Monday, March 23rd, 2009

Richard Stallman: Free the Javascript

Category: Web20

Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation, warns against the “trap” of running web apps whose Javascript is not licensed.

Most web apps have source code that is “open” as far as being available in source code form (unless it’s obfuscated/compressed/generated). Indeed, this openness is a major factor in the rapid growth in our understanding of Ajax; formerly obscure tricks and techniques could be studied in their full visible source code glory, and patterns could be systematically mined from the huge corpus of real-world Javascript code out there. However, most of the Javascript code in web apps assumes a conventional copyright license, and Stallman’s complaint is that it should instead be issued under free software licenses.

Stallman suggests that free Javascript licenses should be one of the features of open web standards:

A strong movement has developed that calls for web sites to communicate only through formats and protocols that are free (some say “open”); that is to say, whose documentation is published and which anyone is free to implement. With the presence of programs in web pages, that criterion is necessary, but not sufficient. Javascript itself, as a format, is free, and use of Javascript in a web site is not necessarily bad. However, as we’ve seen above, it also isn’t necessarily ok. When the site transmits a program to the user, it is not enough for the program to be written in a documented and unencumbered language; that program must be free, too. “Only free programs transmitted to the user” must become part of the criterion for proper behavior by web sites.

Silently loading and running non-free programs is one among several issues raised by “web applications”. The term “web application” was designed to disregard the fundamental distinction between software delivered to users and software running on the server. It can refer to a specialized client program running in a browser; it can refer to specialized server software; it can refer to a specialized client program that works hand in hand with specialized server software. The client and server sides raise different ethical issues, even if they are so closely integrated that they arguably form parts of a single program. This article addresses only the issue of the client-side software. We are addressing the server issue separately.

The last comment is a reminder of the Affero GPL, which (among other things) obligates web developers to publish their server-side code if it uses AGPL software. Thus, the Free Software Foundation is targeting the full web app stack – server-side code and Javascript client code.

The article goes on to propose a Greasemonkey-related means of substituting in free code for Javascript web apps; as well as suggesting developers should open source their web apps, Stallman is proposing a world in which free software projects would arise to act as alternative web clients to those apps that don’t open source.

(Thanks to FND for the pointer.)

Posted by Michael Mahemoff at 8:32 am

2.5 rating from 69 votes


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Oh boy, that’s our Stallman! *studio audience chuckles demurely*

Comment by henrah — March 23, 2009

I agree – but what about those who’s products lie in the design and creativity of their Javascript? Maybe it would be better (in these cases) to run with a patent style license where you have a set period of time that you have sole right’s to use. Obviously this is a problem in that there’s no real way to protect it…

It’s what I do anyhow, keep it for a while, then free it!

Comment by oopstudios — March 23, 2009

@henrah – Ha! Nice one.
I’ll let Stallman and the lawyers worry about the legal stuff. I just like to make cool apps that work.

Comment by WillPeavy — March 23, 2009

Yeah, was just a matter of time before that blow-hard spoke up about our stuff :) (being a blow-hard, by the way, doesn’t make one wrong… just suspect)

Comment by fzammetti — March 23, 2009

So says
Copyright © 2009 Richard Stallman

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA.

But I would like to use his content any way I see fit, I think no derivate works is too restricting and thus not free. Is code not content? I don’t think Stallman groks AJAX.

Comment by JonathanLeech — March 23, 2009

i always thought the same. I’m able to do something and I learnt that sharing mine capabilities it’s the fstest way to find other works, business oppotunity, and people that share them capabilities with me. And this is the way I built a lot of my biggest works till now.

Comment by nunziofiore — March 23, 2009

I see, but if we make all the projects free who will pay for our efforts?
I think there should be a clear line between what is worth being free and what is not.

Comment by Iflexion — March 24, 2009

Stallman’s idea of letting site visitors supply their own javascript is just ludicrous. JS is only a portion of the entire app, often times not even half of the total project. His entire article is written like he thinks the JS _is_ the application, completely ignoring the backend and the layout.

If I didn’t know he was serious, I’d think this was satire.

Comment by Chiper — March 24, 2009

rms is a pioneer and a very intelligent guy, but i think he has finally jumped the shark with this one.

Comment by ianm — March 25, 2009

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