[Top][All Lists]

[Date Prev][Date Next][Thread Prev][Thread Next][Date Index][Thread Index]

A new article by Richard Stallman

From: Rob Musial
Subject: A new article by Richard Stallman
Date: Mon, 5 Oct 2020 16:25:42 -0400
User-agent: Mozilla/5.0 (X11; Linux x86_64; rv:68.0) Gecko/20100101 Thunderbird/68.11.0

*Read and share at

  A new article by Richard Stallman:
                Should Rockets Have Only Free Software?
                    Free Software and Appliances


                Should Rockets Have Only Free Software?
                    Free Software and Appliances

Could there be a rocket that is totally free software?  Should we
demand that SpaceX liberate the software in its satellite launching
rockets?  I don't think the person who asked me this was serious, but
answering that question may illuminate similar issues about the sorts
of products people really buy today.

As far as I know, software as such is not capable of generating
thrust.  A rocket is necessarily principally a physical device.  But
it may include computerized control and telemetry systems, and thus

If someone offered to sell me a rocket, I would treat it like any
other appliance.  Consider, for instance, a thermostat.  If it
contains software to be modified, all the software in it needs to be
free.  If, however, the software in it need not ever be altered, and
it communicates _only_ through some limited interface, such as buttons
on the control panel, a TV remote control, or a USB interface with a
fixed set of commands, I would not consider it crucial what is inside
the thermostat: whether it contains a special-purpose chip, or a
processor running code, makes no direct difference to me as user.  If
it does contain code, it might as well have a special chip instead, so
I don't need to care which it is.

I would object if that thermostat sent someone data about my
activities, regardless of how that was implemented.  Once again,
special chip or special code makes no direct difference.  Free
software in it could give me a way to turn off the surveillance, but
that is not the only way.  Another is by disconnecting its digital
communication antennas, or switching them off.

If the rocket contains software, releasing that as free software can
be a contribution to the community, and we should appreciate that
contribution -- but that is a different issue.  Such release also
makes it possible for people who have bought the rockets to work on
improving the software in them, though the irreversible nature of many
rocket failures may discourage tinkering.

Given the experience of Tesla cars, which are full of surveillance and
tracking malware that Tesla can change but the owner can't, I suppose
SpaceX rockets have that too.  If someday rockets are sold like today's
cars and tractors, proprietary software in them would be unjust
and it would probably be malware (  If the
manufacturer could install modified software in it but the owner could
not, that too would be unjust.  People are starting to recognize this:
look at the right-to-repair movement, which demands only the beginning
of these freedoms (much less than freeing the car's software) and
nonetheless faces a hard fight.

However, I don't think SpaceX sells rockets; I think it provides the
service of launching payloads in its own rockets.  That makes the
issue totally different: if you are a customer, you're not operating
the rocket; SpaceX is doing that.

The rocket that SpaceX uses is not like your own car or van, or even a
car or van leased to you.  Rather, it's comparable to a moving
company's van that is, for the moment, transporting your books and
furniture to your specified destination.  It is the moving company
that deserves control over the software in that van -- not the
customer of the moment.

It makes sense to treat the job of transporting your things to Outer
Mongolia, or to outer space, as a service because the job is mostly
self-contained and mostly independent of the customer ("mostly" does
not mean "absolutely" or "100%"), so the instructions for the job are
simple (take these boxes to address A by date D).

But there is one kind of activity which should never be treated as a
service: private computational activity.  That's because a private
computational activity is exactly what you could do on your own
computer in freedom, given suitable free software.

When a program's task is to do computing for you, you are entitled to
demand control over what it does and how, not just that it obey your
orders as it interprets them.  You are entitled, in other words, to
use your own copy of a free program, running on a computer you

No wonder there are companies that would like you to cede control over
your computing activities to them, by labeling those activities as
"services" to be done on their servers with programs that they
control.  Even things as minutely directed by the user as text
editing!  This is a scheme to get you to substitute their power for
your freedom.  We call that "Service as a Software
Substitute", SaaSS for short (see,
and we reject it.

For instance, imagine a hypothetical SpaceX Smart Spaceship, which as
a "service" wants to know all about your business so SpaceX servers
can decide for you what cargoes to buy and sell on which planets.
That planning service would be SaaSS -- therefore a dis-service.
Instead of using that dis-service, you should do that planning with
your copy of free software on your own computer.

SpaceX and others could then legitimately offer you the
non-computational service of transporting cargoes, and you could use
it sometimes; or you could choose some other method, perhaps to buy a
spaceship and operate it yourself.

Copyright 2020 Richard Stallman
Released under Creative Commons Attribution Nonderivatives 4.0

reply via email to

[Prev in Thread] Current Thread [Next in Thread]