Richard Stallman and the Connotations of Language: Page 2

Posted November 26, 2007

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

(Page 2 of 3)

At least two of the frames that Stallman sets in the essay will be familiar to many. The first is that a distinction should be made between "hacker" -- one who is an enthusiastic tinkerer -- and "cracker" -- one who breaks into computer systems illegally.

The second is the suggestion that Linux should be called "GNU/Linux" to acknowledge Free Software Foundation's GNU project's contributions to the operating system. But, even more so than the hacker/cracker distinction, this is an old lecture that most readers will have long ago made up their minds either to accept or reject.

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More interesting are Stallman's extensions of this old argument. For instance, he suggests that a LAMP stack -- a solution that involves the use of Linux, Apache, MySQL, and PHP -- should be abbreviated as "GLAMP." Similarly, he urges readers not to use "closed" as a synonym for "proprietary," arguing that it is an antonym for "open source" and excludes any mention of the related but philosophically distinct free software. "Open" as a description for free software is decried in the same way. What is interesting here is less Stallman's long-familiar stance than the way he demonstrates how thoroughly particular frames -- here, the use of Linux and referring to the entire movement as open source -- are not confined to a single term, but proliferate into other ones.

At other times, Stallman sets his own frame while debunking existing ones. Digital Rights Management, a term that refers to lockdown technologies, he suggests, should be called instead "Digital Restrictions Management," "Digital Restrictions Malware" or "handcuffware." In much the same way, he suggests that Trusted Computing, which allows third-parties access to a computer system, should be called "treacherous computing" and "intellectual property" should be divided into individual issues, such as copyright, patents, and trademarks to avoid conflating very different issues. In such instances, Stallman is analyzing phrases that are more or less intentionally misleading -- and his sometimes comic suggestions show the power of humor in debunking such frames.

Escaping frames

However, most of the essay is devoting to analyses intended to help readers from falling into non-free software ways of thinking. He analyzes several terms, ranging from "market," "vendor" and "software industry," to referring only to a computer with Windows installed as a "PC" as excluding all reference to free software. And he is quite right, of course: the free software movement is not about markets or vendors, and, while not innately hostile to business, is not primarily an industry, either. These are everyday terms, yet, after reading Stallman's common sense comments, you may very well realize that they are not as value free as you assumed.

Perhaps the high points of the essay are Stallman's comments about terms related to file-sharing and copyright. Once he points out the facts, it seems obvious that referring to creative works as content implies that they "are an interchangeable commodity whose purpose is to fill a box and make money," or that referring to artists as "creators" is an effort "by publishers to elevate the authors' moral stature above that of ordinary people, to justify increased copyright power that the publishers can exercise in the name of the authors."

Even more interesting is Stallman's comment on the terms used to refer to illegal file-sharing. Even if a download is illegal or immoral, it is ridiculous – once Stallman makes you think of it – to equate that act as "ethically equivalent to attacking ships on the high seas, kidnapping and murdering the people on them."

In the same vein, here are Stallman's comments in full on describing copyright infringement as "theft":

Copyright apologists often use words like "stolen" and "theft" to describe copyright infringement. At the same time, they ask us to treat the legal system as an authority on ethics: if copying is forbidden, it must be wrong.
So it is pertinent to mention that the legal system – at least in the US – rejects the idea that copyright infringement is theft. Copyright apologists are making an appeal to authority and misrepresenting what authority says.
The idea that laws decide what is right or wrong is mistaken in general. Laws are, at their best, an attempt to achieve justice; to say that laws define justice or ethical conduct is turning things upside down.
Continued: One point Stallman omits

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