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Free Software Free Society: selected essays of Richard Stallman edited by Joshua Gay
Published by GNU Press
219 pages
£ 13.97
Published: Unknown
reviewed by Roger Whittaker
   in the December 2004 issue (pdf), (html)

This book is a collection of essays, speeches, transcripts of meetings and other writings by Richard Stallman. It is no surprise that much of the material here is familiar, in that it mostly is taken from sources on the Internet which predate the printed version. (And of course they are all copyrighted under terms that allow redistribution.) So the book starts with his well-known description of the GNU project (chapter 1) and the GNU Manifesto (chapter 2), and ends with an appendix containing the GNU licences.

The book's title is `Free Software, Free Society', but apart from wide and deep discussions of the effects of what are often called `Intellectual Property Issues' (an example of a piece of terminology which he advises us to avoid), Stallman does not really engage with the question of what a Free Society would be like, or what kind of society he would like to see (though he has a lot to say about what he wants to prevent). This is probably a blessing in that I suspect a full exposition of Stallman's political outlook might well be embarrassing. That being said, it would almost certainly be more congenial than the loudly expressed political outlook of Eric Raymond (supposedly the more pragmatic and `user-friendly' of the two).

Stallman is famously interested in the naming of things. His article `What's in a Name' about the question of ``Linux versus GNU/Linux'' is a prime example of this, and the one which most people remember (and some mock). Personally I find it hard to summon up much interest in that issue on either side, though his own (and not entirely disinterested) motivations are clear. It may be that his attitude to this question has harmed his credibility in other matters.

His article `Why ``Free Software'' is Better than ``Open Source''' is a much more interesting example of the same thing. Many readers will have had plenty of time to arrive at a position on this controversy. His reasoning here is very well put, but unfortunately the reason he has probably lost this battle was simply the dual meaning of the word `free' in English, which he himself admits is a problem. If an English word with the meaning of `libre' had existed and had been chosen from the start, things might have been different.

Much more interesting in other places is his analysis of how the choice of language used by those with vested interests stifles debate and clear thinking about the real issues. I particularly like his list of ``Words to Avoid'' (chapter 21), and his explanation of how the phrase `Intellectual Property' is used to create a false analogy with physical property to load the debate before it starts. He also notes the use of the term `Creator' in the context of publishing which as he says ``is used to elevate the author's moral status above that of ordinary people, to justify increased copyright power that the publishers can exercise in the name of the authors''.

In the same section he discusses the word `Piracy', saying ``If you don't believe that illegal copying is just like kidnapping or murder, you might prefer not to use the word 'piracy' to describe it. [...] Some of us might even prefer to use a positive term such as `sharing information with your neighbour'. '' This is perhaps another example of Stallman's lack of political calculation: while this is nicely put, and a valid criticism of the use of language by the corporations, a more careful propagandist would have taken more care to avoid laying himself open to out-of-context accusations which can easily be transferred to the community as a whole.

There are chapters on the subjects of Software patents (chapter 16) and ``trusted computing'' (chapter 17), each of which describes the issue and puts the case very clearly. His dystopian story `The Right to Read' (chapter 11) is a vision of a future in which his warnings are not heeded. His description of the way rights have often been taken away before people know that they actually have them (as in the case of DVDs and e-books) is important in this regard.

Elsewhere there are places where it is easy to make the accusation that Stallman's idealism is unrealistic. ``Free Software Needs Free Documentation'' (chapter 9) is one instance, with its implied claim that O'Reilly and other such publishers and the authors who write for them are harmful and parasitic. It's here that one is most tempted to use the dreaded phase ``the real world''. His stated position on this seems to me implicitly to weaken his position on more important matters, and this is another example of how rather than putting forward a platform of ideas to try to gain the widest possible acceptance and further the cause as much as possible, he simply expressing his own views on every matter that concerns him. He would view that as the only possible or right thing to do, but this simply points up the oddness of the fact that in the world of Free Software (and `Open Source') the leaders are people with a personality type that would be most unlikely to rise to a leadership role in any other walk of life.

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