Richard Stallman and the Connotations of Language: Page 3

Posted November 26, 2007

Bruce Byfield

Bruce Byfield

(Page 3 of 3)

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Above everything else, what Stallman provides in "Some Confusing or Loaded Words and Phrases that are Worth Avoiding" is clarity. You may not agree with the frames that he attempts to create, but, after reading the essay, you are not left in doubt about what he is doing and why. Equally, in debunking other people's frames, Stallman shows exactly how overloaded with values they are. Either way, the result can only be greater clarity of thought.

The one major point that Stallman omits is how practical the use of alternatives might be. You may want to avoid the term "intellectual property" as a sloppy conflation of ideas, but, in my experience, when talking about these ideas to a lawyer, using the term is practically unavoidable. In fact, I seem to recall even Eben Moglen, Stallman's chief collaborator on the last two versions of the GNU General Public License, referring to intellectual property – although he did sound embarrassed.

Moreover, in some cases, using alternatives risks being misunderstood. From one perspective, "treacherous computing" is more accurate than "trusted computing," and "digital restrictions management" more accurate than "digital rights management." Yet, if you use these alternatives, you risk being not misunderstood and appearing ignorant or juvenile as well. That's why I usually refer to "so-called digital rights management" rather than use any of Stallman's suggestions -- this way, I use the familiar term while making clear my skepticism about its accuracy.

Such issues aside, what Stallman's essay offers is clarity of thought on a number of issues that most of us never stop to consider. After reading it, even if you continue to use the terms he denigrates, you can hardly help but be aware of the positions you are endorsing with your choices. These are not new lessons, but, by bringing them to free software and related topics, Stallman makes a point that can never be made too many times.

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