shuns the ideas of freedom, community, and principle. And that, for Stallman is a problem (video).

The discussion seems important to me for two reasons. First, it helps to emphasize the main point of the FSM: it is less about better software and more about freedom. This rethoric move is important, that’s why Stallman underlines the differences with those who propose to speak about open source. Second, it helps to show that the FSM is engaged in a narrative battle. As Siegel and Post have explained in relation to the abortion movement, when a movement bacame somehow powerful, counter narratives are born.

In the case of the FSM, those counter narratives are many and powerful. The open source / free software divide is a deviation of the main narrative, and Stallman and other members of the FSM fight to defend the core of the doctrine he lunched in 1983. But the main counter narratives come from the powerful interests on the other side: proprietary software companies and media companies that benefit from existing copyright laws.

In the next part, I will analyze these issue in more detail, trying to figure out the specific narratives of the FSM in the issue of copyright.

-- RamiroAlvarezUgarte - 18 Dec 2008