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> because while having source code helps in understanding and modification, it's not essential

You're right that it's not essential -- and he does mention this in most of his talks. But reverse engineering is very time-consuming and difficult, especially if you need to do it for every program you use.

So his view that software freedom requires the source code to be available to users is much more of a practical requirement than a philosophical one. This is why the GPL requires the preferred form of modifying the program be provided -- to ensure it's just as easy for users to modify the program as it is for the developers.

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