02 June, 2011


I was feeling opinionated on legal stuff recently. Don't worry, it doesn't happen often and I wrote it off in a column on Harmony. Read it here on linuxuser.co.uk and feel free to comment below. After all, I love flame wars. But I have something else I'd like to get of my chest, about pragmatism vs idealism.
Black and White

Pragmatism and idealism

Now before I start, I'm not very much interested in legal stuff. On the other hand, I use the term 'Free Software' as opposed to 'Open Source' for a reason. I do care about the Freedom part in what we do. While it's not a huge issue for relatively rich people who live in relatively free countries (like the vast majority of European citizens for example), it bites when you live in Egypt or Iran. Take the GPLv2 vs the GPLv3. The GPLv2 ensures 'code' stays free. If you have a device with modified GPLv2 code on it, you have to share the code. But you don't have to allow your customers to replace the code on your device. That is unfortunate for iPhone users in the USA because it means they pay more for some things than they would have had otherwise. But for BlackBerry users in Iran, who can't set up their own Blackberry server to keep the prying eyes of their government out of their phone communication, it is a life-or-death situation!

Hence I completely, fully understand those who are pragmatic: if you look at yourself and most of your friends, there is no huge issue. And you don't have to be an activist. I'm not an activist, at least, most of the time. But when I see what happened in Egypt and then hear Mark Pesce talk about how he's working on a way to eliminate any central control over our communication (make the internet truly free and independent) I'm happy and proud to be part of the Free Software movement.

Sometimes the lines between pragmatism, extremism and full-fledged nutty-ism are vague - sure. The company which hired me has had its share of criticism - some fair, lots of it in the 'nutty' category. Such things often hurt more than they help. This complicates things - we want companies to work with us, but only following our rules. Mark recently was interviewed about those things, and he criticized this attitude strongly. And to some degree, I agree with him. But I also see the point of extremism here: you don't advance your cause if you water it down to nothing.

So it has to be about balance. And this, I guess, is a personal thing. Some people pride themselves on not working on Free Software for any company. Well, I did that for about 10 years and I feel I can make a lot more difference with the time and resources I now have. But at the same time, yes, my paycheck also means I have other obligations now. For me and what I do it is a net gain, for others maybe not.

Well, I don't have any answers here, just more questions. Sorry about that. I guess it's the nature of the thing!

Black and white

Feel free to discuss or attack and defend, my blog is open. I do ask people to be polite and show at least SOME cerebral activity, the brain-stem like responses I sometimes get really don't add to the discussion. Oh, and realize please that the world is not black and white. Unfortunate, I know, but it's reality and ignoring it doesn't make it go away.


  1. We, Latin Americans, have no need to travel so far to quickly recognize the value of Software Libre (the Spanish form, unlike English, is unambiguous). Since MS follows the "one price for all the world" scheme, we have to pay up to 10x more (measured in purchasing power... seriously, would you pay $2,000 for a Windows license?) our governments are in one of two situations:

    a) They are left to use "Windows XP Unattended Edition", "Windows Angelical", "BioWindows" and other software that resembles a distribution (understanding "distribution" like you do in OpenSuSE, that is, a kind of a Linux distribution). These Windows distros come with post install utilities and with a cluster of hacked, pirate and unreliably tuned software. This solution is what the right and moderate political coalitions are doing while in government, because they lack the funds to do a proper transition to Windows, or because there aren't enough licensing auditors.

    b) They will introduce Software Libre schemes, and promote it for public usage. This is the choice of the left, led by Hugo Chávez himself (Canaima is the biggest government distribution in South America, its use is mandated in every public office, and a lot of computers are sold with that)

    This has turned the Software Libre issue into a partisan one, with undesired consequences. Cristina Fernández, while announcing a transition to Software Libre, had to endure the critics of the opposition, who panned the whole idea of Software Libre because it was leftist and pro-communist. And the reverse is true: if you listen to GNU Radio Venezuela, you'll hear a lot about Free Software, but also a lot about Chavismo, the advantages of soviets versus a common land organization, and lots of Communist propaganda.

    Believe me, I also know that to link Free Software to Communism is stupid, but we, in Latin America, see that daily. So, if you get to coordinate Latin American communities, you'll have to cope with that, and to give them the message that Free Software and free markets are entirely compatible.

  2. Regarding your Harmony article: I mostly agree with what you said. However, I think you missed one point: there is, AFAICT, none of the Harmony options contain the kinds of assurances and promises that FSF makes to developers in its copyright assignment agreements. It's roughly the equivalent of having CC without a CC-By-SA option. This glaring hole in the system has been completely ignored by the drafters of Harmony despite the fact that I've numerous times brought it to their attention and they have not solved it.

  3. Regarding your blog post here: I also agree with you that the injustices of proprietary software and issues of software freedom are "first world problems". There are people in the world that don't have plumbing and safe water, and as you mention, there are people living under incredibly oppressive political regimes.

    These problems are obviously much worse than the problem of proprietary software. However, it doesn't mean that software freedom isn't a valuable and important cause worthy of work. I chose to work on software freedom rather than one of these more urgent problems, frankly, because I don't have the skills to work on those problems but I do have the skills to help end the injustice of proprietary software. So I focused on that.

  4. @alejandro: thanks for that insight. Yes, the connection many people somehow see between communism and Free Software is annoying. If it were true, how would SUSE and Red Hat make so much money on it? Obviously it is a bogus relationship - the current proprietary software world has a decidedly unhealthy market mechanism which benefits large vendors enormously over smaller enterprises. But small enterprises are where the innovation is, so this status quo is detrimental to the whole market. Free Software has the property of opening up competition on actual value as opposed to pure market reach (because the GPL kills most of that advantage) and thus would improve the free market mechanisms, leading to better and cheaper software...

  5. @Bradley yes on both. The process of Harmony doesn't seem to work as well as it should.

    And yes, I agree that Free Software is a worthy cause. I've often quoted here in this blog: "In a world where speech depends on software; Free Speech depends on Free Software" and I deeply believe that to be true.

    Moreover, give me wood, a hammer and nails, and see me fail. Hence I do what I CAN do - which is to promote and help Free Software, like you.


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