LibrePlanet is an annual free software conference held in Boston, Massachusetts near the home of the Free Software Foundation. I watched a recording of the LibrePlanet 2015 talk on Document Freedom Day by Robinson Tryon and heard him present a false dichotomy about software freedom as well as non-critically endorsing the use of proprietary software during his response to someone asking about music score software (such as GNU LilyPond):
I think it would be great for students to be exposed to all kinds of software that are out there on the market today. Whether that’s going to be some proprietary alternatives or some free software. I think that if you give people a solid education, if you give them a solid grounding in a lot of different tools, I think predominately they’re gonna make decisions that we are happy with, that we’re excited about because they’re gonna express the same views we do. That, you know, why would we choose this thing that has reduced functionality, I can’t use it after I graduate, and they’ll say ‘This is ridiculous!’ and we wouldn’t have to make that point for them. But I think that at this time, we aren’t coupling our education, and our use of free or proprietary software, with that lesson.
Some of the teachers that I liked the most, that I enjoyed the most when I was in high school and college were the ones that taught life lessons about their time in the military or in political situations where their higher-up told them to do something that was totally ridiculous, or told them to do something that they couldn’t possibly accomplish. But the sort of lesson was: well, if you can get it done, you know, however you can get it done. Then everything will be okay; we don’t need to know how the sausage is made.
So I think it’s really important for us to actually be honest with students, to give them a full picture. I think it’s just as irresponsible for us to tell students ‘You should only use free software’ and that’s the whole message we give, as to say ‘You should just use Microsoft products’. If we want someone to use free software we need to talk to them about everything that’s out there and why we think free software is a good choice. And then let them make their own decision. Because that’s the whole point; it’s about freedom. And so I really hope that with music and with other tools, that if we provide an ecosystem, and if we get enough people interested, that yeah, we’re gonna see some adoption of notation software.
That’s not what the free software movement, Richard Stallman, or any Free Software Foundation article argues. Stallman is on record explaining at length exactly why non-free software is unethical. And when describing how education should be set up, he says (as recently as his 2015-03-21 keynote at the LibrePlanet 2015 conference) that students should only be allowed to bring free software to class because he doesn’t want children to learn not to share. “Moral education, education in citizenship” is critical, Stallman writes, “It’s not enough for a school to teach facts and skills, it has to teach the spirit of goodwill, the habit of helping others. Therefore, every class should have this rule: “Students, if you bring software to class, you may not keep it for yourself, you must share copies with the rest of the class, including the source code in case anyone here wants to learn. Because this class is a place where we share our knowledge. Therefore, bringing a proprietary program to class is not permitted.” The school must follow its own rule to set a good example. Therefore, the school must bring only free software to class, and share copies, including the source code, with anyone in the class that wants copies.”.
What we see in American schools is the opposite—proprietary software is unquestioningly installed and used without anyone teaching about software freedom, using free software (except maybe for a cost savings), or valuing software freedom for its own sake. Using free software to save on software licensing cost seems like a good goal if you measure success in terms of popularity. But popularity fades and is easily reversed by wealthy proprietors eager to use schools to introduce their proprietary software to students. This is what should get LibrePlanet speakers riled.
So where would anyone get the idea that the difficult choice we face is whether to teach exclusively free software without informing students of the unethical nature of non-free software, versus using only non-free software? I suspect this false dichotomy is the result of the philosophy of the open source movement. That movement doesn’t say non-free software is wrong. The open source movement was developed to placate businesses by pitching a developmental methodology which stresses convenience. Sometimes this means endorsing proprietary software. The FSF has written about the beginnings of the open source movement in a couple of essays (an older essay, a newer essay).
Software freedom is not about maximizing the number of software choices. Proponents of non-free software conflate choice with freedom because it gives them another opportunity to promote their non-free software even if they have to do that right along side free software, talking about the two together as if the two are ethically equivalent. This helps take ethics off the table for discussion and grants proprietors a chance to reframe any debate around technical convenience. The problem for users remains: One cannot gain or keep software freedom by using non-free software.
We shouldn’t look for ways out of teaching students what ills proprietary software brings society. We should not present all options as if they’re equally ethical and hope that people figure this out on their own (“let [students] make their own decision”, as Tryon put it). Moral education is critical and schools must do this. If we don’t teach people to value their freedom and fight for it we will lose our freedom. We know this is true from history with proprietary derivatives of non-copylefted free software, and we heard from Karen Sandler’s LibrePlanet 2015 conference closing speech that she was unsuccessful in trying to get VMWare to comply with the GNU General Public License (a license that grants software freedom to all users so long as they pass on that same freedom if they distribute the software further). As she said in her talk, one way you can help is by endorsing free software licenses that defend software freedom for derivative works (known as “copylefted” free software licenses like the GNU GPL):
We not only need financial help, we need your help as advocates. We need you to be going out and supporting enforcement. We need you to explain why copyleft is important, and why it matters. And we won’t be able to do it alone.
And most importantly, I think, seeing a public swell of support for the GPL and for copyleft, could even influence the lawsuit itself. You don’t know; by showing that the public cares about it, it escalates this issue to one of public importance.
Helping people understand the value of keeping their software freedom via copyleft requires teaching people to value software freedom for its own sake.
But just as free software lawyer Eben Moglen often points out in his talks, “Stallman was right”, Stallman had already written about so much of what came up:
- difference between free software and open source (an older essay, a newer essay)
- use of the word “ecosystem” to present a set of choices without ethical judgment