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Laudatio uitgesproken door prof. dr. Jacques Tiberghien

Laudatio Richard Stallman

Ladies and Gentlemen,

In the second half of the 19th century, most industrialized countries introduced the concept of intellectual property in their legislation as a means to stimulate scientific and artistic creativity and, through cultural progress, enhance society. Nowadays, intellectual property laws have become a major playground in corporate strategy, and it is not exceptional that they are used to support corporate greed at the expense of innovation, creativity, public health and societal wellbeing.

About 20 years ago, Richard M. Stallman (he himself tends to use the RMS acronym), then a researcher at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology, realized that the software industry was, due to a short sighted use of intellectual property laws, taking a course that would be detrimental to both society at large and the computer industry itself, even if it would enable a few individuals to create gigantic fortunes.

The dominant business model for software consists in the development of programs in secrecy and the sale of licenses to use versions of these programs that are only readable by machines, not by humans. This means that the buyer has to blindly trust the vendor and is entirely dependent on him for any changes. By means of software patents, large corporations even try to prevent the independent development of better programs and jeopardize academic research in software sciences by prohibiting people to study and to extend freely the patented state of the art.

RMS proposed another model, based upon the mandatory publication of human readable code and licenses allowing every user to improve and extend the software, provided that such improvements and extensions are equally available to other users. In addition he promoted, through the Free Software Foundation, the development of a large base of high quality programs that would start and enable a worldwide cooperative effort to develop free software. RMS himself started the GNU suite of free programming tools and others built on his work by contributing highly acclaimed products such as the Linux operating system, the Apache web server or the Open Office suite.

Most programmers love this model as truly creative people consider visibility of their work more important than financial rewards, especially if they go to the shareholders of their employers. Adding locally needed features to well-known software and publishing them for use by other people with similar needs is much more intellectually rewarding than trying to work around undocumented obscure features.

And, in fact, the employers benefit also, as instead of paying costly licenses, they pay programmers who get most of their software for free and only have to tailor it precisely to the local needs. All large-scale studies show that in actual business cases, the adoption of a free and open software model has significantly reduced the total cost of data processing while improving job satisfaction.

Having lived for almost forty years in a community whose first priority is intellectual independence, I would like to conclude this laudatio, by quoting the municipality of Munich which said that the decision to switch to open software was "a matter of principle, the municipality wanted to control its technological destiny. It did not wish to place the functioning of government in the hands of a commercial vendor with proprietary standards which is accountable to shareholders rather than to citizens."

Thank you Richard for providing us with guidance and the tools for staying independent in computer science research and in our everyday data processing.