Reinventing freedom is a task for visionaries, or even prophets. But to be effective they have to be prophets with an activist edge.
Software is inherently easy to copy; indeed, to create the possibility of profit, it must be hidden by corporations behind walls of digital rights mechanisms that are then guarded by legal departments and courts. In pointing this out, Stallman points a finger at an irreconcilable divide in the digital age: those who want software to become the best software it could be by making it available to read, and change, and improve—and those who would guard it from tinkering, and make it available only to those who pay.
Richard Stallman would become one of the most obvious prophets of freedom in digital times: he was obsessed, determined, uncompromising, and deeply committed to ‘not being at someone else’s mercy’. Here, Stallman appears as a young enthusiast with a message so simple and obvious: software will be best when it is open to and freely available to be improved by anyone. In this clip, he has yet to be battered by those happy to compromise and those eager to profit from software hidden behind intellectual property rights. The light of the prophet, something Stallman would later partly become and also parody about himself, is in his eyes.
This short clip condenses an ethical dilemma that transcends software alone. Stallman’s point is applicable to information generally, though it is particularly true about digitized information. Why should information—that could be made available to all of us simultaneously without degradation or loss in value—be restricted to some and not be available to all? Why should we be downtrodden when the possibilities are so much brighter?
As Stallman became the prophet this clip hints at, he also became unpopular with many who saw him as too uncompromising. Even so, he was and is an inspiration. Hope may come from what we do, and many realized a hope for the information age by becoming part of the revolution in software Stallman played a prophetic role in helping to create Free Software—Gnu/Linux, Firefox, LibreOffice—and a new sense of what freedom could be.
Watch this clip again to witness freedom being reinvented.