How the difference between Free Software and Open Source affects choices in Fedora firmware distribution

Alexandre Moine posted about GNU not including Fedora GNU/Linux in its list of free software distributions. Moine’s post and responses highlight the differences between Free Software and Open Source, differences that come up quite a bit.

Free software and open source are not the same thing. While free software activists and open source advocates can and do work together on many projects, the philosophies are not the same. These philosophical differences lead to radically different results. The GNU project has published essays detailing this philosophical difference (Why “Free Software” is better than “Open Source” and the updated version of this essay Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software, to name a couple).

Moine and responses mention how non-free software running in devices (i.e., non-free firmware) are used to make certain hardware work with Fedora GNU/Linux. Fedora GNU/Linux users end up running this software because the Fedora project favors making sure their system uses the hardware available—convenience—instead of using the opportunity to educate the user about software freedom. Catering to convenience over freedom is a hallmark of the open source movement as the older essay describes in fear of freedom:

The main argument for the term “open source software” is that “free software” makes some people uneasy. That’s true: talking about freedom, about ethical issues, about responsibilities as well as convenience, is asking people to think about things they might rather ignore. This can trigger discomfort, and some people may reject the idea for that. It does not follow that society would be better off if we stop talking about these things.

Years ago, free software developers noticed this discomfort reaction, and some started exploring an approach for avoiding it. They figured that by keeping quiet about ethics and freedom, and talking only about the immediate practical benefits of certain free software, they might be able to “sell” the software more effectively to certain users, especially business. The term “open source” is offered as a way of doing more of this—a way to be “more acceptable to business.” The views and values of the Open Source movement stem from this decision.

This approach has proved effective, in its own terms. Today many people are switching to free software for purely practical reasons. That is good, as far as it goes, but that isn’t all we need to do! Attracting users to free software is not the whole job, just the first step.

Sooner or later these users will be invited to switch back to proprietary software for some practical advantage. Countless companies seek to offer such temptation, and why would users decline? Only if they have learned to value the freedom free software gives them, for its own sake. It is up to us to spread this idea—and in order to do that, we have to talk about freedom. A certain amount of the “keep quiet” approach to business can be useful for the community, but we must have plenty of freedom talk too.

Why Open Source misses the point of Free Software illustrates how different values can lead to different conclusions:

The idea of open source is that allowing users to change and redistribute the software will make it more powerful and reliable. But this is not guaranteed. Developers of proprietary software are not necessarily incompetent. Sometimes they produce a program that is powerful and reliable, even though it does not respect the users’ freedom. Free software activists and open source enthusiasts will react very differently to that.

A pure open source enthusiast, one that is not at all influenced by the ideals of free software, will say, “I am surprised you were able to make the program work so well without using our development model, but you did. How can I get a copy?” This attitude will reward schemes that take away our freedom, leading to its loss.

The free software activist will say, “Your program is very attractive, but I value my freedom more. So I reject your program. Instead I will support a project to develop a free replacement.” If we value our freedom, we can act to maintain and defend it.

Moine and some respondants distinguish between running software on one’s “main CPU” and other processors in a modern computer system. The distinction isn’t made to highlight security problems (as the FSF did when developers of a fully free/libre version of Android found and closed a huge security hole in Samsung Galaxy devices) or to highlight how you deserve software freedom for all of the computers in your system. Instead, open source advocates say this as because they think it justifies Fedora distributing non-free firmware to users; somehow running non-free software on one’s “main CPU” is ethically objectionable but running non-free software on some other computer hardware is okay. This distinction is meaningless from the perspective of software freedom—users deserve software freedom on all of their computing devices. This might mean making inconvenient decisions like choosing different computing hardware or not fully exploiting the capabilities of one’s computer until free software exists.

Kevin Kofler, a respondant on Moine’s blog, says one of the Fedora project’s goals is to move “hardcoded blobs to use the dynamic firmware loader instead, so they can be moved to linux-firmware”. This is merely moving the non-free firmware from one bundle of software to another. When the move is complete the Fedora project will still distribute the non-free firmware package alongside their other packages, thus endorsing the non-free software. This change doesn’t address the issue of software freedom at all because this change was not meant to give Fedora GNU/Linux users software freedom. Relocating the package where the non-free firmware comes from is a minor bookkeeping detail. A default Fedora GNU/Linux install will either install the non-free firmware package or steer the user toward a Fedora project repository where the non-free firmware package can be downloaded. From the perspective of a user’s software freedom, the Fedora project’s effort to relocate the non-free firmware is doing a good job of reaching a bad goal rather than encouraging users to favor hardware they can operate in freedom, or to write and publish free firmware to operate the hardware that doesn’t work in freedom. For the free software movement, non-free software is a social problem to be fixed by increasing a user’s software freedom. For the Fedora project non-free firmware is acceptable non-free software to remedy an inconvenience even if that means making users become dependent upon the proprietor. By contrast, it’s a good bet that the Linux-libre project‘s work (to distribute a Free Linux kernel) became a part of the GNU Project because Linux-libre makes these choices in a way which make software freedom a priority—Linux Libre comes with only Free Software.

Kofler also maintains that hardware which moves firmware into ROM makes the firmware proprietary (“Firmware in a ROM is proprietary forever.”). This misunderstanding highlights how the user’s freedom is not taken to heart: non-free firmware is software only the firmware proprietor can alter. By contrast, code in ROM is code nobody can alter. Neither of these situations are particularly desirable because the user might want to understand and alter this code, so free firmware is the best option. But code in ROM is different from non-free firmware: code in ROM means the user and the manufacturer are equally unable to alter the code. No software update will change the ROM. By contrast, a proprietor could issue a new proprietary firmware file. If a user’s system loads that new firmware file into the hardware, the hardware’s behavior changes and that user’s software freedom is denied. A proprietor’s promise of someday freeing the firmware doesn’t change the reality on the ground—non-free firmware is non-free software which keeps users subordinate to the proprietor. Kofler also later maintains that “Burning something into a ROM does not magically make it “hardware”.”. When one looks at this situation from the perspective of gaining software freedom rather than prioritizing convenience at the cost of freedom, hardware with code in ROM is unmodifiable.

Kofler asks “Imagine Apple making a ROM iPhone, maybe so they can sell you a new phone each time they upgrade iOS, would that make it a Free smartphone???”. Such a change could give those users a less moving target with which to focus their efforts when trying to get iThings to run Free Software. Thus, an iThing with code only in ROM chips would provide a Free Software developer a chance to develop something once and be sure their software wouldn’t be rendered obsolete due to Apple changing how that iThing worked.

As it stands, Apple is already selling many of their iThings based on changes to iOS which they don’t backport to older Apple hardware. But the issue of one’s liberties for cell phones carries challenges beyond software freedom for computers. Cell phones rely on cell phone towers which track one’s location. A cell phone’s usefulness is greatly diminished when one has no cell phone tower access. Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Project, discusses this at some length in his talk on “A Free Digital Society”.

Kofler claims “Or what if Unix had been in a ROM? Then GNU as it was at its beginning wouldn’t even have been possible!”. This is a side issue at best, but I doubt any of the salient points of GNU’s beginning would be significantly different. GNU began as a project to bring a free Unix-compatible OS into existence (Stallman wished to “put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free”). The Unix system Richard Stallman used at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence Lab was proprietary. A laser printer software issue highlighted how frustrating and unjust it was to not have the freedom to control one’s computer, so Stallman quit working for MIT and began the GNU Project to liberate all computer users from the tyranny of (what would later become known as) non-free software. Bringing GNU into existence required either writing new programs (where no free alternative existed) or finding free replacements to press into service. All of this would have been true if the Unix system were in ROM.

The Fedora project apparently teaches people to endorse the open source philosophy of developmental convenience not the ethical examination one finds in the free software movement. I hope that the Fedora project’s position will change to favor software freedom and the Fedora project’s behavior will change to allow the GNU Project to list Fedora GNU/Linux among its recommended distributions.

Another Apple copyright infringement

Apple got caught infringing copyright again. Whether it’s GNU Go, GCC, or distributing VideoLAN Client in ways they deny themselves, Apple (or in the case of GCC, NeXT later owned by Apple) has quite a history of commercial copyright infringement.

China Daily reports that Apple has lost a copyright infringement case in China and told to pay $118,000 for commercially distributing copies of books in their store without permission from the copyright holders.

Judge Feng Gang said Apple should take responsibility since, as a big online downloading platform, it has the duty of checking whether books uploaded by third parties are in line with current laws.

“The writers involved this time include Mai Jia, whose books are often on best-seller lists across the country,” he said. “In this way, Apple has the capability to know the uploaded books on its online store violated the writer’s copyright.”

If you needed a complete list of reasons why you shouldn’t do business with Apple, look no further.

Remembering Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz worked hard for our mutual benefit through sharing and he also introduced people to free software. Aaron kindly granted me an interview some years ago for my old radio show. Facing a prison sentence and what Lawrence Lessig rightly calls a bully of a prosecutor, Swartz hanged himself on January 11, 2013. Swartz will be missed.

Reaction from around the web:

What makes digital inclusion good or bad?

As Google and area projects aim to bring high-speed Internet access to more people through new networks, society should ask the question Richard Stallman poses in this talk: What makes digital inclusion good or bad?

Quoting the description provided by the Free Software Foundation’s Audio-Video archive:

Activities directed at “including” more people in the use of digital technology are predicated on the assumption that such inclusion is invariably a good thing. It appears so, when judged solely by immediate practical convenience. However, if we also judge in terms of human rights, whether digital inclusion is good or bad depends on what kind of digital world we are to be included in. If we wish to work towards digital inclusion as a goal, it behooves us to make sure it is the good kind.

Here’s a recording of a talk he gave on this subject on October 19, 2011 at Sciences Po in Paris, France. This recording is licensed under the CreativeCommons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 license.

More deep wisdom from Eben Moglen

Some years ago, I went to the Free Software Foundation’s annual member meeting. It was well worth the trip, but Eben Moglen’s talk was worth the price of admission.

I have become interested in his talks over the years, and I intend to bring them to a wider audience. Here’s one recent talk from the HOPE 2012 conference (and the transcript is available as welllocal copy). This recording is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license.

Undercut the CRB, broadcast liberated music instead

One area of copyright licensing I’ve found a lot of copyright reports get wrong is music licensing. Consider this quote from’s “Senator Wyden Introduces Bill To Bring Some Sanity To Webcasting Royalty Rates“:

We were just talking about how incredibly broken the system is for establishing webcasting rates, in part because the law itself explicitly says that the Copyright Royalty Board (CRB) Judges should look to prevent disruptive innovation and preserve “prevailing industry practices.” In practice this has meant that basic webcasting rates, established by CRB judges, are usually somewhat insane and impossibly out of touch with reality. It’s only gotten worse over time — and the last round ended up being so crazy that everyone basically agreed to ignore those rates and set their own. And while those rates were lower than what the judges wanted to set, they’re still ridiculously high, significantly limiting the amount of webcasting available today. Even the leaders in the field, like Pandora, admit that with current rates, it’s basically impossible for the company to ever make a profit.

You’d think that this statement covers all webcasting of all music; one just can’t set up their own broadcasting station and avoid paying for major label tracks.’s reportage doesn’t explain organizations like Magnatune, a label which licenses all of their tracks to share, or Musopen which describes itself as “a non-profit dedicated to providing copyright free music content” (such as the Musopen lossless DVD). Every year there are more labels providing music in a variety of genres, all licensed to share in any medium.

The wealth of viable alternatives to major label tracks make me lose sympathy with those who want to become another corporate repeater station and complain about Copyright Royalty Board rates shutting them out. The time is now to establish something better that helps more artists struggling to be heard, artists who offer their work to you under amenable terms.

We know that this model works in the marketplace—Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) started in a comparable way, providing a repertoire of music for American radio stations to play under better terms than the competition from ASCAP, a competing royalty/licensing organization which had been around for 20 years. BMI undercut the competition from ASCAP at a time when ASCAP demanded “a fixed percentage of each station’s revenue, regardless of how much music the station played from ASCAP’s repertoire”.

Opus is RFC 6716!

Congratulations to the Opus team for their promising open audio codec and making a new Internet Engineering Task Force standard—RFC 6716!

Opus promises to provide a functional replacement for Speex and Vorbis because Opus can handle the jobs of both Speex (a voice codec) and Vorbis (a general-purpose audio codec). Of course, Opus support is already appearing in the free software world: GStreamer plugins, Firefox, and FFMpeg are already out with more on the way (VLC and Rockbox look particularly interesting to me).

Opus in Firefox should make it more likely to do voice over IP (VOIP) so you can chat with your friends in real-time using only a web browser you probably already have. In turn this means less need for VOIP apps and interesting integration with websites ahead.

Labor issues at Apple and Apple’s suppliers

This list was originally featured on another post.

If you needed a complete list of reasons why you shouldn’t do business with Apple, Richard Stallman tracks such reasons.

  • Apple’s Rotten Core mistreated workers from Apple’s own employees to the workers of upstream suppliers with “aggressive anti-union strategy”.
  • Blood on the Trackpads discusses Mike Daisey’s monologue “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” wherein Daisey poses as an investor, travels to the “Special Economic Zone” of Shenzhen, China, and gains access to Foxconn workers who are eager to share their stories. One story was about an “employee [who] mangled his hand in a factory accident and was fired instead of compensated” and another where “[s]everal workers speak of an employee who died after working a 32-hour shift”. Daisey had exaggerated some of the points in his stories. Sadly for human rights sake, not everything Daisey said was an exaggeration. It is telling that many Westerners are so concerned with Daisey’s exaggerations than with the suffering of Chinese laborers.
  • Three Strikes Against Apple about Apple’s response circa the time of the multiple Foxconn suicides of 2011.
  • On 2012-06-29, Democracy Now! reported

    A labor rights group says it has uncovered “deplorable” conditions at plants in China that supply products to tech company Apple. The New York-based group China Labor Watch says a four-month investigation of 10 Apple suppliers revealed widespread abuses, including harmful working conditions and excessive overtime. The report found conditions in factories that produce cases for Apple products appeared particularly bad, with workers being exposed to loud noise and toxic chemicals. While the uproar over Apple’s suppliers has focused largely on factories owned by the manufacturer Foxconn, the group said it found violations in virtually all of Apple’s suppliers and said some companies mistreated workers more severely than Foxconn.
    Democracy Now! 2012-06-29

    China Labor Watch‘s report is available in English in HTML or as a PDF (local copy), and in Chinese as a PDF (local copy). The press release for the report is also online. There is coverage of China Labor Watch’s report in the mainstream news (1, 2, 3).

  • Apple’s American Workforce and the Service Economy by Matt Vidal

    Last year [2011], the article (Local copy) reports, “each Apple store employee — that includes non-sales staff like technicians and people stocking shelves — brought in $473,000.” Yet, many of these employees are paid just $25,000 per year.
    Matt Vidal
    link to referenced article added

  • Richard Stallman’s reasons not to do business with Apple
  • Transcript of Democracy Now! episode where some of the discussion had to do with the human cost of Apple’s computers

    AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to talk about specifics and also go general. Jim Steele, the story of corporations tell a very major story about the United States, corporations like Apple and Boeing. Apple doesn’t manufacture one product in the United States?

    JAMES STEELE: That’s correct. That’s correct. I think some of the parts—some of the parts are made here, but basically the essential products aren’t. And we made the point in the book [The Betrayal of the American Dream]—we actually wrote about this before a lot of the news surfaced this year—that what was significant about what Apple has done is not just their working conditions in China, which were horrendous by the subcontractors over there, but what they did, they completely closed down manufacturing in this country after really less than a generation. The historic pattern in this country was a product would be invented here, a company would go into business, they would start making it. Up and down the line, you had a broad-based workforce for that product, from folks on the factory floor to the designers, to the salesmen, so on, to the stockholders who might be part of that company. But ultimately, you had this broad-based situation. Apple originally had some manufacturing in this country but very quickly, in less than a generation, just closed that down and shipped most things to China and other countries. And it’s just part of that pattern where jobs that once middle-class people had in this country are now gone.

Another reason not to do business with any proprietor—you don’t really control your computer. On September 11, 2012 TorrentFreak reported that Apple called Craig Donnelly, developer of a program that lets users more conveniently control a proprietary file-sharing application, to tell him that Apple accidentally approved his program for distribution on their app store. This wasn’t surprising because Apple has a history of rejecting file-sharing programs for distribution from their app store. Apple told Donnelly that they would later pull Donnelly’s application. TorrentFreak predicts users who bought the application, “will soon have it wiped from their iOS devices.”.

The lack of control over which programs you can keep on your computer is one reason why I don’t recommend using proprietary programs at all: Apple’s mistaken approval of a program for their app store should have no effect on users who installed the application from that app store. Computer owners should control their computers and decide which apps stay installed.