Eric Raymond -- Shut Up And Show Them The Code
Jun 28, 1999, 15:51 (68 Talkback[s])
(Other stories by Eric S. Raymond)
Desktop-as-a-Service Designed for Any Cloud ? Nutanix Frame
[ The opinions expressed by authors on Linux Today are their
own. They speak only for themselves and not for Linux Today. ] --
By Eric S.
Slashdot posting published today, RMS distances himself from
the Open Source movement because (he says) we avoid talking about
"freedom, about principle, about the rights that computer users are
He's right. We do avoid that. But not because we don't care
about "freedom", "principle" or "rights". Speaking for myself, I
trust that anybody who's ever heard me speak or read my writings on
the First or
knows that I am quite passionate and vocal about freedom and
rights; like RMS, I defend them even when they are unpopular with
my audience. Other Open Source advocates don't seem to me to be any
slower than I to speak the language of "freedom" and "rights" when
they judge it is appropriate.
But "when they judge it is appropriate" is a very important
qualifier. There are two different kinds of reasons an open-source
advocate might avoid speaking about RMS's `freedom'; either
disagreement with his goals, or a judgment that doing so is
ineffective, is bad tactics.
The difference is important, and this is where RMS misrepresents
what we are about. He would have you believe that the FSF and OSI
have diverged over vast matters of principle, when in fact the OSI
(and the Open Source movement as a whole) is carefully designed to
be able to include people with beliefs like RMS's.
The Open Source Initiative does not have a position for or
against RMS's goals. Please don't take my word for this; go look at
our advocacy materials on the Open Source website, especially
the part in the FAQ where it says "Open Source is a marketing
program for free software".
Now it is true that some individuals associated with OSI
occasionally argue with some of RMS's goals and principles (and one
of those individuals is me). But the OSI is a big-tent
organization; we have never condemned RMS's principles, and never
will -- because we don't need to!
The real disagreement between OSI and FSF, the real axis of
discord between those who speak of "open source" and "free
software", is not over principles. It's over tactics and rhetoric.
The open-source movement is largely composed not of people who
reject RMS's ideals, but rather of people who reject his
Is this justified? Well -- consider the 180-degree turnaround in
press and mainstream perception that has taken place in the last
fourteen months, since many people in our tribe started pushing the
same licenses and the same code we used to call "free software"
under the "open source" banner.
Where we used to be ignored and dismissed, we are now praised
and respected. The same press that used to dismiss "free software"
as a crackpot idea now falls over itself writing laudatory articles
about "open source". And the same corporate titans who dismissed
RMS as a `communist' are lining up to pour money and effort into
open-source development. Our market share and mind share have both
zoomed to a level that would have seemed the stuff of delirious
fancy as recently as January of last year.
Have all the opinion leaders and executives who have turned
around suddenly seen the pure light of the GNU manifesto? No;
instead, they point to the work of Open Source advocates to explain
OSI's tactics *work*. That's the easy part of the lesson. The
hard part is that the FSF's tactics *don't work*, and never did. If
RMS's rhetoric had been effective outside the hacker community,
we'd have gotten where we are now five or ten years sooner and OSI
would have been completely unnecessary (and I could be writing
code, which I'd much rather be doing than this...).
None of this takes anything away from RMS's prowess as a
programmer or his remarkable effectiveness at mobilizing other
hackers to do good work. Emacs and gcc and the GNU code base are an
absolutely essential part of our toolkit and our cultural
inheritance, for which RMS deserves every praise (which is why I
led a standing ovation to him at last LinuxWorld after observing
that "without RMS, none of us would be here today"). But as an
evangelist to the mainstream, he's been one fifteen-year long
It's important for all of us hackers to be clear about that,
because RMS's rhetoric is very seductive to the kind of people we
are. We hackers are thinkers and idealists who readily resonate
with appeals to "principle" and "freedom" and "rights". Even when
we disagree with bits of his program, we want RMS's rhetorical
*style* to work; we think it ought to work; we tend to be puzzled
and disbelieving when it fails on the 95% of people who aren't
wired like we are.
So when RMS insists that we talk about "computer users' rights",
he's issuing a dangerously attractive invitation to us to repeat
old failures. It's one we should reject -- not because his
principles are wrong, but because that kind of language, applied to
software, simply does not persuade anybody but us. In fact, it
confuses and repels most people outside our culture.
RMS's best propaganda has always been his hacking. So it is for
all of us; to the rest of the world outside our little tribe, the
excellence of our software is a *far* more persuasive argument for
openness and freedom than any amount of highfalutin appeal to
abstract principles. So the next time RMS, or anybody else, urges
you to "talk about freedom", I urge you to reply "Shut up and show
them the code."
(Note: This essay may be freely redistributed. HTML is available