About six months ago, in 2020-09-161, Richard Stallman, a.k.a. "rms", resigned from FSF (the Free Software Foundation, maintainer of the GPL family of licenses) with not-so-great headlines. A week ago, in 2021-03-22, rms told the world that he is back.

And now we have a huge mess. Again.

First of all...

Let me say this first and foremost: No one is denying the works of rms. No one is denying that taking a huge undertaking of writing a whole compiler to produce an open source operating system isn't without merit. All those are recognizable and show a lot of effort for the greater good.

But then...

There are allegations coming from all sides that rms seems to harass people (mostly women), some people feeling uncomfortable with his words and acting; and we also have people saying that it is not all that, that there is a "lynching" going around (I'm not kidding) and general support for him.

"Is he a bad or good person?" is not a question I intent answer here. This is not the part that annoys me in this whole discussion.

Due his strong opinions and general complains about his presence, he decided to resign from the FSF, the body responsible for the GPL license and everything related to it, from keeping it active to helping developers with legal situations with the license.

(Personally, while the linked article points that his resignation was in part for the news about people using the "services" of Jeffrey Epstein of young girls for sex, I've read that rms support for Marvin Minsky, cited in Epstein list of clients, was not "yeah, sex with kids is alright!" but actually "I think Minsky was convinced that the girls weren't underage and forced into sex, so he was unknowingly part of it" -- again, that's my understanding. And only on that point, just to be clear.)

But, in the end, that's what's pointed as his resignation.

And then...

In 2021-03-22, rms appeared in an online event, LibrePlanet to announce that he's back into the board of the FSF. There wasn't an official statement about it, it was like a huge surprise for everyone.

In the follow days, RedHat, FSFE (Free Software Foundation Europe) and a lot other companies and groups removed their support for the FSF.

But...

The first problem I see with it all is that the FSF, while promoting the openness of software, by securing a license that allows anyone to have access to the code, a license that promotes the evolution of code in the open, suddenly took a closed decision behind closed doors without consulting anyone outside the board.

It seems weird promoting openness when they are closed in their own decisions.

Also...

The second problem is the content of the announcement.

Again, without ever getting into "he said that" "he didn't said that" matter, one must recognize what they said that could cause people to revolt. There wasn't any words about "Look, thinks I said were taken out of context" or even a "I've chosen words poorly and that hurt people, and I promise I'll take care of that in the future"2.

I believe that if there was any mention of that, the current revolt wouldn't be so strong. Not saying "There wouldn't be any", but less aggressive. Heck, if there was the acknowledgment that he learnt why there was a revolt in the first place, this time it would be a lot less painful.

And finally...

The third problem is the current state of free software. No, I don't mean "WE ARE BEING SWALLOWED BY CORPORATE GREED", although that's partially true, but we are seeing the use of "kind-of-open-source-but-not-quite" license, a.k.a. "source available" license, like the SSPL being recently adopted by the Elastic Corporation.

While resources from FSF could be used to dispel any FUD or misconceptions about GPL licenses, we now focus on "Should he be in the board?". The board even had to engineer a staff member to act as director and other measures of openness, when there should be a focus on making sure "source available" licenses don't spread too much.

In conclusion...

I just have one question floating my head right now: Does anyone need to be on the board to actually help the FSF? Imagine if instead of "I'm back to the board of FSF", rms announcement actually was "I'm back helping the FSF promote free software". Sure, some people would complain, but you can see that even them would think "Yeah, but he's not part of the FSF." And life would move on, and the FSF could focus on the GPL and other licenses, and helping companies not get trapped into "source-available license is our only solution" and so on.

So why in the board? Isn't there any other position where rms can't help the FSF? I pretty much doubt that, but someone (or someones) decided that wasn't enough; board or burst.

"Since he's there, just leave him there" as a way to quell the discussion is no way to deal with this. Unless we see open discussion on why -- and, for morbid curiosity, who -- rms is back on the board, the whole point of the FSF as promoters of openness feels shaken to me, personally.

Post-script

One of the easiest way to make a project crumble is to have heroes. "If this person takes a vacation, the system will crash", "The whole success of this project is due that person" are very bad signs in a project.

For example, when Guido von Rossum decided to resign from his BDFL position, the whole Python community scrabbled to figure out a way to move along -- mostly 'cause the community put a lot of pressure on him because it thought the only way to move forward was with Guido at the helm. The Rust community, on the other hand, focus a lot of taking this image of "This is the project of this person" by giving small parts to a lot of people: I know there is a person leading the "better error messages" part, I know there is a person leading the "async" part (although I'm seeing a movement on the lead of that part), I know there is person leading the "Rust in Embedded environments" part and so on. If any one of those resigns, I don't feel like the Rust ecosystem is in danger; it is only part of it, and a substitute can be found 'cause that person was not "the hero" of that part.

That need for heroes seems to be part of the problem with FSF: With rms out, there was no hero in tow to promote the project. Because nobody actually tried to move out of rms shadow before his resignation, the leadership ended with a vacuum that nobody filled -- or felt the need to fill. That was the moment to push small projects, assign several names (maybe a handful of names) into those projects and show that the FSF found a better way to move. But because they never tried to innovate, they seems to have get stuck into "finding another hero" and decided to call the old one back.

Free Software shouldn't be synonymous of rms.


1

Well, screw this, I don't want to use the Imperial format for dates and I don't want to confuse people that use the Imperial format, so let's go with the ISO format and confuse the world.

2

That isn't that freaking hard, people! I've been called out for using "guys", which I responded that I understood what they meant, would take more care in the future, and thanked for their reply. From that point, instead of "guys", I use "people" and neutral pronouns. And it doesn't freaking hurt at all (although it is really hard when my native language -- Portuguese -- have only gendered pronouns, but I try).