GNU Founder Richard Stallman Speaks Out on Valve Steam

Free Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman has not traditionally been one to compromise when it comes to software freedom.

Christopher Tozzi, Contributing Editor

July 31, 2012

3 Min Read
GNU Founder Richard Stallman Speaks Out on Valve Steam

Picture of Richard StallmanFree Software Foundation founder Richard Stallman has not traditionally been one to compromise when it comes to software freedom. But in a recent post on the GNU website, the pragmatic side of Stallman seemed to emerged when he admitted that having more proprietary games available for Linux might not be totally, completely bad. Has RMS grown mellow in his late-middle age? Or I am just reading him too optimistically?

If you’re a Linux user interested in playing real games — not open source clones of Asteroids and Super Mario Bros. created by freshman CS majors — you’ve probably heard the news that Valve promised last spring to release a native Linux version of its popular Steam game engine. The move promises to bring an array of professional-quality gaming options to Linux users, who currently enjoy only very few offerings of that class.

So far, the Steam client for Linux has yet to appear. Nonetheless, Valve won further affection from the Linux community recently when one of its cofounders, Gabe Newell, denounced Windows 8 as a “catastrophe” and reaffirmed the importance of investing in open source platforms.

RMS on Games

It was apparently in reaction to these developments that Stallman recently published a short essay titled, “Nonfree DRM’d Games on GNU/Linux: Good or Bad?” Of course, you don’t need to read the body to know whether RMS considers nonfree, DRM-enabled games good. He absolutely does not.

But in a reflection of his pragmatic side — which apparently exists somewhere beneath those long tufts of facial hair — Stallman also acknowledged that “this development can do both harm and good.” Although running closed-source games is antithetical to the values of the Free Software Foundation, he argued, doing so might at least encourage more people to switch from proprietary operating systems to open source ones.

He went on, of course, to caution that any Linux distribution that actively supports Valve’s nonfree games will be serving the cause of evil by “teach[ing] users that the point is not freedom” and so on. Naturally, he doesn’t want anyone going out of their way to endorse Steam as long as it remains closed-source.

Nonetheless, it’s a pretty big deal for a man like Stallman, who has spent most of his career absolutely refusing to budge a millimeter in his commitment to Free Software purism, to admit that there can be an upside to expanding the availability of nonfree software for Linux users. There might be room for compromise in his heart after all.

Given these echoes of pragmatism from RMS, let’s hope other GNU ideologues might follow suit and recognize that, in an imperfect world, we’ll never be able to build an open source operating system totally devoid of nonfree code that’s actually usable for most people. That would be a fantastic thing to have if it were feasible to achieve in practice, but it’s not. Instead, the open source community can better expend its resources trying to make Linux as viable a platform for as many users as possible, which might mean occasionally welcoming nonfree entities such as Valve into the open source channel.

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About the Author(s)

Christopher Tozzi

Contributing Editor

Christopher Tozzi started covering the channel for The VAR Guy on a freelance basis in 2008, with an emphasis on open source, Linux, virtualization, SDN, containers, data storage and related topics. He also teaches history at a major university in Washington, D.C. He occasionally combines these interests by writing about the history of software. His book on this topic, “For Fun and Profit: A History of the Free and Open Source Software Revolution,” is forthcoming with MIT Press.

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