Is Richard Stallman Mellowing?


Richard Stallman is sometimes presented as a kind of Old Testament prophet, hurling anathemas hither and thither (indeed, I've been guilty of this characterisation myself - well, he does *look* like one.) But just recently we've had a fascinating document that suggests that this is wrong – or that RMS is mellowing.

The piece goes by the unpromising name of “On Selling Exceptions to the GNU GPL”, and it's about that perennial favourite, software licensing:

When I co-signed the letter objecting to Oracle's planned purchase of MySQL (along with the rest of Sun), some free software supporters were surprised that I approved of the practice of selling license exceptions which the MySQL developers have used. They expected me to condemn the practice outright. This article explains what I think of the practice, and why.

And explain it he does, and with customary rigour. But what interests me here are not so much the licensing details, as some of Stallman's incidental comments. For example, the following section:

When I first heard of the practice of selling exceptions, I asked myself whether the practice is ethical. If someone buys an exception to embed a program in a larger proprietary program, he's doing something wrong (namely, making proprietary software). Does it follow that the developer that sold the exception is doing something wrong too?

If that implication is valid, it would also apply to releasing the same program under a noncopyleft free software license, such as the X11 license. That also permits such embedding. So either we have to conclude that it's wrong to release anything under the X11 license -- a conclusion I find unacceptably extreme -- or reject this implication. Using a noncopyleft license is weak, and usually an inferior choice, but it's not wrong.

Got that? “A conclusion I find unacceptably extreme”? And that's not all:

An idealistic campaign for freedom should not discriminate, so the FSF is committed to giving the same license to all users. The FSF never sells exceptions; whatever license or licenses we release a program under, that is available to everyone.

But we need not insist that companies follow that principle. I consider selling exceptions an acceptable thing for a company to do, and I will suggest it where appropriate as a way to get programs freed.

RMS being pragmatic, and accepting that not every company can be as idealistic as he is? I think I'll go and lie down for a while...

Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter or

"Recommended For You"

Of Open Source and Open Innovation Gran Canaria Desktop Summit: a Study in Contrasts