Notes on the Notes on the subject of free software

Posted 10 Dec 2002 at 11:04 UTC by yeupou Share This

Recently, in my diary, I talked about this document, Notes on the subject of free software, found at written by Z.T. Smith (author of unrtf).

This document expressed a singular point of view: "The Free Software Foundation is a fraud", since "workers (who are the enemy) are exploited and their rights to own their own labor are stripped; ethical considerations (imposed by the host, society) are ignored; corporate profits are increased at minimal expense to investors".

The author has probably noticed my observations, there a new version of this text out there. I offer you my notes on this notes, the current version and the previous one (part of it are in my diary).

The author starts by pointing out that "Software equals engineering".

"Software is not an art, it's about building complicated systems that performed difficult important tasks reliably. It is a form of engineering, which is why universities have courses called "software engineering". Free software projects however usually are not approached by programmers as engineering. They suffer from poor design, unsuitability to the task, lots of bugs, outdated features, under-developed features, unnecessary features, and stark limitations. They aren't engineered, so much as developed bit by bit, "organically". Perhaps 1 in 100 ultimately reaches a mature state."

It seems acceptable to me to consider that software is not an art, according to the current definition of "art" (if we were talking about the 1600's, it would be surely different). But does it proves the quality of the design of Free Software projects? Is it a particularity of Free Software to suffer from lot of bugs, under-developed features, unnecessary features, and stark limitations? If so, we can expect a serious demonstration.

In this new version, the author added the last phrase, but demonstration still lacks.

After that, the author tries to identify "motivations for producing free software".

" 1. The Monopolist Effect: A programmer sees that some company has gained a near monopoly, and rather than writing to his corrupt congressman, says "I can make one of those and save the world!" and starts programming. And he never finishes. Because he is not level-headed enough to do it right.
2. The Hobby Syndrome: A programmer has a hobby that is not "serious", and decides to give it away rather than try to sell it. Often he assumes wrongly it is hard to sell software. Before the Internet came into existence, this was true because the "marketing channels" were locked up to keep out newcomers. Obviously, the Net is the new channel.
3. The Secret Magic of Anarchy: The programmer has embraced the belief that if enough people work together in a disorganized manner, not being paid to do so, reliable sustainable software will result. It is easy to argue that although this can happen, only in exceptional cases does it.
4. Proof of Skills Predicament: There are huge numbers of people who, even though they cannot program computers, nevertheless apply for programming jobs. Some legitimate programmers give away free programs simply to prove their ability to prospective employers. This problem is worsened by some educators and even capitalists who sell computer careers as a means to get rich quick.
5. Linux as a Home: Linux is a special free software project. It inspires a sort of human nest-building behavior. It's always the comfortable, reliable, familiar environment that you expect. It was created by the community for you, maybe with your help, like an Amish barn-raising.
6. Creative cooperation: Call it vanity, but some programmers think programming is a creative art. These guys have never even taken an art course. Listen: They get so full of themselves because of their dotcom salaries that they think open source programming is like Paris in the 20's, or early Burning Man. They sit in a room alone in a room with a soulless machine! A game of Life has more brains. "
This part helps us to understand the author: for this one, freeing a software is "giving it away". It means that, for him, a software does no longer belong to it's own author since it's liberation. On this point, serious demonstration is expected too, since a free software author still can execute, read, modifiy, redistribute it's software (what else would you do with a software?).

In general, in this part, the author mix "motivations identified" and it's very own point of view (that is not a motivation). Number 1 was previously focused on Microsoft. It was a potential motivation: people may "write a free version of the same software [than Microsoft one] simply out of spite, to erode the profits of the company", as he said. Now, it's mainly a personal point of view because it express what the author would have done and also express author's prophecy ("he never finishes"). In 6, he said that thinking "programming" as "a creative art" can be a motivation. And it's right, it can be. But saying that "they get so full of themselves because of their dotcom [...]" is a personal point of view.

After, the author proposes to study "the public's predicament".

" 1. Freeware: Pay nothing and get a limited, defective product. If you have limited needs, it may suffice. But because free programs are not funded, they disappear after a while. In the end, not wise.
2. Corporate payware: Pay a lot and get something, plus some abuse. Not wise, since it only encourages unethical companies to be bad.
3. Piracy: Some people will use illegal copies of commercial software obtained from friends/employers/strangers. Also not wise. Firstly it is unethical. Secondly Corporate Big Brother is always watching.
4. Shareware: Pay nothing and then forget to ever pay anything, because paying is optional. Not wise. Shareware projects come and go because the programmer was "too nice" to make you pay.
5. Buy-direct payware: Get a demo version directly from the programmer's website, then later buy it on the website. Wisest option. With one or two people being responsible for a project, and receiving money to continue it, they become committed to their customers. "

First, "commercial software" does not mean "proprietary software". RedHat make profits from gcc, so gcc is potentially a "commercial software" but is absolutely not proprietary. Anyway, I assume that the author talks about proprietary software when he writes "commercial".

The point of view expressed on this part seems very limited. Freeware and Shareware arent not widely used (if we talk about whole OSes). Also, Big Brother does not give a toss about Mr Lambda and what he do at home, since it helps "unethical companies to be bad" (a software is "standard" when widely used). The author noticed my comment on this point and added the "ethical" argument. But this argument is invalid: you cannot tell on one side that buying "corporate payware" encourages companies to be unethical and telling that it is unethical to not to pay the sames companies. You have to make a choice.

The author promotes "buy-direct payware". But where the money comes from generally? Is that from individuals? If so, "buy-direct" is probably a good option. But, personally, I do not think it's the case. Where is the money? People or... companies and states. And why would companies and states distribute their money in software? Because softwares are theirs tools and they make profits by their usage. And how would they pay? By paying companies to get support... And what companies that offer support would do? Pay developers to distribute a better product. It's, I think, what companies like RedHat do. It seems acceptable to me.

Far more acceptable than asking to user to pay: don't we all know that most of the users use free softwares or cracked proprietary softwares (you're free to agree with this undemonstrated part - I do not know how to demonstrate it except talking about personal experience). Will they start to spend their money to get what they already have and what is absolutely not essential to them? I wonder.

After this part was described the "The Free Software Foundation is a fraud" part. It has been removed. Two options: the author no longer believes what he wrote or he do not want to argue on the subject. In the first case, he should add a comment about it. But the author added a new part called "Leaving the savanna...". Is it a direct allusion with the fact that I'm member of the Savannah project? Anyway, I'll add here my previous comment on the part "The Free Software Foundation is a fraud", despite the fact it disappeared from the original web page, since I think that the author still believe in this idea that "The Free Software Foundation is a fraud" and so there's still a need for a counter approach on the subject.

" " The Free Software Foundation is a fraud The track record of the FSF is generally considered to be bad: it doesn't go after violators of its widely-used GNU public license. It's their dirty little secret. But it suggests they are actually in favor of blatantly unethical business practices of companies like Lindows and Redhat. Juxtapose that with the fact that the FSF and its founder Richard Stallman like to publicly brag that their real purpose is to strip programmers of their rights to their own code. Hmmm.....suspicious." [no longer on the webpage] "

Who writes thoses "track records" that the author enjoy to talk about? He said that "FSF doesn't go after violators of its widely-used GNU public license". Can he demonstrates his personal point of view with examples?

Also, he talks about Lindows and RedHat "blatantly unethical business practices". Where is the demonstration? What does "blatantly unethical business practices" means?

" "Let us look at the FSF objectively, ignoring their propaganda. Let us ask: * Is this the profile of a Marxist movement? No. Workers are exploited before any social contract is in force. Society provides them with nothing for their labor." [no longer on the webpage] "

One more time, can the author demonstrate that "workers" are "exploited"?

" " * Is this the profile of a Libertarian movement? No, libertarians are entirely in favor of personal property. Perhaps some business owners are motivated to use free software, but that does not speak of the FSF's motivations." [no longer on the webpage] "

I think that "libertarian" are entirely in favor of "personal" freedom, not especially property. It is funny to describe "libertarians" whithout using the word liberty, or freedom. It does speak of the author state of mind.

" " * Is this the profile of an Anarchist movement? No, in fact. Anarchists say that people are born good, but later corrupted. Yet the FSF clearly is sanctioning corrupt companies which violate the FSF's license., because they are legally expected to oppose violators, their propaganda claims they will do so, and they are financially able to. Yet they don't. If they are anarchists, their anarchism must be a flavor invented by the Cosa Nostra." [no longer on the webpage] "

One more time, the idea that FSF does not care about license violations need to be demonstrated. The author use in this demonstration an idea previously expressed that is not demonstrated.

Anyway, "anarchist" thinks that society can run without arche, authority, and so without law and legality, since they thinks that is will be useless. This whole part is nonsense. If it was an "anarchist" movement, no license would have been ever published.

" " * Finally, is this the profile of a Capitalist movement? Yes. Workers (who are the enemy) are exploited and their rights to own their own labor are stripped; ethical considerations (imposed by the host, society) are ignored; corporate profits are increased at minimal expense to investors. " [no longer on the webpage]"

If "capitalist" means making profits without any rules, by oppressing people, the FSF is not. One more time, "workers" are not "exploited", it remains to be demonstrated to be part of another demonstration. "Workers" have the freedom to free their software or not. It's their choice. And they are never "stripped" of their "own labor", since they'll be able forever to execute, read, modify, distribute their "labor". Also, how could the author say that "ethical considerations are ignored" since the whole FSF purpose is to promote the choice of the free software by ethicals arguments?

But if "capitalist" means it's possible to make profits, so it is.

Finally, there's no demonstration in this whole part, only assumptions. But this part is singular since generally FSF is associated with stalinism when criticized on the political aspect, not with neo-liberalism.

Now, let talk about this "Leaving the savanna..." new part.

It describe free softwares believers as asocials uncivilized, people that "doesn't see any civilization", people "in love with its wildness and its lack of rules, with the frustrating little projects, the days of simple famine, no strings attached".

Well. Funny. But what's the point? Here it comes:

" But most users don't want to live that way. They come to the savanna wanting something very specific and are willing to pay money for it. But oops, money is useless on the Linux savanna. Rather than sacrifice their lifestyle or embrace a new ideology or religion, joe user heads for the city, with all its exploitation, cheap thrills, and quiet suffering. "

Who said that "money is useless"? One more time, Z.T. Smith do what he seems to do best: building demonstrations on undemonstrated personal point of view.

Also, many times, the author criticizes using "ethical" arguments but if nobody cares, if it's not in the conclusion, how can it be in the description?

And finally, it goes to dead-end pseudo-philosophical's terms. "Nothing is truly free", hey dude. I prefer the previous version, in fact.

Does the author really want to live on "an island, founded on a BIOS bedrock" to be an asocial uncivilized?

Can't Argue, Really, posted 10 Dec 2002 at 14:10 UTC by glyph » (Master)

The only criticism that I have of your article here is that you've devoted too much time to debunking someone who's so clearly an idiot :-).

I would like to add my own sprig of kindling to the fire though. In addition to holding some bizarre opinions that he provides absolutely NO justification for, he's also a hipocrite. The author lives on his BIOS bedrock, but he takes the a jet-fighter built by the aboriginals to deliver his message to the world.

(What's that site running? Guess what: not DOS!)

Additionally, I'm keen to see this shopping-cart software that he plans to sell his little RTF-munging utilities with, that he will write and run on (of course) legally licensed copies of MS/DOS. Software pundits beware: the binary images you invoke on your PC are a vanishingly small percentage of your total software usage.

In conclusion, a friend of mine once coined an phrase that seems applicable to this kind of romanticized stupidity:

Saying that complexity isn't real because it "was invented somewhere else" is the most useless kind of wishful thinking. - Allen Short

FSF and GPL enforcement, posted 10 Dec 2002 at 18:03 UTC by AlanShutko » (Journeyer)

Smith may be referring to the policy of the FSF not to get involved in GPL enforcement unless they hold the copyright on the software. (If you contribute significant changes to FSF projects, you are asked to sign a copyright assignment or waiver before your changes are integrated.)

So it's true, the FSF doesn't "go after" people who violate the GPL on Linux, for instance. Their lawyers they have legal standing to do so.

This policy of assignments is probably also why Smith says that the FSF's purpose is to "strip programmers of their rights to their own code." That's incorrect, as anyone who has actually read the copyright assignment form can contest. As part of the assignment, you are granted back rights to use your modifications in practically any way you desire. (Yes, including commercial projects, though you still have to abide by the GPL if your changes may be a derived work.)

&quoFSF doesn't go after violators of its widely-used GNU public license&quo, posted 10 Dec 2002 at 20:22 UTC by yeupou » (Master)

"FSF doesn't go after violators of its widely-used GNU public license" lead to think that FSF does not care about it.

If they cannot legally "go after violator" in court by themselves, they offer support and help to authors of GPLed software as explained at

"Note that the GPL, and other copyleft licenses, are copyright licenses. This means that only the copyright holders are empowered to act against violations. The FSF acts on all GPL violations reported on FSF copyrighted code, and we offer assistance to any other copyright holder who wishes to do the same.

But, we cannot act on our own if we do not hold copyright. Thus, be sure to find out who the copyright holders of the software are before reporting a violation."

In the MySQL ABSoft story, FSF, if I'm not mistaking, have done what is said. So FSF does not care, and that the important point, finally, isn't it?

errata: s/"does not care"/"do care"/, posted 10 Dec 2002 at 20:25 UTC by yeupou » (Master)

Fair comparsion, posted 18 Dec 2002 at 10:16 UTC by realblades » (Journeyer)

Slightly beside the point an on other approach:
You often see people saying that open source software is bad quality because nn% of it never matures etc.

It's insane that this is considered worth anything. It's like saying that all mathematics that is not done behind closed doors and from which outsiders only see the results is useless because nn% of the calculations you see in public are just numbers strung together in x + y without correct scientific notation and explanations and abstraction and reusability.

It's a natural way for things to be. And there are still brilliant equations out there to keep on the analogy.

And another thing; if you look at all the closed software you've ever seen in aminet, ms-dos boards, tucows, magazine covermedia, and commercial software most of it is unbelievable ****. But this is completely ignored in the comparsion.

Like someone said, the referenced article is hardly worth comment technically. But those things don't seem obvious to some people. It's nice to see it being brought out. It would be even nicer if it wasn't on a site like this that may be considered biased (go figure, once again).

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