More partisanship from free software leadership

Stallman's Android deconstruction is attack on broader open source

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Richard Stallman

REUTERS/Simon Kwong

Richard Stallman took time out of his busy schedule to answer the burning question of whether Android is free software. His 1,439-word Guardian article is one of the longest ways I have seen lately to deliver what should have been an obvious (and 1,438-word shorter) answer:

No.

I mean, seriously, what other conclusions would you have expected to him to derive?

To my recollection, I have never heard Android referred to as "free software," except in error, when technology reporters/bloggers aren't paying attention and interchange the term with what Android really is: open source software.

A more relevant question, and indeed the one many people have been struggling with, is whether Android really is open source.

Anyone who knows how Stallman feels about non-copyleft licenses could have seen this argument coming a mile off. All of the past hits are there, paraphrased here:

  • Android contains the Linux kernel (not the GNU/Linux operating system), which is tragically licenses under the mere GPLv2, not the much better GPLv3.
  • The rest of Android is licensed under the Apache Software License, and isn't even being released, making Android 3 non-free software.
  • Other versions of Android have had their source code released, but they are non-free software, too, because they contain non-free software applications and libraries.
  • Manufacturers often change Android even more, locking up even more of Android's code.

And so on. It's a really detailed article that seems hell-bent on making sure everyone knows right down to their genetic code that Android is not free software.

But here's the problem: who (other than Stallman and the Free Software Foundation) was asking the question? I'm relatively sure that most developers and technical users of Android understand full well that Android, save for the GPLd parts, is not free software, but rather open source. And all the other users whom Stallman seems intent on educating in the Guardian article sadly don't care; they just want a phone that works and has decent apps.

I would agree with any argument that Stallman would make about fighting such apathy. But I don't think the tack that he and the FSF have been taking lately is the way to go about it.

So, if you step back and ask yourself why it took 1,439 words to point out what really is obvious to anyone paying attention to Android, you have to wonder why take the time to make such an impassioned monologue?

My theory? This was yet another in a long line of recent attacks by the free software leadership on the concept of open source software.

In his article, Stallman can barely spit the words "open source" out: he mentions it once, in quotes that mean he acknowledges the existence of such a term, but sees no validity in it. It's beneath him, it seems, something that I find hypocritical at best from someone who has long tried to shove the term GNU/Linux down all of our collective throats to describe the Linux operating system. Apparently, we're all supposed to accept his arguments without question, but Heaven forbid we ask him to acknowledge a term that most people in the software industry use and understand.

But Stallman mentions open source with his little air quotes to make sure that when he's talking about non-free software, he's also lumping open source with proprietary software in that descriptor. It's not enough that he disagrees with open source (which is his right, of course), but he also needs to belittle it as much as possible.

To me, this entire article is a diatribe on the evils of open source software, not-so-cleverly disguised as an educational piece on how free-as-in-freedom Android isn't.

Not only does Stallman drag out the old "Linux would be better if it used the GPLv3" argument, he also brings out the scary bugaboo the FSF loves to trot out about the Apache Software License:

"The non-release of two versions' source code raises concern that Google might intend to turn Android proprietary permanently; that the release of some Android versions as free software may have been a temporary ploy to get community assistance in improving a proprietary software product. Let us hope does not happen."

We've heard this argument before, leveled at any other non-copyleft licensed product. That Stallman slips it in with an unsubtle tone makes me wonder if he and the FSF's Brett Smith are using a playbook. Different issues, same insinuative approach.

It's no secret that free and open source software developers have clear philosophical differences in how they see software development. Open source is about the process, the collaborative effort. Free software is about collaboration and keeping the software free for all to use. But lately the FSF and free software leadership have taken great pains to level these broadsides against open source projects and, by extension, open source software in general.

I see it as a threatened reaction. There is evidence to suggest that the use of permissive licenses is growing a bit faster than that of the copyleft licenses, evidence that has been refuted by noted free software advocate Bradley Kuhn, yet confirmed by free software data collector FLOSSmole.

I think the FSF sees data like this and sees a problem: their message is not getting through to new adopters of free and open source software development. Which is why we now see this uptick in messaging about the free software and the evils of non-free software.

This is certainly within their rights to do, but I have to wonder if the constant, unbending stance against open source is going to scare off more potential adherents than attract. Partisanship is becoming more and more repugnant these days, and the free software leadership can ill afford to participate in it.

Read more of Brian Proffitt's Open for Discussion blog and follow the latest IT news at ITworld. Drop Brian a line or follow Brian on Twitter at @TheTechScribe. For the latest IT news, analysis and how-tos, follow ITworld on Twitter and Facebook.

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