Blafkin on the GPL and Proprietary Software

by on March 30, 2007 · 20 comments

Mark Blafkin and I have been having an interesting and productive discussion in the comments to Braden’s post about the GPL v. 3. Mark says:

The FSF and the GPL itself actively attempt to limit collaboration between proprietary and free software communities. As you’ll find in the article previously mentioned, Mr. Stallman says that it is better for GNU/Linux to not support video cards rather than include a proprietary binary.

In fact, the entire basis of the GPL is to frustrate cooperation between the immoral proprietary software guys and free software. The viral nature of the GPL (if you use code and integrate or build upon it, your code must become GPL) is designed to prevent that cooperation because it will lessen the freedom of the free software itself.

And, yes, it is hypocritical if you define freedom in the way that Libertarian’s define freedom, but not if you believe in the FSF version of freedom. When they say “freedom,” they don’t mean freedom in the sense that we mean it, Tim. It is four things and four things only… Those four issues trump all other definitions/aspects of freedom that you and I may hold. So, they would see no hypocrisy in preventing users from the freedom of using proprietary software, because the proprietary software is enslaving them anyway (if you buy the logic).

The problem with this argument is that if you look at the FSF’s actions, you’ll find very little evidence that they’ve ever tried to prohibit GPL users from collaborating with proprietary software firms. Stallman doesn’t approve of distributing proprietary software drivers with free software, but as far as I can see, nothing in the GPL prohibits doing so. The terms of the GPL (including the DRM and patent provisions) are focused solely on ensuring that all users of free software have equal freedom with respect to that software.

Now that doesn’t mean Stallman is shy about expressing his opinion that user would be better off if they stopped using proprietary software. But so what? Libertarians, of all people, should understand the difference between words and actions. Just as I might encourage my fellow human beings to become vegetarians or pacifists while not trying to forcibly prevent anyone from eating meat or owning a gun if they want to, Stallman is encouraging people to voluntarily abstain from the use of proprietary software, while drafting the GPL in a way that leaves that choice up to the end user.

And for that matter, I can’t even think of any examples where the FSF has criticized efforts to make free and proprietary software more interoperable, provided that they didn’t involve incorporating free software into a proprietary system. For example, has Stallman ever criticized Samba, a program whose entire purpose is to make free software work on Windows-based networks? Has he criticized efforts by the Open Office team to allow free software users to use Microsoft Word documents?

Clearly, Stallman would like a world where all software is free, just as a vegetarian would like a world where no one eats meat. But as far as I can see, his actions have been entirely consistent with the libertarian principle that you should promote your goals via persuasion and cooperation, not coercion. The GPL, too, appears to respect that principle. It is focused on preserving users’ freedom to use GPLed code without restriction. As far as I can see, none of its provisions seem geared toward preventing users from using free software alongside proprietary software if they wish to do so.

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