GNU and FSF: Love-Hate

I’ve caught some flack for extolling the virtues and utility of GNU software while expressing my contempt for the Free Software Foundation (which oversees GNU) and its licensing.

So let me clarify a couple things. First, I have nothing at all against GNU software. It’s fantastic. I’ve no complaints about its operation. The list of GNU software on my Linux boxes would be very long: without GNU, there’s no functional Linux OS. I don’t limit myself to GNU’s utilities. I also use GNU’s C compiler, emacs, languages like GNU smalltalk and guile, utilities like wget, and so on.

I just as easily could rattle off the list of GNU software on my Windows, including emacs (you have to admit it’s a little more powerful than notepad). My problem isn’t with the software. The software is fantastic. I’m a fan of the software.

The problem is GPL, especially the GPLv3.

GPLv3 isn’t about software freedom. Software freedom was addressed in earlier versions of GPL. Some think all versions of GPL are too restrictive (I do). They favor licenses like BSD (without the advertising clause). And some software authors have even chosen to avoid copyright hassles altogether and made their code public domain.

If GPLv3 isn’t about software freedom, what is it about? It’s about restriction and rigid dogma. That’s right. The original GPLs were about freedom. The new one is about restriction.

The first restriction under GPLv3 is that software “freedom” should determine or otherwise impact hardware freedom. It does this via its “anti-tivoization” clause. This clause is targeted at a company that exceeded its obligations under earlier GPLs. The new GPL says companies like TiVo can’t encrypt their firmware, which is NOT part of the operating system (it’s in hardware-space), for any reason. Why do hardware vendors like TiVo encrypt firmware? There are many valid reasons. TiVo’s main reason is for security. They also don’t believe they should have to give competitors the benefit of their own research into their own hardware — their shareholders probably agree. Most companies don’t spend millions of dollars on development and then give their trade secrets to competitors. So the net result is TiVo’s customers and investors will suffer from GPLv3.

One of the reasons I’ve come to loathe Apple is because they engage in similar restrictions as GPLv3. Buy a copy (remember, you’re actually buying a license and not the software) of OS X. Try to install it on a non-Apple computer. It won’t let you. The license is for use on Apple hardware only.

This License allows you to install and use one copy of the Apple Software on a single Apple-labeled computer at a time. This License does not allow the Apple Software to exist on more than one computer at a time, and you may not make the Apple Software available over a network where it could be used by multiple computers at the same time. You may make one copy of the Apple Software (excluding the Boot ROM code) in machine-readable form for backup purposes only; provided that the backup copy must include all copyright or other proprietary notices contained on the original.

There are ways to install it (driver support is better now that Apple has switched to Intel), but Apple’s legal team has pressured hosts to shut down sites showing how to install OS X on non-Apple computers. And since I hate lawyers, that’s all I care to say about the issue.

The second restriction on freedom relates to the anti-DRM features of GPLv3. The FSF claims that DRM restricts freedom, but they’re willing to restrict it themselves. The fact of the matter is, DRM exists because people don’t respect copyright laws. DRM doesn’t affect software. It affects data. Copyrighted data. You’re free to download whatever data you want so long as you’re willing to abide by the copyright or licensing offered by its owner(s). The data don’t change ownership when they’re on your machine.

FSF protects its own copyrights and licenses diligently. Very diligently. They pressure people all the time to comply with their license terms. Why can’t Sony? Why can’t BMI? Why can’t anyone else but FSF?

This is why I don’t like FSF. They used to be about software freedom. Now they’re for increased restrictions, and for reasons having less to do with software than hardware and data.


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