Meeting with the Prophet: Richard Stallman in Otago

Richard Stallman gave a seminar today to a Dunedin crowd in Castle 1 lecture theatre, University of Otago. Introduced by local Green Party representative, Richard was called “Bill Gates of the free software” – a somewhat unexpected insult.  The talk started shortly after 19:00 and went on till 20:30. The termintellectual property” has been discussed first, then the talk concentrated on copyright laws and the philosophy behind Free Software Foundation.  There has been the usual advocating of GNU/Linux terminology and GNU software model, the complaints about greed, power, american politics and disappearing democracies (“even Bush is a freedom fighter”), WTO (“very evil organisation”), DRMs, blue-ray and HD-DVD, music industry, arts, etc. Of course, all of it spoken by a real person in front of me, felt differently to reading about it on the web and watching online videos.  Extremely well presented and narrated story with funny, nerdy but serious arguments along the way. Engaging, powerful and empowering. Very motivational.

No compromises. All software should be free. Richard advocates a refusal any form of compromise or integrity violations. All content created in digital form should be free to copy and share non-commercially by anyone. Referring to basic human freedoms. Presenting a media distribution model with voluntarily payments and taxation to promote arts – this might have been a bit weak and not completely thought out through. Labels and distributors are thinking along the same lines. The difference is, that some argue this idea for the labels and publishers. Stallman argues those voluntary payments should go directly to artists (cutting off the middle-men). As with everything – cutting off the middle man is easier said than done – and you be better prepared for a huge fight. 

Same for books and textbooks. Stallman advocates the same mantra as others, eg. Prof. R. Preston McAfee: “What makes us rich as a society is what we know and what we can do. […] Anything that stands in the way of the dissemination of knowledge is a real problem.”

Film industry would probably redefine itself as they would not be able to sustain multi-billion dollar productions  (“still, the majority of Hollywood produced films are crap anyway”). Talking also about the uses of creative content: 1) content used to conduct daily activities or work (all should be free, for the common good); 2) content as an expression of one’s mind, opinion, knowledge (should be free for non-commercial use, limited copyright); 3) content with artistic intent or entertainment (content should be freely shared, with copyright and fees for commercial use). Digital content should be freely distributable. All software should have source code available, and should be legal to be modified and copied/redistributed. People should not give up their freedoms – they should protect their freedoms instead. Stallman puts emphasis on the concept of sharing.

The talk made me feel bad about the MacBook (or liking using my MacBook). I also wonder about BSD licensing and general models for the software industry and workings of the software vendor. Being open source limits the offering to services, giving proprietary software market advantage (not in idealistic world in which people would be able to see through. But as long as people are excited about Apple products and buy iPods, GNU puts vendor house in a disadvantaged market position). Stallman made a good case, that proprietary software creates giant monopolies (for support, expansion, value-added services etc), whereas GNU-like software opens up the markets, and creates entire ecosystems where independent vendors and companies provide services and support. 

Strong message about non-compromise and integrity. Governments and educational sector have no excuse not to promote and advocate GNU software. If you cannot have it your way, just walk away, do not compromise. Do not use proprietary closed-source software – boycott it. Do not buy it. Do not use it. Make your say. Make your code say which side are you on: do you want to share and give the freedom to the user, to the people? Or are you money-driven and greed-driven corporate career seeker? The talk uses many metaphors with lots of references to evil, good, personal choices and general personal life objectives. 

Final concluding remarks and discussion drags the meeting till 21:10. Final question by Andrew Trottman questioning the validity and motivation of the GNU model. Andrew argues that the availability of both, GNU-like and proprietary software offers more than just GNU-like software alone. Richard points out the potential for abuse, and the restrictions on basic freedoms that proprietary software causes. Not advocating any legal or formal restrictions – instead, appealing to the spirit and ethical values of individuals.

Strong message, with clear objectives. Somewhat idealised view on reality and human condition, with some steps and guidance as to how this might be changed. Focusing on government and legal mechanisms, preaching, motivating and educating the public. Perhaps that’s what needs to be done – informing people about it all and letting them to make their own decision. Strong political stance and insights into corporate politics. 

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