For Richard Stallman, using Free Software is more than a practical choice: it is a moral imperative. Since he founded the Free Software Foundation in 1984 with the goal of writing a free UNIX-like operating system, Stallman has been the driving force behind much of the software that goes into Linux (which, he insists, is more accurately called GNU/Linux).
From his offices at MIT, Stallman has masterminded the development of such important software as GNU Emacs, The GNU C Compiler (GCC), and perhaps most importantly, the GNU General Public License.
But nearly 30 years after the glory days of MIT’s AI lab — the fountainhead of hacker culture where Stallman first cut his teeth as a coder — software has come to mean more than simply the code that makes computers run.
The 46 year-old Stallman recently met with Linux Magazine‘s editors to -cuss consumer devices, freedom, the U.S. Constitution, and whether or not he’s ever used Microsoft Word.
On hand were Adam Goodman, publisher of Linux Magazine; Matt Welsh, author of O’Reilly’s Running Linux; and Linux Magazine contributing writer Lee Gomes.
Linux Magazine: To the extent that you live someplace, where is it? Is it in Cambridge?
Richard M Stallman: Yes, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
LM: What’s your place like?
RMS: Nothing interesting. It’s not important. It’s a place to sleep. I’d rather live in my office, but they won’t let me do that anymore.
LM: But you tried…
RMS: Yes I did. I did that for thirteen years. And if they would let me I’d keep doing it. It’s much more convenient.
LM: This was at MIT?
LM: So where did you sleep?
RMS: I had a bed in my office.
LM: And there were showers in the bathroom down the hall?
RMS: Yes. But these are such unimportant, minor things. What’s important about me is what I’ve done. Because that’s something that affects other people. This stuff doesn’t affect anybody else. It’s secondary. I wouldn’t mind talking about this, but let’s talk about something that matters to people first, and make sure that that’s covered, and then I can talk about this too. It’s not a secret, it’s just that I think it sets the tone in a direction that isn’t edifying.
It’s like the fascination with trivia games; “Where did Richard Stallman live for thirteen years?”
Focusing on the quirks of an individual doesn’t help you make your world better. It can be distracting. In some cases it might even be fascinating, but it’s not something that’s really important.
LM: Don’t you believe that understanding the person helps in understanding that person’s work?
RMS: Not really. You might understand something about the person, but the important thing about anybody’s work is why it makes a difference to people. That’s the most important thing to know.
There is some connection between my work and my personal life in that I’ve always tried to live cheaply. I’ve always tried to resist acquiring the expensive habits that many Americans think they ought to acquire. That freed me to choose what I was going to do. Now as it happened, I chose to start a Free Software movement, but if I had wanted to accomplish something else, I would have been free to do that. Because my decisions were not being dictated by money.
LM: What do you think you’re like to work with?
RMS: How can I judge it? I think I’m reasonable to work with. Some other people have said I’m not. Can I really be the judge? Obviously not. Because there’s a tendency for people to miss some big things about themselves.
I have had disagreements with people. Sometimes I’ve been stubbornly firm about them. I’m firm about certain things. And I don’t go along with other people for the sake of going along.
LM: What kinds of issues won’t you compromise on?
RMS: I know what I’m trying to achieve. If a person disagrees with the steps I want to take because that person has different goals, I know that that’s not a good reason for me to change my mind. If the person shares my goals, and argues that there’s a better way to reach them,…well,… they might be right. I could be mistaken about how to reach the goal. But if a person simply has different goals, there’s no argument to be made. It simply counts for nothing.
LM: So you don’t wish to try to persuade people with different goals to see things your way?
RMS: I have tried talking to people with various different kinds of views, and I have learned something about it; I am appealing to certain values. People who see something in those values will usually respond to the arguments I make based on those values. People who see nothing will think my arguments are based on false premises, and I certainly won’t persuade those people. So what I’m trying to do is show people those values and explain their consequences.
LM: So what values are you trying to present to people, and how do they relate to Free Software?
RMS: Free Software is about giving software users the freedoms that are necessary to treat each other as friends and form a community. This means that you must have the freedom to change a piece of software to do what you want or need it do. You must also be free to redistribute that software so that you can help your neighbor. It follows from there that you must be free to publish an improved version of that software, so that you can share your improvements with other people who can also benefit from it and build on it further. These freedoms provide practical and social benefits, both of which are important.
Most people don’t think of software as an area where freedom matters. Why does it make a moral difference? Well, because helping your neighbor is what makes our world a society, instead of a dog-eat-dog jungle. If we want to be part of a society, that means we want to be living with neighbors who will help us out and whom we’ll help out. It means having goodwill, sometimes also thought of as civic spirit. It means not looking at everything from the point of view of “What’s in it for me?”
Fifteen years ago I had decided I wanted to be part of a community of people who were using exclusively Free Software, so that we were always free to share with each other and work together. But at the time that was impossible, because to use a computer you had to get an operating system, and all the operating systems that worked on modern computers were proprietary. Nobody was allowed to share them and most people couldn’t get the source code at all. The only way I could change the situation was to develop another operating system which I could legally encourage everyone to copy and redistribute and change. So that’s what I decided to do. I decided to develop a UNIX-compatible operating system and give it the name “GNU.” So GNU is first of all the name of this operating system.
Now I didn’t expect I would do this all myself of course. I knew that a lot of people would need to help, and that it would be a big project. So I decided to call it the “GNU project”, named after the system that its goal was to develop.
UNIX consists of many components and we had to replace them all. But we didn’t have to replace them all ourselves. If somebody else wrote a program that would replace some component of UNIX and they made it Free Software, that meant one thing we didn’t have to do. Good. It’s such a big job. We had to find shortcuts any time we could. Over the years various components were developed by other people, the biggest one being the X Window System. But when we couldn’t find a free alternative, we had to develop the components ourselves, or recruit people to develop them.
That’s what we did during the 1980s, one component after another, we got them developed and crossed off the list. By the early 1990s, only one of the major essential components was still missing, and that was the kernel.
While we were working on this, Linus Torvalds wrote a kernel and called it Linux and then decided to release it as Free Software. By putting Linux together with the not-quite-complete GNU system and a few other smaller things, you could get a complete free operating system. Of course there was some work involved in making the two parts work together, but by and large, the system that people are using today and often calling Linux is really the GNU system with the program Linux functioning as the kernel.
LM: What do you think about the fact that most people call the system Linux?
RMS: Well, it’s inaccurate because Linux really is the program that Linus wrote, which is just one part of the system. It causes a lot of confusion.
It’s also not very good when people do a lot of work and don’t get the credit they deserve for it. The system that has become popular includes the not-quite-complete GNU system and Linux and various things that have been added on since then by other people. In other words, the system is GNU/Linux. A lot of people deserve the credit for this.
LM: Why are you continuing with the development of the GNU Hurd kernel? Isn’t Linux good enough?
RMS: It’s a good enough kernel, by all means. At this point, if we hadn’t already done so much work on the Hurd, I wouldn’t start a kernel project today. No, I would say; “We have a kernel that works, let’s do something else.” But that’s not the situation I’m in. We have a kernel that already runs, which could be considerably more powerful than Linux. If the architecture gives us the benefits we think it might, then it will be a big technical improvement.
LM: [Handing Stallman a copy of the book Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution from O'Reilly and Associates] Who amongst the writers of this book do you think shares your views? Linus Torvalds?
RMS: No. Absolutely not. Not even similar.
LM: Bruce Perens?
RMS: Somewhat, yes.
LM: Larry Wall?
RMS: Not too much.
LM: So which of these people shares the same goals as you do?
RMS: Bruce Perens, to some extent. And Michael Tiemann [a founder of Cygnus Solutions, Inc.] does. [Red Hat Software CEO] Bob Young, I’ve found, has a certain amount of the same concerns. Other than that, as far as I know, these other people don’t share my goals. The Free Software movement and the Open Source movement involve doing similar things. In practice, what we do is similar: We develop software that people can then copy and redistribute and change. But the reasons, the philosophies behind Free Software and Open Source Software, are as different as you could get.
LM: Well, wouldn’t Free Software and Microsoft be “as different as you could get?”
RMS: No, no. Those two are totally different in their actions. But I’m not comparing actions now, I’m comparing motivations. And the motivating forces behind Free Software and Open Source are totally different. One person summarized it very concisely: Free Software is a political philosophy; Open Source is a development methodology.
People like Eric Raymond talk about making it possible to develop more powerful and more reliable software by letting more people work together on it. Well, that is a good reason, as far as it goes. But for the Open Source movement, it’s the only reason.
I see other reasons that I think are even more important, because I consider this a political-ethical issue. Just like civil rights is a political-ethical issue, or freedom of speech, or having fair elections. They are issues about what kind of society we should live in, and that is politics, in the highest sense of the term. That is what citizens need to concern themselves with. What kind of society do they want to have?
For me, the freedom to share a copy of some published thing with your friend is a fundamental right that no one should ever be denied. And with software, the freedom to modify it for your own needs, and then share the modifications with others is essential for having a community. And it’s important for people to be able to form a community and not be divided, whether they like it or not, by somebody else.
And so, I agree with what the Open Source people say, but where we disagree is in what they don’t talk about. Freedom is what they don’t talk about. Remember, Bruce Perens resigned from the Open Source Initiative, saying, “We need to talk more about freedom.” Well that’s what I’ve been saying since before they started Open Source.
LM: It’s funny that there is this distinction between Open Source and Free Software, because Bruce Perens is one of the people who you find closest to your own views. And Bruce is one of the guys who came up with the term “Open Source.”
RMS: One of the motivations for creating the term Open Source was to clear up a confusion in the meaning of the term Free Software. People think “free” refers to the price, and so they misunderstand. They don’t realize that it refers to freedom. And what can you do? The word free has multiple meanings. Unfortunately, English doesn’t have a better word.
Perens and Raymond thought that Open Source Software would be clearer, but it turns out that it is unclear in a different way. When they hear the term Open Source, people naturally assume it means you can look at the source. They assume that if you’re allowed to look at the source but not change it, that that’s good enough to qualify as Open Source. Now, if you look at the official definition, you’ll see that that’s not what it means. Just as if you look at the official definition of Free Software, on the GNU project’s Web site, you’ll see that we’re not talking about price. So both of these terms are misunderstood.
In any movement, the most important thing is what you are aiming for, and the most important thing for our community over the coming ten years will be how people hold on to the freedom that we have today. If we don’t do that, we will — one way or another — let ourselves be parted from it. The short-term practical person and his freedom are soon parted.
LM:How do you interpret the philosophy of the Open Source movement?
RMS: That’s a good question. What the Open Source people say to the public is that if the users are allowed to redistribute and change software, that will advance technology faster. It will produce more powerful, more reliable software.
These values are entirely practical. Now I agree that that is one of the benefits that you sometimes get from Free Software, but I don’t agree with their choice of values — valuing solely the practical benefits and not valuing freedom for its own sake.
LM: So you are saying then that even if Free Software produced inferior software, you would chose it?
RMS: Yes. Because I won’t give up my freedom for a little convenience.
LM: Let’s talk about Linux some more. You said earlier that your views and Linus Torvalds’ are “not even similar.” Yet Linus released the Linux kernel under the GPL (GNU General Public License). Wasn’t that an endorsement of your views?
RMS: Well, actually, no. He did so for other reasons. I am not certain what they were, I just know what they weren’t. Linus doesn’t agree with me on the issue of ethics in society. He has said so in public, so I’m not just speculating. He told thousands of people that he is writing proprietary software in his job, so he must not think that it’s wrong.
When he chose the GPL, he wasn’t thinking, “How am I going to make money from this?” That obviously wasn’t his only goal. So he might have had a wish to participate in a certain kind of community, even if he didn’t believe it was an ethical issue.
There are various reasons why people write Free Software. There are plenty of other people talking about the practical reasons for making a program free and I don’t think it’s crucial for me to be one more of them. But there are very few people talking about the ethical reasons why users are entitled to these freedoms, and why software should be free.
LM: In the earlier days of your GNU project, before there was the Linux kernel, for example, which kernel did you find yourself using? Did you find yourself in a moral dilemma?
RMS: Well, yes. I used the whole UNIX system, effectively, to bootstrap the GNU system. And at the very beginning I thought about it as an ethical issue. Was it legitimate for me to use UNIX to do that? I concluded that it was OK for me to use proprietary software if I was doing so in order to replace the very software that I was using.
On the other hand, when I was having hand trouble and couldn’t do my own typing, I considered the possibility of getting some voice recognition equipment. When I discovered that it required proprietary software, I decided I couldn’t use it. I wasn’t working on developing software for speech recognition, so I couldn’t justify it.
I would rather have software be developed at a slower pace, but have freedom in using all of it. I would rather have a quart of Free Software than a gallon of proprietary software.
RMS: Because I value freedom, and I won’t give up my freedom to have more software.
If Microsoft offered me the source for their software but said that I couldn’t share it with you, I would not take it. Because if I can’t share a program with you, I will not take it. That’s part of my loyalty to the community, which you are welcome to join if you wish.
LM: Do you think that non-Free Software should be illegal?
RMS: I think it shouldn’t exist. Whether it vanishes because it becomes illegal or because we all decide Free Software is a better way to do things, I don’t care.
LM: Do you feel that your arguments about freedom of software would apply to other kinds of intellectual property? Like poetry for example?
RMS: These are totally different issues and it’s not a good idea to use the term intellectual property. If you say that the topic you are talking about is property, that presupposes an answer to the most important question: How should these things be treated? Should they be somebody’s property or not?
I don’t have the same opinion about copyright in all areas. I don’t have the same opinion about patent in all areas. And then trademarks are a completely different thing. These are all in the area that lawyers call intellectual property rights. So if you’re not a lawyer, you won’t realize how different patents and copyrights are from each other. If you call them by one term — intellectual property — you’re going to assume that they’re similar when they’re not. It’s much better to talk specifically about copyrights or patents or trademarks.
LM: OK, so how do you feel about copyrights on music? Should people have the right to freely redistribute MP3 files?
RMS: There are similarities and differences. The similarity is that when you have something on your computer you could easily make a copy for somebody else. That’s what digital information technology is all about. It’s about making it easier to copy and manipulate information. When we tell people they’re not allowed to do those things, in effect we are telling them, “You can have a computer, but you can’t get the benefit of it.”
However, there is a difference as well. Programs are made to be run. People can also read them and learn how they work and change them, but most programs are made to be run. So even if the program’s purpose is entertainment, it entertains you by running and not, for most people, through the joy you might get from reading the source code.
LM: You read source code just for entertainment?
RMS: I enjoy reading it. I learn from it. But that’s not the usual way a program is used. Whereas novels and songs are made mainly to be appreciated, not run. The way you enjoy a novel is simply by looking at the words in it.
Software is functional. Novels are not functional and this makes a difference. The freedom to modify programs and publish modified versions is vital. Whereas for novels, I don’t think it’s vital. There are some kinds of works of appreciation where the process of modification has a valuable result. This is the folk process, whereby your songs or poems are passed on from one person to another — gradually changed and turned into something very, very rich. It’s complicated to determine what to say about the freedom to modify things like songs or poems. For novels, I would say there’s not much need for the freedom to modify.
LM: In a just society, would authors have the right to own a copyright controlling the copying of the novel?
RMS: No. Well, not in the way copyright is now. Remember, though, that the U.S. Constitution doesn’t say that they do either. The U.S. Constitution authorizes the setting up of a copyright system to serve the public goal of promoting progress. Our legal system does not accept the idea that authors are entitled to own novels. Rather, it simply says that it’s permissible to set up a copyright system as a way of serving the public’s interest, if it really does so.
In the case of the novel, certainly you should be free to make copies for your friends. I think it could be okay with novels to have a limited copyright system that only covers public and commercial distribution. That would be a compromise between the system we have now, and a system where everyone is totally free to copy.
Copyright as it exists today goes too far. It’s so restrictive that it is imposing a terrible problem on society, with the owners gradually ramping up the level of fear to try to stop people from making copies for their friends. In the case of novels or recorded music, I think a modified copyright system that might be better. However, it’s different for software, because there we need the freedom to make the changes in a program and then the freedom to redistribute those changes to the whole community.
LM: So what do you do in the case of video games, where there is a mixture of so many different kinds of creative works, from executable software to the storyline, to music, and so on…?
RMS:One conceivable idea is that you could have the engine, which is a program, and you could have the scenario, which is treated like a novel.
So the game scenario, the terrain, the characters, and so on, would be treated like a novel. And suppose that the rule for novels and things like them was that you could mail copies to your friends, but public distribution was covered by copyright. Then I presume they’d be selling copies of these scenarios, just as they’d be selling copies of novels, and the information police wouldn’t arrest you if you made a copy for your friend.
The engine — the program part — would be free.
LM: How about music?
RMS: Music is like a novel. Basically, you should always be free to make copies of musical recordings for your friends. It could be okay to have a compromise copyright system covering public distribution. However, I don’t think we need that. I think that once enough people are on the network, and once we have a convenient way of making a small payment to somebody, musicians will be able to make a living in a system where everyone can publicly copy, but when you play the song a box appears that says, “Click here to give me a dollar.” And people will do it.
LM: Do you think people have a moral right to modify copies of software?
LM: Why not music?
RMS: Because modifying a piece of musical recording just isn’t so useful. It’s a hard thing to do. You can play a score differently, or edit it or arrange it differently. But to take a recording, it’s very limited what you can do with that.
LM: Most people would say that the reason you wouldn’t want undiminished, unrestricted copying and distribution of music is because artists should somehow be compensated for their work.
RMS: Well, most people might be convinced of that, but that’s actually not what our legal system says.
I agree with our Constitution that the only legitimate justification for copyright is to promote progress, to bring about more literary and musical activity, for the sake of the people who read or listen.
LM: You have said that non-Free Software shouldn’t exist, but is there any space at all for it in your moral structure?
RMS: Published software should be free. When it comes to custom software, the issue is less significant, and sometimes it is a moot point.
LM: Are you aware of the fact that Microsoft has recently made a major deal with AT&T? AT&T is buying up cable companies all over the country and will use Microsoft’s operating system on the boxes that will be at the end of these cables.
RMS: No, I didn’t know that.
LM: AT&T wants to get a line into people’s homes again, and they’re using the cable companies. Microsoft realized AT&T needed money to do this, and they’ve made an investment in AT&T, with the understanding that AT&T would employ a Microsoft operating system in its consumer devices. What are your thoughts on this situation?
RMS: The issues I raise about Free Software have the most force when you have a computer that you can install software on. When the software is in some box, where you don’t install any software, ever, the issues aren’t as strong. The magnitude with which they affect you is less. So they’re not as important in that case.
I’m not so much concerned with what goes on in some sort of appliance where you can’t load software. If you can’t copy any software onto the thing, then in some sense it doesn’t matter whether you’re allowed to copy this particular program.
I wouldn’t say that there’s something antisocial about the microwave just because it hasn’t been set up so you can load programs into it. A set-top box, or a PDA [Personal Digital Assistant], or things like that end up being in a gray area. It’s not clear that I care about the software that runs on the set-top box. But if people are going to be using them like computers, then they should be treated like computers, and the software that you can load and run on them should be free.
LM: Does Microsoft bother you more than other proprietary software companies, say Sun or IBM?
RMS: No. Well, it depends. Actually, that’s an ambiguous question. What you really mean to ask me is, “Do I have more objections to Microsoft than to other proprietary software companies?” And the answer is no, they’re all doing the exact same thing. However, you mentioned IBM. IBM, as it happens, is doing many different things. But among them are some Free Software activities. So, in fact, I have a higher opinion of IBM, because they’re not a 100 percent proprietary software company anymore.
LM: What about Netscape?
RMS: Netscape Communicator is proprietary software. Mozilla is Free Software. So there’s a big difference between them. I think better of Netscape than I do of Sun, for example, because at least they’re making Free Software.
When a person or a company is doing many different things, we shouldn’t try to just add it all together. It’s much more useful to look at each of the activities and say, is this activity good? Is that activity good? It gives you a much more articulate way of making judgments about it.
LM: Do you think that Microsoft Word is a good word processing program?
RMS: I’ve never used it. Or it’s conceivable that I used it once. I don’t remember. I used a word processor once. Basically I was at a hotel, and I had to type something and get it out, so I used a computer there. And it was running some word processor, which might have been Microsoft Word, I don’t know. On the screen there were lots and lots of cryptic icons, whose meanings I couldn’t begin to understand. If they had been English words, I might have had a chance.
LM: Do you have a more special kind of animosity toward Microsoft?
RMS: Absolutely none. Remember, when I started the GNU project in 1984, Microsoft was not a giant, and was not considered to be the great Satan. Microsoft was developing operating systems for toy computers. Sixteen bit computers. Computers that I decided were too weak to even bother supporting. So, I didn’t think of Microsoft at all when I started the GNU project. This is about a much bigger and deeper issue than one company.
LM: Why do you think so many people are so hostile toward them?
RMS: Because a lot of people like to personalize an issue, and see one entity, or even one person as the enemy, rather than think. But I think it is much more important to think about issues like, how should society work? Which kinds of actions are good for other people? And which are bad for other people?
LM: You have written that you do not think that Microsoft should be required to release their software under the GPL.
RMS: If their software were made free, whether that was required or just a decision, I would say, great, we can now use it. But I don’t see a need to propose that. I think that we can compete with the Microsoft army as long as we’re not blocked from doing so.
Lee Gomes covers technology for the Wall Street Journal, Matt Welsh is a Senior Editor and Adam Goodman is Publisher of Linux Magazine.
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