This is the full transcript of a recent conversation I had with Richard M. Stallman about the ethics of software. The conversation continues. However, rms has asked me not to publish his later responses. When I have a chance, I will write up the questions which I asked him in those later emails. Until then, consider this text from a more recent email:

I think you are doing an excellent job of answering my questions, but except
for a brief answer to my Constitutional quote, seem to be avoiding the larger
implications. There are only twenty four hours in a day and there are a multitude
of unjust and unethical practices happening every second of them. Unless I were to
live isolated from everyone in the woods (in which case, I would be unable to fix
problems), I strongly suspect that I will be perpetuating some system of injustice
(e.g., by consuming energy).

You may claim that the barriers to becoming ethical in terms of software are low -
but (a), this seems to ring of the sort of thing you explicitly dislike from the
open-source movement, and (b) I think that what is important is the perceived
barriers - so that while it may be possible to educate people, if after spending a
week in an email discussion with you, they feel it is a substantial and not trivial
sacrifice to switch from Windows to GNU/Linux, that is the core of the matter.


The thread starts here and proceeds chronologically.


From: Jacob Scott
Date: April 4, 2006 9:19:29 PM EDT
To: rms

Mr Stallman,

we exchanged emails briefly in early March about a talk given by a
Mathematica executive/researcher (below). A transcript of a recent
talk at ANU (http://linuxhelp.blogspot.com/2006/04/unabridged-
selective-transcript-of.html) was recently posted on Slashdot, and I
documented online, or if there is someone else in the FSF/GNU I
should direct my comments to, please let me know. I will try to be
concise and to the point.

In the transcript you are quoted as saying:

"One person would give up his freedom when ever you can offer him
convenience in its return and the other would fight for his freedom"

when you describe the differences between an open-source advocate and
a free software advocate. You also are quoted as saying:

"I don't criticise and condemn people just because they don't stand
up for free software strongly as I do. As long as what they are doing
is good, I will say what they are doing is good and I might suggest
somethings they could do."

I believe (maybe you can inform me) that I am in general a proponent
of the GNU philosophy. I am a first year graduate student in CS at
MIT, but I consider myself a very poor systems programmer (I am in
Theory). I currently use, when I have the choice, exclusively Apple's
OSX. This is because I am at least one order of magnitude more
efficient (I would say that this rises to a level above "convince")
with OSX than with GNU/Linux. I say this having spent a non-trivial
amount of time over the last 4-8 years attempting to use GNU/Linux
distributions such as Debian, Ubuntu, Redhat, and Fedora Core. I find
that in particular the Graphical User Interface of OSX is far
superior to the GNU/Linux alternatives (e.g., GNOME, KDE, etc) - at
least the experience offered to the non-expert.

I also strongly dislike DRM. That said, I have an iPod and have
started to purchase music (wrapped in DRM) via the iTunes music
store. I suppose here, I could go into the store and buy the CDs in
audio format and rip them myself, and this would be more appropriate?
The only problem there, I suppose, is that only from online music
services can you purchase single songs at reasonable prices. If I
only want one song on a CD, is the ~10x cost differential the price I
pay for freedom? Or is it reasonable to purchase DRMed music and
realize that when the free alternative arrives, all my money spent
will have gone down the drain (this, paradoxically, might be the
strategy I prefer).

Given that I try to use free software when possible (e.g. Camino,
Videolan Client, Adium), do you have any other advice? To be a
thoughtful, honest, and freedom loving person, do you have any
suggestions about my software use, other than that I should try to
switch to more free software whenever it approaches the usability I
need?

To butcher Gandhi, what is your message to those of us who cannot "be
the change you want to see in software"?

Thanks very much,

Jacob

[previous email snipped]


The partial transcript of the talk is here. The same guy posted a follow up that might also be interesting.

From: Richard Stallman
Date: April 4, 2006 11:47:21 PM EDT
To: Jacob Scott

I currently use, when I have the choice, exclusively Apple's
OSX. This is because I am at least one order of magnitude more
efficient

I would not make the choice based on this.  What you're saying is that
you value efficiency of use more than your freedom.

I also strongly dislike DRM. That said, I have an iPod and have
started to purchase music (wrapped in DRM) via the iTunes music
store.

I've heard that this allows you to burn fully valid audio CDs.  (Is
that not so?)  Thus, the DRM is not airtight; it is more Digital
Inconvenience Management than Digital Restrictions Management.

I suppose here, I could go into the store and buy the CDs in
audio format and rip them myself, and this would be more appropriate?

Yes.  Or you could get copies from other people; that is ethically
legitimate, and it does as much to support the musicians (if they are
not superstars) as buying the CD would do.

Or is it reasonable to purchase DRMed music and
realize

You should NEVER buy any media with real DRM.  By doing so, you reward
and encourage the perpetrators.  We can defeat DRM if we simply fight
and resist it.

that when the free alternative arrives, all my money spent
will have gone down the drain

You seem to be referring to some specific scenario, but I cannot
envision what it is.

To be a
thoughtful, honest, and freedom loving person, do you have any
suggestions about my software use, other than that I should try to
switch to more free software whenever it approaches the usability I
need?

My suggestion is to realize that you don't really "need" that
"usability"--it is a convenience, not a necessity, and you can get
your work done on free software.  Stop exaggerating the small
sacrificies that our movement needs.

From: Jacob Scott
Date: April 5, 2006 12:12:24 AM EDT
To: rms

heart. I would respectfully disagree with you on one point:

> My suggestion is to realize that you don't really "need" that
> "usability"--it is a convenience, not a necessity, and you can get
> your work done on free software.  Stop exaggerating the small
> sacrificies that our movement needs.

While you may be correct, I think it is possible that you do not
realize the degree to which sacrifice is necessary. One example of many:

A few months ago, I began to not be able to run firefox on my Fedora
Core desktop. I would restart the machine, log in, attempt to run
firefox, and be faced with the message (approximately) "you cannot
start firefox. Firefox is already running." It turns out a .parent-
lock file or some such needed to be deleted; I was told this by a
more GNU/Linux-savvy friend. I could have Googled it - instead I just
used mozilla (much slower, no bookmarks). But these incidents occur
with unfortunate frequency, to the point where, to me (honestly!)
using GNU/Linux is many times roughly equivalent to walking through a
swamp filled with molasses. And as I mentioned, I am a computer

I believe that computers are incredibly valuable tools, and they
certainly enable freedom in a way that many other tools do not. But
at a certain point I want my computer to work like my car - in a way
I understand, so that I do not have to consciously engage with it. Is
this an unfair or irresponsible desire?

Do we only disagree on the magnitude of the usability gap between OSX
and GNU/Linux, and the implications that has on convenience versus
necessity? If so, perhaps I can be of service and try and present you
with some reasonable (impartial, 3rd party) usability studies that
can enlighten us both. I'm not saying this gap exists for everyone,
just for many people, including myself.

I hope that you realize I am approaching the issue with a certain
bias, but also with an (attempt at an) open mind; in particular I am
open to having my misconceptions destroyed by the righteous wrath of
the Church of Emacs ;). I also understand if you find this issue
unproductive or have no time to go into details. But I myself would
be interested in further discussion, per the disclaimer that is sent

Thanks very much,

Jacob Scott

From: Richard Stallman
Date: April 5, 2006 3:05:57 PM EDT
To: Jacob Scott

While you may be correct, I think it is possible that you do not
realize the degree to which sacrifice is necessary. One example of many:

I think it is not that important.

Do we only disagree on the magnitude of the usability gap between OSX
and GNU/Linux, and the implications that has on convenience versus
necessity?

I know that lots of people have less problems than you report.
However, that is NOT our only disagreement.

I care about freedom enough that, given a total lack of a free
operating system, I set about developing one.  It has taken 22 years.
The amount of "sacrifice" you find impossible
seems pitifully small.

From: Jacob Scott
Date: April 5, 2006 3:35:47 PM EDT
To: rms

I think your statements are fair. They raise a few questions. As
always, feel free to terminate this conversation when it no longer
interests you or you think it is unproductive (I will not include
this disclaimer in future emails, consider it implicit).

1) How do you perceive the relative importance of various freedoms?
Where does freedom of software rank in terms of religion, speech,
press, assembly, and petition (among others)?

2) To what extent to you appreciate the marginal advantage that each
person has at contributing to the freedom of software? If, for
example, by using proprietary software I can generate enough income
to donate 1x10^X (3 \leq X \leq 6) to the FSF, where if I used GNU/
Linux I would not be able to make any such significant contribution,
what do you think would be the right decision? This in a context
where I would be happy to switch to free software when it's usability
approaches that of proprietary software.

3) Is this email thread private and in confidence, or am I free to
post its' totality, or quotes, various places (e.g., the Internet)?

Thanks very much,

Jacob

PS:

"I don't criticise and condemn people just because they don't stand

Using words like 'impossible' and 'pitifully small' seem to me (in my
humble opinion, I am certainly not making a judgement) to be harsher
and/or more critical than might be necessary to make your point.

From: Richard Stallman
Date: April 5, 2006 11:57:52 PM EDT
To: Jacob Scott

1) How do you perceive the relative importance of various freedoms?
Where does freedom of software rank in terms of religion, speech,
press, assembly, and petition (among others)?

Those freedoms are more important than free software, because they
are more general, spreading across various areas of life.

However, to the extent we use software, freedom to share and change
the software becomes important.  To the extent software use becomes
pervasive in society, freedom of software becomes essential to protect
the other freedoms too.

2) To what extent to you appreciate the marginal advantage that each
person has at contributing to the freedom of software? If, for
example, by using proprietary software I can generate enough income
to donate 1x10^X (3 \leq X \leq 6) to the FSF, where if I used GNU/
Linux I would not be able to make any such significant contribution,
what do you think would be the right decision?

No, because the most important contribution we need is to lead
by example in treating non-free software as unethical.

3) Is this email thread private and in confidence, or am I free to
post its' totality, or quotes, various places (e.g., the Internet)?

You can post the whole thing so far, if you wish.


This is the end of the conversation that rms agreed could be made public.