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.comment: 1776? Yeah, Right. - page 2

Let Facts Be Submitted to a Candid World

  • March 2, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell
Stallman tells us that he designed the GPL "to uphold and defend the freedoms that define free software -- to use the words of 1776, it establishes them as inalienable rights for programs released under the GPL." First, in case you missed it, the only "words of 1776" employed here are "inalienable rights," the rest having absolutely nothing to do with 1776. The sentence can't stand much parsing: it says that the GPL licenses programs licensed by the GPL -- in other words, nothing much. One could write just as easily, just as accurately, and just as meaningfully about one's driver's license. In fact, the one place where he goes wrong is his attempt to shoehorn in the "inalienable rights" reference, in that there is no right to free software enumerated anywhere. (Stallman might, had he stopped to think about it, find himself uncomfortable in the company of those who have settled upon that phrase: Clarence Thomas was most heavily criticized in his confirmation hearings for the work he had done in connection with "natural law," which is the study of the existence of inalienable rights.) The pertinent phrase from the Declaration of Independence is this: "We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness . . ." The GPL endows inalienable rights if and only if Richard M. Stallman is the Creator, in that the Declaration of Independence holds that inalienable rights come from, and only from, God. (There is also the fact that it is difficult to find many lawyers who think that the GPL would stand up in court, if it came to that, which is the practical argument against inalienability.)

It is in other areas of the Declaration of Independence that a comparison with the GPL might be made, but these do not accrue to the GPL's benefit. The areas that deal with the usurpation of the property of others and restraint of trade certainly come to mind.

The freedoms sought in 1776 were the rights of individuals rather than the rights of community over individuals -- it was not until 1848 that Messrs. Marx and Engels championed community above all. It is in trying to pin on the Declaration of Independence that which is clearly does not say that Stallman is at his most disingenuous.

But it's close. Take a look at this: "From time to time companies have said to us, 'We would make an improved version of this program if you would allow us to release it without freedom."' Now. On its face it's clear that no one, ever, uttered that statement to anyone. The correct quote is probably more along the lines of, "You have some nice code there, but we think your GPL sucks, so as long as you insist on it, we'll pass your code on by. We're in the software business, not the Richard M. Stallman glorification business."

He further attacks Microsoft for pursuing the notion that "what's yours is mine. and what's mine is mine." This is the equivalent of putting a "kick me" sign on his own posterior: The whole philosophy of the GPL is "what's yours is mine." And the whole foundation of freedom -- the actual word, not some collectivist contortion -- is "what's mine is mine." It may well be that Microsoft is guilty as charged -- Microsoft never having been, so far as I can tell, not guilty as charged -- but that scarcely frees Stallman from the burden of his claim that "what's yours is mine" is somehow morally superior to "what's mine is mine," or his phonied up claim that a document which establishes the latter somehow supports the former.

Alas, once again Stallman has risen to the bait. Microsoft Corporation's Jim Allchin made an utterly ridiculous statement a couple of weeks ago, to the effect that Open Source is damaging to American values. And now comes Stallman, proving that no, Open Source isn't, but "Free" Software is. There are very many very good arguments against Microsoft, but substituting one form of totalitarianism for another isn't one of them.

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