Software Freedom Day (Party!)

by Sebastian Benthall

Last Saturday was Software Freedom Day, and the New York City celebration was held at the familiar Lime Group roof deck/offices in downtown Manhattan.

The event was inspiring, largely because of the presence and words of luminaries. Eben Moglen offered a benediction for the event that combined optimistic gaiety with a sense of historical scope. The gist? (paraphrased:) “We have been fighting for this for a long time. And we are going to win. And to win you just have to keep doing what you are all doing now. So I have nothing to say but to say it’s a lovely day and let’s have a wonderful party.”

Eric S. Raymond was also there, though less noticeably. If I had to guess I would say he was deliberately negotiating a tension between obscurity (he mentioned at some point having “gone stealth”) and wanting to be recognized. He succeeded on both fronts, with a shocking number of people not knowing who he was, but with several of those who did crowding in around he and Moglen as they discussed the history and future of the movement.

Several interesting topics were discussed while I listened in on the conversation.

Medical Devices

Moglen gave an account of why the GPL 3 license was delayed for so long beyond his self-imposed deadline for it. The completion of the license was hindered by Richard Stallman‘s insistence that the license should include prescriptions against the use of proprietary code in implanted medical devices. I have no idea how that prescription could be accomplished within the legal context of the license–perhaps I heard wrong. Or maybe I didn’t. Moglen was apparently convinced that such a clause was unenforceable in court and kept that language out of the GPL.

What I found interesting is that while normally I find the Stallman-esque deontological arguments for free software pretty crude and uncompelling, the thought of proprietary technology in my body does send a chill down my spine. It’s the sort of thing that too easily unfolds into a grim dystopia, at least in ones imagination.


Apple was discussed at length, almost to the exclusion of Microsoft, which was mentioned only to acknowledge its decline. From where I was standing it sounded like Steve Jobs was believed to be the biggest threat to the free software movement around. Between Apple’s recent rise in popularity and his association with Disney, he is now a poster boy for the sinister success of unfree intellectual property.

There was real fear here, and the devil was in the details. Moglen explained how Apple’s use of LLVM as an alternative compiler to the GCC represented a threat to the movement. If I followed correctly, this is due to the fact that LLVM has a more permissive, “BSD-style” license.

At this point, ESR, true to his reputation, began to object: What was wrong with the more permissive license? What’s wrong with BSD licensing? Isn’t that open source? Fears and scars of FSF dogmatism were inflamed.

The problem is patents. LLVM’s license allows more room for Apple to use software patents than the GCC’s licenses do. And Apple now has the opportunity to maneuver themselves into a place where through those patents they can dominate the software that can be run on their machines. Those bastards!

EDIT 8-24-08:
Commenter Owen (see below) points out that LLVM’s license actually stipulates better guarantees about the use of patents than i originally thought. It’s quite possible that I misunderstood the discussion on Saturday, or that somebody there was misinformed about the LLVM’s license.


It was a great party, and the conversation there made me feel maybe for the first time like I was playing a part in a real political movement that had originated decades ago, even though I’ve been enthusiastic about open source principles for years and now write free software for my day job.

What I found both entirely appropriate but somewhat distant, however, was how narrow it seemed like the struggle being celebrated that day was. It was 100% a day about free software, and the discussions plumbed the depth of that topic without reaching out to related areas of free culture, the science commons, net neutrality, etc.

Lately, I’ve been giving a lot of thought to the broader social and economic consequences of open source software, and it has occurred to me that its import for me is embedded in a network of other values and ideas that often require an abstraction from the particulars of the software movement. It was refreshing and grounding to be closer to that point of origin for an evening.