Richard Matthew Stallman, founder of the free software movement recently gave a talk entitled “Copyright vs. Community” at Balamand University, in north Lebanon. He has given this talk many times before and there are recordings of previous talks available online (1, 2, 3, 4, 5). I wasn’t at the Balamand University talk, but I’ve heard this talk a number of times and I’m familiar with the questions that are sure to follow. Below I try to answer points of confusion that come up.
He basically said that copying music doesn’t hurt the artist because the artist has already been screwed over by the record industry. Now, I’m definitely not one to argue against the last part of that statement, but Mom always taught me that two wrongs don’t make a right.
Unfortunately there is no accompanying explanation for how copying music is “wrong”. We need to distinguish between what’s illegal (copyright infringement) and unethical. Friends share with each other because sharing is a natural thing to do, sharing builds community, and because people typically value their friendships more highly.
The poster continues
But later, Stallman said something that I found very surprising. He said that he has no problem with the firmware being burned into the hardware (via a ROM chip or the like). He said that he wanted a “black box”, and it’s obvious that he has no problem with proprietary firmware as long as it’s permanently embedded in the hardware rather than being loaded into it at boot time.
What I didn’t understand is why Stallman feels that there’s a difference? What is it? The method used to get the firmware into the hardware? Why make this the line in the sand? It seems very arbitrary to me.
The difference is the user’s freedom to alter the code distributed to them.
Stallman’s distinction (as I’m sure he covered about in his talk) has to do with a user’s freedom to run, learn, adapt, and share functional works (including published software). This is an ethical issue the free software movement does not shy away from. The free software movement works to build and maintain a community of equal opportunity and social solidarity; all computer users should be free to make their copy of published computer software do what they want it to do. The heart of the free software movement concerns itself with the most important question anyone can ask: how shall I treat other people?
When code is in a ROM (read-only memory) chip or in circuitry (there’s no difference when it comes to user’s freedom), the user and developer have no opportunity to change that code without changing the hardware. In this way the developer and the user are equals.
The opportunity for change exists wherever there is storage that allows alteration. When a device’s program is software, the issues of software freedom are raised. The question becomes who has permission to make changes to that software? This is a question of permission not technical know-how, time, interest, or budget to change the software. If the software is free, the user can get a copy of the program’s source code and make their device behave as they wish. They can even help other users by sharing their improved code. If the developer is the only person who may modify the software, the developer subjugates the user. Developers who want to maintain this power over the user will not distribute free software for the device or complete documentation on how the device works.
Contrary to what the poster’s initial comment says, pursuing software freedom (and the distinction Stallman made regarding hardware and software) is not about “the ability to distribute a piece of software without having to have a vendor’s (or anyone’s) permission”. What the free software community wants (and has worked for for over two decades) is permission to run, share, and modify published computer software. Where the user’s software freedom is not respected, programmers in the free software community write/obtain replacement programs and then distribute those programs as free software.
Firmware is software that runs on a computer other than the main computer someone uses. For instance, there is firmware in a router used to connect to the Internet. In fact, a number of popular home Internet routers sold in the US run on free firmware (much of that freedom was guaranteed thanks to the strong copyleft in the GNU GPL, a copyright license written by Stallman).
Finally, I don’t know much about Lebanon’s copyright and patent law but if there is no copyright or patent law (as the poster indicates), I would not be surprised to learn that Stallman was invited to give a talk there because his talks are highly informative and ahead of their time; he’ll talk about what you’ll need to know to fend off bad copyright policy and bad patent policy. Informed people can work together to educate others and effectively organize against the multinational business interests that are so often behind horrible copyright and patent policy.