RMS (Richard “Not Milhous” Stallman) has always been insistent that the important virtues of “free software” are ethical, not practical or technical. As best as I can surmise, RMS’s ethical claims boil down to:
- Society is better off with a non-proprietary software infrastructure because it protects users against software that does not have their interests at heart.
- A society of unfettered experimentation, education, discovery, and cooperation is better to live in.
- Sharing of modified or unmodified intellectual works (he objects to the term “intellectual property”) is a right, the abridgment of which is an affront to freedom.
The first point has been well argued by many: governments and the proprietary media industries increasingly want to undermine the technological power that general-purpose computing puts in the hands of end-users. (See any discussion of DRM, trusted computing, or government efforts to nerf encryption.)
It’s not surprising that libertarians of the FOSS movement concur on the first claim, but it’s perhaps surprising there’s not more friction on the second: I’ve always thought of libertarian ideology as wanting to “unrestrain” the exceptional few so that they can stride above the masses like the colossi of self-made virtue that they are, which doesn’t seem consistent with the promotion of greater cooperation. The explanation for this departure, I think, is that free software development, for all its openness, is actually brutally meritocratic: good code survives, bad or not-so-good code gets tossed or ignored, so generally, the better programmers rule the FOSS landscape.
It is this third claim—the right to take and share non-rivalrous copies—that I would expect to hear more debate about, but both sides are surprisingly quiet on this issue, including Stallman himself, who as far as I can tell views the right-to-share as axiomatic. The only examples of debate I’m aware of aren’t much more than assertions: assertions of the goodness of sharing and counter assertions of the goodness of property. So if you’re aware of real debate on this issue, please let me know.
In the end, this tension between free software and libertarian ideology can probably just be ignored, for the libertarians of FOSS seem to be a peculiar Silicon Valley variety, a breed that mainly focuses on the stupidity of regulation and political correctness (*yawn*). (A most peculiar example of this is Wikipedia founder Jimbo Wales, a self-proclaimed Randian with a very, um…unfamiliar spin on Objectivism; see this CSPAN interview with Wales)