FSF promotes freedom with a closed Web site

The Free Software Foundation has launched a campaign against Microsoft denouncing its proprietary software...with a Web site that is also largely proprietary.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Silly season is upon us.

The Free Software Foundation is on the warpath against Microsoft's launch of Windows 7, as CNET's Ina Fried reports, denouncing Microsoft for "poisoning education," "invading privacy," and other evils.

The irony is that the Web site used to promote this latest rant uses a license that prohibits derivative works, a cardinal sin in Free Software Foundation theology.

The site uses the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 License, which allows people to copy and distribute a page, but not to actually modify and improve upon it ("No Derivative Works--You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work.")

This sounds reasonable to me, but has traditionally not sounded reasonable to the Free Software Foundation.

For example, foundation founder Richard Stallman was in Argentina on Wednesday and when mentioning Wikipedia, he suggested that the open-source ethos depends upon freedom of text/code:

Wikipedia's text is free. It is released under a free license. That is the aspect to me that makes it ethical.

The freedom to modify that text is an essential freedom for which the Free Software Foundation has spent decades fighting. It's the first freedom listed at the top of its site:

Freedom...as defined by the Free Software Foundation Free Software Foundation

But apparently it's not an essential freedom for its anti-Microsoft screeds.

I'm not a fan of Microsoft, but the Free Software Foundation's hypocrisy on this is galling. Its logic is also a bit wearing, as Download Squad notes. The Free Software Foundation wants to make lack of freedom the source for all ills. It's not. It's just a good start.

Against this sort of dogmatism is a much more rational response to competition with proprietary software: the Processing project's FAQ. Processing has been positioned by some as an open-source competitor to Flash, but Processing's developers refuse to be drawn in and respond:

We're not targeting the same audience Flash. If we wanted to make a Flash killer, we'd have set out to do that and our stated purpose would have been more specific (and we'd have more on the site about "Processing vs. Flash" in the competitive shootout sense... right now we just have information about how the syntax differs so that people can make the transition).

We could have saved a lot of time if we just wanted to build a better Flash. But as two people, do you really think we can or should bother competing with a company as large as Macromedia? Macrodobe? Does anyone really want a "better" Flash? We certainly don't, so that's not an interesting goal for us.

There are things that are always going to be better in Flash, and other types of work that will always be better in Processing. But fundamentally (and this cannot be emphasized enough), this is not an all-or-nothing game... We're talking about tools. Do people refuse to use pencils because pens exist? No, you just use them for different things, and for specific reasons. If Processing works for you, then use it. If not, don't. It's easy! It's free! You're not being forced to do anything.

How refreshing--that "reason" thing. It would be nice if the Free Software Foundation spent more time coding the changes it would like to see in the world, rather than writing to Fortune 500 companies to advocate they switch to Microsoft alternatives.

Put your code where your mouth is, Free Software Foundation. And make sure it's truly open to derivative works, while you're at it.

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