Majority of the software freedom activists are software developers. When Richard Stallman began this movement back in 1983 there were no working free software systems. So the movement was in dire need for software developers — to build the system. Developers who were getting motivated by Stallman joined the movement and developed tens of thousands of Free software programs. They continued with the movement. So most of the people in the movement were developers.
Not a developers’ movement
These developers focused more on the engineering side of Free software programs. Actually, the movement was really political. It’s about users’ rights. But most of the developers still never get it, especially the newly-joined ones (after 1998). To them, users’ rights are secondary, or they may not be aware of those rights at all. They see Free software as a charity — something to be gifted from/by them.
Because of that, those ‘diluted’ propitiatory groups — groups such as OSS, FOSS etc (1) with lots of money from corporates — could re-brand, hijack and even forced the founder of the movement to resign without the real beneficiaries knowing what was happening. (2)
Users are in the dark
The real beneficiaries of a Free software program are its users. There are millions of people on this planet using Free software daily. But they don’t know anything about software freedom and why they got this software for free. They are not aware of their rights. It’s just like slaves in the old world’s slavery.
So those who are really committed to software freedom must change their perspective. From now onwards we have to think from a user’s rights perspective and mobilise users of Free software. They should know what rights they ought to get.
Avoid traps that distract
When some crime happens various people will shout, “we need stronger laws so that nobody will repeat the crime.” Then politicians spend lots of energy and time to make changes in laws and systems. But the same crimes will be repeated after some time.
Why is this happening? This is because we are not analysing these issues deeply. Superficial changes may look good, but such an exercise is useless.
1. No new laws are required
The recent events in the Free software community make people think that there is something wrong with the community. That is correct. But it not because of inadequacies in the laws of software freedom. The laws of software freedom are already there. So no need for new laws or regulations. We don’t have to consider the developers at all. If there is a demand for GPLed software, you will get many developers to work on it. GPL is ultimate. No need of amendments.
We want everybody to follow the GPL licence. Of course it’s an ideal case. So, just have a think and make some adjustments for specific cases. But never spend more time and focus on finding exceptions. Any exception we add is an anti-Free software clause. So exceptions should be verbal.
2. Transforming users into developers will not help
Let’s say there is something wrong with a door. You have to fix it. For that you don’t have to buy all the pertinent tools and learn carpentry. All you have to do is just call a carpenter. He will fix it.
It is the human way of doing things. We are extremely social animals. We divide work to get maximum efficiency. Other animals do things by themselves with instincts. Because doing your carpentry work by yourself is costly and risky you may not try going for that. Everybody knows that.
But programing is a ‘cheap’ activity. It does not cost you much. Also, it’s an interesting kind of work; it’s fun too. So people may get exited about seeing their first “Hello World” program displayed on a screen. But actually it’s a rabbit hole.
Let’s say you are an accountant. You go to work for 8 hours, you can use the rest of the time as you like. Then you get a copy of an accounting Free software program with minimal features. Since it is a Free software program you will be having its source code and all the rights. Then, in your free time you start to learn programing, start fixing bugs, then adding features etc. You spend a huge amount of time on it. Soon you will become an expert programmer. You may get lots of appreciation. You will become “famous”.
Now, one day some company sees potential in this software and wants to buy it. You may even get more exited. Such and such big company is having discussions with you, and finally they give a huge amount of money. You and the team accept that. All are happy.
Do you think it is right? Most of the people out there think that it’s right. For your contribution you got enough money. To live, software developers need money.
Privatisation of Free software
Tens of thousands of people are working in Free software development as volunteers. All new software developments are built on top of older knowledge base or software. So how can your team sell your software to a propitiatory software company? Looks like capitalism has found free labour.
Till now capitalists have considered natural resources, slave labourers etc as free gifts of nature. Now they have a new item in that list. That is Free software developed by apolitical programmers. It is privatisation of Free software. It is unethical. It is wrong. But it is profitable for propitiatory software companies.
Why is this happening? Because the Free software activists don’t have strong political beliefs in what they are doing. They are alienated. They don’t see the real importance of their work. If you are not careful, then the programming, the fetish about your own software etc makes you apolitical and alienated.
I can get tens of thousands of software developers, but hardly can I get even a few dozens of Free software activists with strong Free software politics. So we should not spend time and energy to teach people programming. Its not the job of Free software activists.
Similarly, users need not fix or develop the software by themselves. They can hire a developer to fix it for them and for the whole world.
Politics is the most important thing
Whereas politics of the Free software movement is most important, it’s “boring” as per popular culture. That itself is the evidence that it is important. So we all have to spend more time and effort on that part. Even after 35 years many people and media attribute to Stallman a movement which is opposite to his. What a shameful situation. It is our failure. That happens because of lacking political teachings. That forced him to resign — because of a stupid smear campaign.
This should not have happened. We have to work hard to make the political side of Free software more mainstream.
The real political movement
You may have seen lots of protests by the environmentalists in front of fossil fuel companies. You may have seen healthcare activists protesting against drug companies and hospital lobbyists. They are not building their own ethical energy companies or ethical drug companies or teaching people how to make drugs. They are politically acting for the system to change. That is the human way to do things.
Similarly, our problem is also political. Politically it has to be fixed. The Free software programs developed till now are a demonstration of that. Stallman was showing that it is possible to develop software for the community. Now we need the real political movement. Think about a situation like hundreds of people protesting in front of a propitiatory software company and demanding Free software. We have to achieve that. Sure, it is a ambitious plan. But it is possible. Even users knowing about their rights would itself be a revolutionary thing. So let’s work for a strong Free software users community.
Note: I am not against users learning programming. There may be lot of Free software users who became good programmers. But I see only very few people in this world being attacked for talking about politics of software!
2. https://danielpocock.com/what-does-fsf-censor/, https://debian.community/google-money-censorship-free-software/