This article is not of my own creation. It was written by Tom Christiansen and he has given me the generous permission to use it on my web page. In parts he tends to go over the top and in others he is on the verge of name calling. But it amply illustrates the frustrations that arise out of the FSF rhetoric.

What a Tangled Web We Weave...

by Tom Christiansen <> on Monday June 28, 1999

It's disappointing that we must once again embark upon yet another long, spiteful, and completely useless Gnu-vs-Free Software flamewar on Slashdot. Hasn't this topic been beaten to death long, long ago? Oh well; once more into the breach.

Like any radical political organization, the FSF surrounds itself with terminology-twisting rhetoric whose mission is more one of proselytization than it is one of disseminating honest truth. Repetition of half-truths does not make them more true; it just makes them better known. And in any marketing campaign, that's all that eventually counts. Lamentably.

There are two main myths of which the FSF must disabuse themselves of if they hope to be taken seriously by anyone of reputable intellectual and moral integrity. And to do so requires only an alternation of their rhetoric, not a change in licensing policies or software components. One can contemplate that in a completely different discussion.

The first myth is that the FSF has anything to do with free software. It doesn't. Free software is against their principles. That they say otherwise can only be justified by the application of Orwellian newsspeak as common words become twisted into their counterintuitive antitheses for reasons of pure propaganda.

What the FSF espouse is open software, not free software. They require only that software be forever open. This is not necessarily bad, of course. But it is not free to tell someone else what they can do with their lives. They do not allow it to be free in the libre sense, nor do they require it to be free in the gratis sense either. And note that `gratis' is what freeware means to everyone on the street. You can't change that perception. You can, however adapt to it. For some reason, the FSF refuse to do that.

Free software has no restrictions on it. Period. Anything more than `do whatever you'd like with this' is no longer free. Furthermore, the notion that anyone has the right to force others to obey what they must do with their own artistic output is about as far from free as one can imagine. It's also highly immoral, because it removes the option of choice. No choice, no morality.

The thing that chafes the honest people of this world is that it is deceptive to redefine a common word, which is what they've done. I don't care whether they've got a document somewhere where they say `Oh by the way, the word ``free'' in this document means ``comes with catsup''; that doesn't change the fundamental treachery. They didn't need to do this. They could have chosen a more honest and commonly accepted set of terms to effect the same ultimate goal. They didn't. Either they were wickedly clever, or pathetically stupid. And whatever else he is, Richard has never been stupid. I wish he could see that he's hurting himself.

More people need to be aware of the inherent deception that something calling itself `the free software foundation' is dedicated to creating software which is neither gratis nor libre, and certainly isn't free in the way that freeware is assumed to be free. Whether you call it damage control, marketing spin, or evil deception, the bottom line is that calling something that it's not is bound to produce confusion. As I've said a million times before, the solution is simple. Just find a new word, one that's honest and broadly understood. Don't change any licences. Just fix the damn word. Something that claims to be free software, should be. You shouldn't need a complex licence to understand this. If it's something that isn't intuitive to a twelve-year old, it's too hard. `Do as thou wilt' is free.

The second myth is that GNU is not Unix. Like the perversion of the simple word `free' into something that makes sense in no context but that of frothing fanatics, once again we see self-satisfied cleverness smugly wrapped up in word play for the smart people and consequently leaving the common man confused or tricked. Remember the environment in which this tired turn of phrase was coined: the fervent AT&T Unix policing of the word itself. This was obviously intrusive and destructive on their part, and it is no great wonder that RMS should have chosen terminology that would inherently distance himself from that minefield. Unix started in an open environment, and the crap AT&T subsequently pulled nearly killed it.

But in the end, nothing is changed. GNU is Unix, or they wouldn't try to say otherwise. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and smells like a duck, then it most certainly is a duck--or if you prefer, a rose by any other name would still smell as sweet. If you reverse engineer the Unix /bin/cat program, even without ever looking at the source code, producing at last something whose input and output and very name are virtually indistinguishable from your model, then you end up with is a reimplementation of the Unix /bin/cat program. It's still a cat.

This doesn't mean that the FSF are of no use, nor that the GPL has no use. It would be dishonest to make that claim. But there are clearly places where these are not useful. One obvious example of where it is not useful is when it comes to avoiding costly reinvention of the wheel. Consider the miserable programmer who would like to use GNU readline or gdbm or some clever search algorithm from some other GPL-licensed program within a program that needs to use closed and proprietary Oracle SQL libraries. You cannot force Oracle to open its software, so you're screwed. Have a nice time reinventing your own industrial-strength database. No employer will put up with that nonsense, so instead you get to reinvent readline(). That does nothing to further the science or art. It's counterproductive. The real world is full of compromises like this. The inflexibility of the GPL interferes with people trying to get an honest job done, and ends up causing needlessly wasted efforts What a shame!

Of course, there are clearly other places where the FSF and the GPL in fact are useful. They shouldn't go away. If they did, something important would be lost. I do not want to lose that.

What must go away is is the deception. If they'd only stop prevaricating, they could be taken a lot more seriously. But so far--and doubtless in the foreseeable future--what appears to be an unfortunate combination of ignorance and arrogance has prevented them from admitting their fundamental error. This sucks.

The notably oxymoronic `FSF' are engaged in the artful lying of telling half-truths for deceptive and consequently dishonorable purposes, just like any other marketroid, ad-man, con artist, Scientologist, or similar shyster. Remove the lie and keep the religion. They have something to say, and it should be heard. But delete the lies.

It should not hurt their cause to tell the simple truth. What does inflict grievous harm upon their cause is they way that they insist upon splitting hairs like so many lawyers and pharisees rather than honest men. I don't know why they don't see and stop this needlessly selfdestructive rhetoric.

But I begin to wonder: are the lies somehow indispensable to the promulgation of the cult? Can the GPL exist without the deceptive rhetoric? Can the FSF? That would be a sad thing, were it in fact the case. It really shouldn't have to be that way.