It’s the argument I would have accepted from Stallman, actually. But that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily right – or the best one he could have made.
I’ve expressed here before that I vigorously support the rights of artists to get paid for their work, and I regard software the same way. My work in that realm has been relatively slight, but it’s been significant enough to convince me that the people who develop the ideas and execute the specific programming behind even the simplest applications deserve to make whatever they can from their efforts. What they do is hard, exacting work, which requires years of training, study, and practice, giving them a little money in return – and the ability to specify (within certain restrictions) how that software may or may not be used or distributed does not seem that outlandish to me.
As Linux has shown time and time again over the last 20 years, with even the best free software, you typically get what you pay for: Half-realised concepts, poor user interfaces, and support that’s either non-existent or completely relegated to a community that may or may not be able to help you with whatever issue you’re facing. More elaborate software packages (Windows, Office, most games) have tons of research, testing, and design muscle behind them. They’re so easy, and in many cases fun, to use because the companies have the money to ensure they’re produced that way. That involves a lot of people and a substantial investment, and I have no problem with that being protected.
That said, I appreciate Stallman’s perspective, and how vocal he has been about it for a long time. He’s very much the type to practice what he preaches, and he’s been working to make software more open for decades. Even if I don’t agree with every point he makes, I absolutely think it’s a discussion worth having, and that the back and forth is, at its essence, generally good for the free software community. And, in an ideal world, Linux would be the completely free, completely open vehicle through which he could realise his dreams.
Of course, we don’t live in that world. In our world, the one in which Linux is estimated to have less than 2 per cent market share, such admirable idealism is not going to have the desired effect. It may even turn off many of the people who could potentially be interested in what free and open source software has to offer.
The fact is that the people most likely to find Stallman’s argument powerful are those who are already committed to his cause. Everyone else needs to be convinced. And the only way that’s going to happen is if free software advocates entice them with something they already know they want and like – a type of digital gateway drug that will bring them into the fold. No, it probably won’t work as well as people like Stallman might hope, but it’s more likely to have a lasting impact than saying – through either word or implication – that people need to settle for inferior products. Which, if we’re being honest, is where Linux remains on most fronts, but especially with games.
Steam may encourage people to use paid software on Linux, but it will also force them to expand their horizons by experiencing first-hand what the operating system is capable of. Linux has a reputation of being limiting and difficult to use, and if it’s not entirely unearned, this could go a long way to helping the community prove how much the OS has evolved and improved in recent years.
Get enough people on board – by whatever method – and software developers might see the value in Linux, and be willing to devote more of their time and resources to creating software that will work with it. When that happens, everyone benefits. But the chances that it will ever happen when Linux commands as little public attention as it now does are slim at best. And if it has to be forever constrained in the ways Stallman suggests, the chances are excellent that it’s not going to happen at all.
To his credit, Stallman obviously understands this to some degree. He goes on to say in his piece that “if you’re going to use these games, you’re better off using them on GNU/Linux rather than on Microsoft Windows,” but it ultimately amounts to little more than a grudging endorsement of the lesser-of-two-evils variety. He continues: “If you want to promote freedom, please take care not to talk about the availability of these games on GNU/Linux as support for our cause.”
Freedom, as they say, isn’t free. There’s always a cost. For Linux that cost might be, at least temporarily, opening the doors to paid, closed software just to prove to people the possibilities of the platform. Stallman’s goal of ultimate freedom by way of Linux may be attainable, even within his lifetime. But it will never come to fruition as long as stalwarts like Stallman only emphasise their devotion to outfitting Linux with a different kind of chain.