Some personal notes of (briefly) meeting Richard Stallman…

First up, this is just a collection of loose, personal observations and thoughts. Some of it may be of interest, and will hopefully be put into more careful context at a later date, but most of it is just for the benefit of clearing my head.

And also, no offense intended. To spoil the plot a bit: I thought mr. Stallman was quite a dick(Pun intended), but that’s allowed. It should be expected that artists and programmers don’t always share the same perspective on things, and I know I’m quite a dick myself sometimes(No pun). And a doofus.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Who is Stallman and why is he so important to me?

Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation in the 80’s, and developed GNU, later becoming GNU/Linux, known as Linux, the free and open operating system for computers. For me, when I in the late 90’s went from trying to understand creators rights to opposing copyright, his work more than anyone elses, including people like Lawrence Lessig, was influential in getting me to the understanding I have today. Not that free software and free art are the same, there are fundamental differences that should be considered, but the type of thought-processes that you find on GNU.org’s philosophy page led me to discover some thought-patterns of my own, and find out why I believe it is crucial that not only software be free, but also art.

So… context… yes… I was invited to Høyskolen i Oslo og Akershus to give an informal lunch-time lecture on comics and creative commons. I saw that friprog.no and nuug.no was organizing a talk by Richard Stallman on free software the same day, and I just had to grab the chance to get introduced to him. I sat through the lecture, drawing a sketch of him, asked him half a question in the questioning part, gave him the sketch and some of my books, and the organizers kindly invited me to participate in a dinner afterwords. Through the whole evening, I probably had half-a-dozen very brief interactions with him. I talked a lot more to his lovely wife/partner/something(me memory bad, sorry), about italian food and Norwegian society, so this post is in no way meant a thorough character-assassination. I don’t know Stallman, don’t claim to do.

But very quickly in the lecture I started to notice things that bothered me. I believe, stronger than ever, that Stallman is fundamentally right about free software, and his definition is complete(Unlike other definitions). And it is important to distinguish between truly free software and open-source. And we should really call Linux for GNU/Linux, as that is more correct. But there was a dogmatism in the lecture, that can not be healthy. Sure, free software is best. But open-source is a stepping stone towards totally free software. And who cares what it’s called? Yes, Stallman and Linus Torvalds might have reason to care, but for everyone else the distinction between the Linux kernel and GNU/Linux OS’s is utterly meaningless. I don’t even know what a kernel is!

And it all led me to this feeling that… This man, he’s said these things thousands of thousands times before. And he seems to be getting further and further away from his goal. The turn-out for the lecture was only about a third of the capacity of the room, and everyone seemed to be mostly in on the schtick. Stallman was preaching to a tiny choir.

Now, it’s not Stallman’s fault that the attendance was rather low. Probably you could get a lot more to come with proper promotion. But the troubling thing was that he was quickly alienating the choir. Not by his apparent dogmatism alone, but by not listening to his audience. At the end of the lecture, there was a round of question. As far as I can recollect, Stallman interrupted every single question before it was finished. Which is incredibly rude in two ways.

1. Yes, he may have heard 50% of the questions before. 75%. Even 90%. And get the answers right. But for those 10%, 25%, or more, where he got it wrong… That’s inexucable.

2. These people were not there to ask questions. They were there because they look up to Stallman, and want to present their ideas and opinions to him. And get him to shout “By Golly, you’re a genius!”. And when you have people that look up to you, the least you can do is hear them out, and THEN crush their dreams by pointing out that they’re wrong or that you simply disagree. Cutting them off might leave time for some more questions, but it also leaves a sour taste in everyones mouth. Even the ones that might have been persuaded by a more polite interaction. And this continued all through the question-round and through the dinner.

And yeah, in my book, that behaviour is just being a dick. It is a 100% understandable, and doesn’t mean that Stallman is a dick on a personal level. But as someone you look up to…  It reminded me of what I have to try to avoid. I’m way to fond of hearing myself speak, but when people look up to you it is a lot more important to listen.

But for me, there came a lot good out of the evening as well. Stallman interrupted me and labelled me an anti-copyright absolutist, which led me to try an examine my views. Am I an absolutist? No, I don’t think so. I want reform, and I want it to have a pretty high degree of freedom, but you can’t be inflexible. I don’t have all the answers, but I do think I understand something about art and that I’m more convinced than ever that it needs to be free. And until a just reform is achieved I hope I’m right in choosing to give my art away under a very absolutist license(Demanding only attribution in return) instead of a ShareAlike license or others that force the end-user to use the art in a specific way. Be an absolutist in action, by not in mind. Or some such.

Another brief interaction was about Stallman’s idea of copyleft, and why he thought art was different that software and why a law shouldn’t open for derivative works of art even if sharing is allowed. Which led me to think deeper about the nature of art, why specifically the need to freely produce derivative work is important.

My last insight of the evening was perhaps the most important. I said to Stallman that I used the CC-Attribution license in order to for the end user to have the choice of how to use it so that it is easier to convince people to use it. To which he interrupted “Why would I try to convince people to use my stuff?”. I’m not quite sure how he meant it, since I think that his whole talk was based on trying to convince people to, if not use his software, at least use his definition of free software. But for artists, the use of the work is directly tied to the value of the artist himself. The more general the use of my work becomes, the more unique I become.

Which, logically, means that I’ve been attacking the issue of spreading copyright awareness the wrong way. Getting people to use my work will not really convince other artists to release their work freely. Because the more my work spreads, the more they can say “Oh well, that’s just HIM, I can’t do that!”. Which is the exact reaction everyone had to Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails flirtations with free sharing.

In order to convince artist to use free licenses, I need to start with the tools. Right now, I’m using mostly proprietary tools to make free art. Which makes the significance of the free art null. To convince other artists, I need to start by embracing free tools, use them to make top quality free art, and teach others to do the same through my workshops and teaching-gigs. And then convince other teaching artists to do the same, since the advantages of free software for education is abundantly clear. And through education and skill, the ideals of free art can grow.

Which would also help free software. Free software will only be used if it is superior to proprietary. And to get superior, it needs to be used by the best people, to give the best feedback.

Or in more populist terms… How did Apple manage to get where they are today? First, they attacked the producers, making Mac the best tool for the job. Then they targeted education, getting young people dependent on their tools, and then they sprang the whole iThingie on us.

Anyhow… Too long blogpost, maaaan.

A conclusion… It doesn’t really matter if Richard Stallman was sort of a dick. I’m sure he’s a darling in the right circumstances. I can’t even imagine what it’s like to have been fighting the good fight for so long. What matters, to me, is that I’ve been awfully wrong in how I do everything.

Which means, starting as soon as this batch of deadlines is over(A week or two, tops), I will GNU/Linux distributions on all my computer, and learn how to use freer, if not free, software. Which means less ability to do jobs for a while, and scary, scary times. But necessary.

Right now I’m thinking about using Dream Studio, but all help in choosing a GNU/Linux-distro is appreciated.

I will try to document my learning process as far as possible. I will also try to blog about some of the insights I’ve had lately, more clearly. Like derative works, and the importance of teachers, and how the end-products work. Some day. Soon. But anyhow…

I’m closer than before to figuring this shit out.

Thanks, Dick!

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15 March, 2013

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