Free Software: Freedom and Cooperation
Richard M. Stallman's speech,
“Free Software: Freedom and Cooperation”
New York University in New York, New York
on 29 May 2001
text version of this transcript and
a summary of the speech
are also available.
URETSKY: I'm Mike Uretsky. I'm over at the Stern
School of Business. I'm also one of the Co-Directors of the Center
for Advanced Technology. And, on behalf of all of us in the Computer
Science Department, I want to welcome you here. I want to say a few
comments, before I turn it over to Ed, who is going to introduce the
The role of a university is a place to foster debate and to have
interesting discussions. And the role of a major university is to
have particularly interesting discussions. And this particular
presentation, this seminar falls right into that mold. I find the
discussion of open source particularly interesting. In a sense
STALLMAN: I do free software. Open source is a
different movement. [Laughter] [Applause]
URETSKY: When I first started in the field in the
'60's, basically software was free. And we went in cycles. It became
free, and then software manufacturers, in the need to expand their
markets, pushed it in other directions. A lot of the developments
that took place with the entry of the PC moved in exactly the same
kind of a cycle.
There's a very interesting French philosopher, Pierre Levy, who
talks about movement to this direction and who talks about the move
into cyberspace as not only relating to technology but also relating
to social restructuring, to political restructuring, through a change
in the kinds of relationships that will improve the well-being of
mankind. And we're hoping that this debate is a movement in that
direction, that this debate is something that cuts across a lot of the
disciplines that normally act as solace within the University. We're
looking forward to some very interesting discussions. Ed?
SCHONBERG: I'm Ed Schonberg from the Computer
Science Department at the Courant Institute. Let me welcome you all
to this event. Introducers are usually, and particularly, a useless
aspect of public presentations, but in this case, actually, they serve
a useful purpose, as Mike easily demonstrated, because an introducer
for instance, told him, by making inaccurate comments, can allow him
to straighten out and correct and [Laughter] sharpen
considerably the parameters of the debate.
So, let me make the briefest possible introduction to somebody who
doesn't need one. Richard is the perfect example of somebody who, by
acting locally, started thinking globally from problems concerning the
unavailability of source code for printer drivers at the AI Lab many
years ago. He has developed a coherent philosophy that has forced all
of us to re-examine our ideas of how software is produced, of what
intellectual property means, and what the software community actually
represents. Let me welcome Richard Stallman. [Applause]
STALLMAN: Can someone lend me a
watch? [Laughter] Thank you. So, I'd like to thank Microsoft
for providing me the opportunity to [Laughter] be on this
platform. For the past few weeks, I have felt like an author whose
book was fortuitously banned somewhere. [Laughter] Except that
all the articles about it are giving the wrong author's name, because
Microsoft describes the GNU GPL as an open source license, and most of
the press coverage followed suit. Most people, of course just
innocently don't realize that our work has nothing to do with open
source, that in fact we did most of it before people even coined the
term open source.
We are in the free software movement, and I'm going to speak about
what the free software movement is about, what it means, what we have
done, and, because this is partly sponsored by a school of business,
I'll say some things more than I usually do about how free software
relates to business, and some other areas of social life.
Now, some of you may not ever write computer programs, but perhaps
you cook. And if you cook, unless you're really great, you probably
use recipes. And, if you use recipes, you've probably had the
experience of getting a copy of a recipe from a friend who's sharing
it. And you've probably also had the experience — unless you're
a total neophyte — of changing a recipe. You know, it says
certain things, but you don't have to do exactly that. You can leave
out some ingredients. Add some mushrooms, 'cause you like mushrooms.
Put in less salt because your doctor said you should cut down on salt
— whatever. You can even make bigger changes according to your
skill. And if you've made changes in a recipe, and you cook it for
your friends, and they like it, one of your friends might say,
“Hey, could I have the recipe?” And then, what do you do?
You could write down your modified version of the recipe and make a
copy for your friend. These are the natural things to do with
functionally useful recipes of any kind.
Now a recipe is a lot like a computer program. A computer
program's a lot like a recipe: a series of steps to be carried out to
get some result that you want. So it's just as natural to do those
same things with computer programs — hand a copy to your friend.
Make changes in it because the job it was written to do isn't exactly
what you want. It did a great job for somebody else, but your job is
a different job. And after you've changed it, that's likely to be
useful for other people. Maybe they have a job to do that's like the
job you do. So they ask, “Hey, can I have a copy?” Of
course, if you're a nice person, you're going to give a copy. That's
the way to be a decent person.
So imagine what it would be like if recipes were packaged inside
black boxes. You couldn't see what ingredients they're using, let
alone change them, and imagine if you made a copy for a friend, they
would call you a pirate and try to put you in prison for years. That
world would create tremendous outrage from all the people who are used
to sharing recipes. But that is exactly what the world of proprietary
software is like. A world in which common decency towards other
people is prohibited or prevented.
Now, why did I notice this? I noticed this because I had the good
fortune in the 1970's to be part of a community of programmers who
shared software. Now, this community could trace its ancestry
essentially back to the beginning of computing. In the 1970's,
though, it was a bit rare for there to be a community where people
shared software. And, in fact, this was sort of an extreme case,
because in the lab where I worked, the entire operating system was
software developed by the people in our community, and we'd share any
of it with anybody. Anybody was welcome to come and take a look, and
take away a copy, and do whatever he wanted to do. There were no
copyright notices on these programs. Cooperation was our way of life.
And we were secure in that way of life. We didn't fight for it. We
didn't have to fight for it. We just lived that way. And, as far as
we knew, we would just keep on living that way. So there was free
software, but there was no free software movement.
But then our community was destroyed by a series of calamities that
happened to it. Ultimately it was wiped out. Ultimately, the PDP-10
computer which we used for all our work was discontinued. And you
know, our system — the Incompatible Timesharing System —
was written starting in the '60's, so it was written in assembler
language. That's what you used to write an operating system in the
'60's. So, of course, assembler language is for one particular
computer architecture; if that gets discontinued, all your work turns
into dust — it's useless. And that's what happened to us. The
20 years or so of work of our community turned into dust.
But before this happened, I had an experience that prepared me,
helped me see what to do, helped prepare me to see what to do when
this happened, because at certain point, Xerox gave the Artificial
Intelligence Lab, where I worked, a laser printer, and this was a
really handsome gift, because it was the first time anybody outside
Xerox had a laser printer. It was very fast, printed a page a second,
very fine in many respects, but it was unreliable, because it was
really a high-speed office copier that had been modified into a
printer. And, you know, copiers jam, but there's somebody there to
fix them. The printer jammed and nobody saw. So it stayed jammed for
a long time.
Well, we had an idea for how to deal with this problem. Change it
so that whenever the printer gets a jam, the machine that runs the
printer can tell our timesharing machine, and tell the users who are
waiting for printouts, or something like that, you know, tell them, go
fix the printer. Because if they only knew it was jammed, of course,
if you're waiting for a printout and you know that the printer is
jammed, you don't want to sit and wait forever, you're going to go fix
But at that point, we were completely stymied, because the software
that ran that printer was not free software. It had come with the
printer, and it was just a binary. We couldn't have the source code;
Xerox wouldn't let us have the source code. So, despite our skill as
programmers — after all, we had written our own timesharing
system — we were completely helpless to add this feature to the
And we just had to suffer with waiting. It would take an hour or
two to get your printout because the machine would be jammed most of
the time. And only once in a while — you'd wait an hour
figuring “I know it's going to be jammed. I'll wait an hour and
go collect my printout,” and then you'd see that it had been
jammed the whole time, and in fact, nobody else had fixed it. So
you'd fix it and you'd go wait another half hour. Then, you'd come
back, and you'd see it jammed again — before it got to your
output. It would print three minutes and be jammed thirty minutes.
Frustration up the whazzoo. But the thing that made it worse was
knowing that we could have fixed it, but somebody else, for his own
selfishness, was blocking us, obstructing us from improving the
software. So, of course, we felt some resentment.
And then I heard that somebody at Carnegie Mellon University had a
copy of that software. So I was visiting there later, so I went to
his office and I said, “Hi, I'm from MIT. Could I have a copy of
the printer source code?” And he said “No, I promised not
to give you a copy.” [Laughter] I was stunned. I was so
— I was angry, and I had no idea how I could do justice to it.
All I could think of was to turn around on my heel and walk out of his
room. Maybe I slammed the door. [Laughter] And I thought
about it later on, because I realized that I was seeing not just an
isolated jerk, but a social phenomenon that was important and affected
a lot of people.
This was — for me — I was lucky, I only got a taste of
it, but other people had to live in this all the time. So I thought
about it at length. See, he had promised to refuse to cooperate with
us — his colleagues at MIT. He had betrayed us. But he didn't
just do it to us. Chances are he did it to you too. [Pointing at
member of audience.] And I think, mostly likely, he did it to you
too. [Pointing at another member of audience.] [Laughter] And
he probably did it to you as well. [Pointing to third member of
audience.] He probably did it to most of the people here in this
room — except a few, maybe, who weren't born yet in 1980.
Because he had promised to refuse to cooperate with just about the
entire population of the Planet Earth. He had signed a non-disclosure
Now, this was my first, direct encounter with a non-disclosure
agreement, and it taught me an important lesson — a lesson
that's important because most programmers never learn it. You see,
this was my first encounter with a non-disclosure agreement, and I was
the victim. I, and my whole lab, were the victims. And the lesson it
taught me was that non-disclosure agreements have victims. They're
not innocent. They're not harmless. Most programmers first encounter
a non-disclosure agreement when they're invited to sign one. And
there's always some temptation — some goody they're going to get
if they sign. So, they make up excuses. They say, “Well, he's
never going to get a copy no matter what, so why shouldn't I join the
conspiracy to deprive him?” They say, “This is the way
it's always done. Who am I to go against it?” They say,
“If I don't sign this, someone else will.” Various excuses
to gag their consciences.
But when somebody invited me to sign a non-disclosure agreement, my
conscience was already sensitized. It remembered how angry I had
been, when somebody promised not to help me and my whole lab solve our
problem. And I couldn't turn around and do the exact same thing to
somebody else who had never done me any harm. You know, if somebody
asked me to promise not to share some useful information with a hated
enemy, I would have said yes. You know? If somebody's done something
bad, he deserves it. But, strangers — they haven't done me any
harm. How could they deserve that kind of mistreatment? You can't
let yourself start treating just anybody and everybody badly. Then
you become a predator on society. So I said, “Thank you very
much for offering me this nice software package. But I can't accept
it in good conscience, on the conditions you are demanding, so I will
do without it. Thank you so much.” And so, I have never
knowingly signed a non-disclosure agreement for generally useful
technical information such as software.
Now there are other kinds of information which raise different
ethical issues. For instance, there's personal information. You
know, if you wanted to talk with me about what was happening between
you and your boyfriend, and you asked me not to tell anybody —
you know, I could keep — I could agree to keep that a secret for
you, because that's not generally useful technical information. At
least, it's probably not generally useful. [Laughter]
There is a small chance — and it's a possibility though
— that you might reveal to me some marvelous new sex
technique, [Laughter] and I would then feel a moral
duty [Laughter] to pass it onto the rest of humanity, so that
everyone could get the benefit of it. So, I'd have to put a proviso
in that promise, you know? If it's just details about who wants this,
and who's angry at whom, and things like that — soap opera
— that I can keep private for you, but something that humanity
could tremendously benefit from knowing, I mustn't withhold. You see,
the purpose of science and technology is to develop useful information
for humanity to help people live their lives better. If we promise to
withhold that information — if we keep it secret — then we
are betraying the mission of our field. And this, I decided I
But, meanwhile my community had collapsed, and that was collapsing,
and that left me in a bad situation. You see, the whole Incompatible
Timesharing System was obsolete, because the PDP-10 was obsolete, and
so there was no way that I could continue working as an operating
system developer the way that I had been doing it. That depended on
being part of the community using the community software and improving
it. That no longer was a possibility, and that gave me a moral
dilemma. What was I going to do? Because the most obvious
possibility meant to go against that decision I had made. The most
obvious possibility was to adapt myself to the change in the world.
To accept that things were different, and that I'd just have to give
up those principles and start signing non-disclosure agreements for
proprietary operating systems, and most likely writing proprietary
software as well. But I realized that that way I could have fun
coding, and I could make money — especially if I did it other
than at MIT — but at the end, I'd have to look back at my career
and say, “I've spent my life building walls to divide
people,” and I would have been ashamed of my life.
So I looked for another alternative, and there was an obvious one.
I could leave the software field and do something else. Now I had no
other special noteworthy skills, but I'm sure I could have become a
waiter. [Laughter] Not at a fancy restaurant; they wouldn't
hire me, [Laughter] but I could be a waiter somewhere. And
many programmers, they say to me, “The people who hire
programmers demand this, this and this. If I don't do those things,
I'll starve.” It's literally the word they use. Well, you know,
as a waiter, you're not going to starve. [Laughter] So,
really, they're in no danger. But — and this is important, you
see — because sometimes you can justify doing something that
hurts other people by saying otherwise something worse is going to
happen to me. You know, if you were really going to starve,
you'd be justified in writing proprietary software. [Laughter]
If somebody's pointing a gun at you, then I would say, it's
forgivable. [Laughter] But, I had found a way that I could
survive without doing something unethical, so that excuse was not
available. So I realized, though, that being a waiter would be no fun
for me, and it would be wasting my skills as an operating system
developer. It would avoid misusing my skills. Developing proprietary
software would be misusing my skills. Encouraging other people to
live in the world of proprietary software would be misusing my skills.
So it's better to waste them than misuse them, but it's still not
So for those reasons, I decided to look for some other alternative.
What can an operating system developer do that would actually improve
the situation, make the world a better place? And I realized that an
operating system developer was exactly what was needed. The problem,
the dilemma, existed for me and for everyone else because all of the
available operating systems for modern computers were proprietary.
The free operating systems were for old, obsolete computers, right?
So for the modern computers — if you wanted to get a modern
computer and use it, you were forced into a proprietary operating
system. So if an operating system developer wrote another operating
system, and then said, “Everybody come and share this; you're
welcome to this” — that would give everybody a way out of
the dilemma, another alternative. So I realized that there was
something I could do that would solve the problem. I had just the
right skills to be able to do it. And it was the most useful thing I
could possibly imagine that I'd be able to do with my life. And it
was a problem that no one else was trying to solve. It was just sort
of sitting there, getting worse, and nobody was there but me. So I
felt, “I'm elected. I have to work on this. If not me,
who?” So I decided I would develop a free operating system, or
die trying … of old age, of course. [Laughter]
So, of course I had to decide what kind of operating system it
should be. There are some technical design decisions to be made. I
decided to make the system compatible with Unix for a number of
reasons. First of all, I had just seen one operating system that I
really loved become obsolete because it was written for one particular
kind of computer. I didn't want that to happen again. We needed to
have a portable system. Well, Unix was a portable system. So if I
followed the design of Unix, I had a pretty good chance that I could
make a system that would also be portable and workable. And
furthermore, why [Tape unclear] be compatible with it in the
details. The reason is, users hate incompatible changes. If I had
just designed the system in my favorite way — which I would have
loved doing, I'm sure — I would have produced something that was
incompatible. You know, the details would be different. So, if I
wrote the system, then the users would have said to me, “Well,
this is very nice, but it's incompatible. It will be too much work to
switch. We can't afford that much trouble just to use your system
instead of Unix, so we'll stay with Unix,” they would have
Now, if I wanted to actually create a community where there would
be people in it, people using this free system, and enjoying the
benefits of liberty and cooperation, I had to make a system people
would use, a system that they would find easy to switch to, that would
not have an obstacle making it fail at the very beginning. Now,
making the system upward compatible with Unix actually made all the
immediate design decisions, because Unix consists of many pieces, and
they communicate through interfaces that are more or less documented.
So if you want to be compatible with Unix, you have to replace each
piece, one by one, with a compatible piece. So the remaining design
decisions are inside one piece, and they could be made later by
whoever decides to write that piece. They didn't have to be made at
So all we had to do to start work was find a name for the system.
Now, we hackers always look for a funny or naughty name for a program,
because thinking of people being amused by the name is half the fun of
writing the program. [Laughter] And we had a tradition of
recursive acronyms, to say that the program that you're writing is
similar to some existing program. You can give it a recursive acronym
name which says: this one's not the other. So, for instance, there
were many Tico text editors in the '60's and '70's, and they were
generally called something-or-other Tico. Then one clever hacker
called his Tint, for Tint Is Not Tico — the first recursive
acronym. In 1975, I developed the first Emacs text editor, and there
were many imitations of Emacs, and a lot of them were called
something-or-other Emacs, but one was called Fine, for Fine Is Not
Emacs, and there was Sine, for Sine Is Not Emacs, and Eine for Ina Is
Not Emacs, and MINCE for Mince Is Not Complete
Emacs. [Laughter] That was a stripped down imitation. And
then, Eine was almost completely rewritten, and the new version was
called Zwei, for Zwei Was Eine Initially. [Laughter]
So I looked for a recursive acronym for Something is not Unix. And
I tried all 26 letters, and discovered that none of them was a word.
[Laughter] Hmm, try another way. I made a contraction. That
way I could have a three-letter acronym, for Something's not Unix.
And I tried letters, and I came across the word “GNU”
— the word “GNU” is the funniest word in the English
language. [Laughter] That was it. Of course, the reason it's
funny is that according to the dictionary, it's pronounced
“new”. You see? And so that's why people use it for a
lot of wordplay. Let me tell you, this is the name of an animal that
lives in Africa. And the African pronunciation had a click sound in
it. [Laughter] Maybe still does. And so, the European
colonists, when they got there, they didn't bother learning to say
this click sound. So they just left it out, and they wrote a
“G” which meant “there's another sound that's
supposed to be here which we are not
pronouncing.” [Laughter] So, tonight I'm leaving for
South Africa, and I have begged them, I hope they're going to find
somebody who can teach me to pronounce click sounds, [Laughter]
so that I'll know how to pronounce GNU the correct way, when it's the
But, when it's the name of our system, the correct pronunciation is
“guh-NEW” — pronounce the hard “G”. If
you talk about the “new” operating system, you'll get
people very confused, because we've been working on it for 17 years
now, so it is not new any more. [Laughter] But it still is,
and always will be, GNU — no matter how many people call it
Linux by mistake. [Laughter]
So, in January 1984, I quit my job at MIT to start writing pieces
of GNU. They were nice enough to let me keep using their facilities
though. And, at the time, I thought we would write all these pieces,
and make an entire GNU system, and then we'd say, “Come and get
it”, and people would start to use it. That's not what
happened. The first pieces I wrote were just equally good
replacements, with fewer bugs for some pieces of Unix, but they
weren't tremendously exciting. Nobody particularly wanted to get them
and install them. But then, in September 1984, I started writing GNU
Emacs, which was my second implementation of Emacs, and by early 1985,
it was working. I could use it for all my editing, which was a big
relief, because I had no intention of learning to use VI, the Unix
editor. [Laughter] So, until that time, I did my editing on
some other machine, and saved the files through the network, so that I
could test them. But when GNU Emacs was running well enough for me to
use it, it was also — other people wanted to use it too.
So I had to work out the details of distribution. Of course, I put
a copy in the anonymous FTP directory, and that was fine for people
who were on the net They could then just pull over a tar file, but a
lot of programmers then even were not on the net in 1985. They were
sending me emails saying “How can I get a copy?” I had to
decide what I would answer them. Well, I could have said, I want to
spend my time writing more GNU software, not writing tapes, so please
find a friend who's on the internet and who is willing to download it
and put it on a tape for you. And I'm sure people would have found
some friends, sooner or later, you know. They would have got copies.
But I had no job. In fact, I've never had a job since quitting MIT in
January 1984. So, I was looking for some way I could make money
through my work on free software, and therefore I started a free
software business. I announced, “Send me $150 dollars, and I'll
mail you a tape of Emacs.” And the orders began dribbling in.
By the middle of the year they were trickling in.
I was getting 8 to 10 orders a month. And, if necessary, I could
have lived on just that, because I've always lived cheaply. I live
like a student, basically. And I like that, because it means that
money is not telling me what to do. I can do what I think is
important for me to do. It freed me to do what seemed worth doing.
So make a real effort to avoid getting sucked into all the expensive
lifestyle habits of typical Americans. Because if you do that, then
people with the money will dictate what you do with your life. You
won't be able to do what's really important to you.
So, that was fine, but people used to ask me, “What do you
mean it's free software if it costs $150
dollars?” [Laughter] Well, the reason they asked this was
that they were confused by the multiple meanings of the English word
“free”. One meaning refers to price, and another meaning
refers to freedom. When I speak of free software, I'm referring to
freedom, not price. So think of free speech, not free
beer. [Laughter] Now, I wouldn't have dedicated so many years
of my life to making sure programmers got less money. That's not my
goal. I'm a programmer and I don't mind getting money myself. I
won't dedicate my whole life to getting it, but I don't mind getting
it. And I'm not — and therefore, ethics is the same for
everyone. I'm not against some other programmer getting money either.
I don't want prices to be low. That's not the issue at all. The
issue is freedom. Freedom for everyone who's using software, whether
that person be a programmer or not.
So at this point I should give you the definition of free software.
I better get to some real details, you see, because just saying
“I believe in freedom” is vacuous. There's so many
different freedoms you could believe in, and they conflict with each
other, so the real political question is: Which are the important
freedoms, the freedoms that we must make sure everybody has?
And now, I will give my answer to that question for the particular
area of using software. A program is free software for you, a
particular user, if you have the following freedoms:
- First, Freedom Zero is the freedom to run the program for any
purpose, any way you like.
- Freedom One is the freedom to help yourself by changing the
program to suit your needs.
- Freedom Two is the freedom to help your neighbor by distributing
copies of the program.
- And Freedom Three is the freedom to help build your community by
publishing an improved version so others can get the benefit of your
If you have all of these freedoms, the program is free software,
for you — and that's crucial. That's why I phrase it that way.
I'll explain why later, when I talk about the GNU General Public
License, but right now I'm explaining what free software means, which
is a more basic question.
So, Freedom Zero's pretty obvious. If you're not even allowed to
run the program anyway you like, it is a pretty damn restrictive
program. But as it happens, most programs will at least give you
Freedom Zero. And Freedom Zero follows, legally, as a consequence of
Freedoms One, Two, and Three — that's the way that copyright law
works. So the freedoms that distinguish free software from typical
software are Freedoms One, Two, and Three, so I'll say more about them
and why they are important.
Freedom One is the freedom to help yourself by changing the
software to suit your needs. This could mean fixing bugs. It could
mean adding new features. It could mean porting it to a different
computer system. It could mean translating all the error messages
into Navajo. Any change you want to make, you should be free to
Now, it's obvious that professional programmers can make use of
this freedom very effectively, but not just them. Anybody of
reasonable intelligence can learn a little programming. You know,
there are hard jobs, and there are easy jobs, and most people are not
going to learn enough to do hard jobs. But lots of people can learn
enough to do easy jobs, just the way, you know, 50 years ago, lots and
lots of American men learned to repair cars, which is what enabled the
U.S. to have a motorized army in World War II and win. So, very
important, having lots of people tinkering.
And if you are a people person, and you really don't want to learn
technology at all, that probably means that you have a lot of friends,
and you're good at getting them to owe you favors. [Laughter]
Some of them are probably programmers. So you can ask one of your
programmer friends. “Would you please change this for me? Add
this feature?” So, lots of people can benefit from it.
Now, if you don't have this freedom, it causes practical, material
harm to society. It makes you a prisoner of your software. I
explained what that was like with regard to the laser printer. You
know, it worked badly for us, and we couldn't fix it, because we were
prisoners of our software.
But it also affects people's morale. You know if the computer is
constantly frustrating to use, and people are using it, their lives
are going to be frustrating, and if they're using it in their jobs,
their jobs are going to be frustrating; they're going to hate their
jobs. And you know, people protect themselves from frustration by
deciding not to care. So you end up with people whose attitude is,
“Well, I showed up for work today. That's all I have to do. If
I can't make progress, that's not my problem; that's the boss's
problem.” And when this happens, it's bad for those people, and
it's bad for society as a whole. That's Freedom One, the freedom to
Freedom Two is the freedom to help your neighbor by distributing
copies of the program. Now, for beings that can think and learn,
sharing useful knowledge is a fundamental act of friendship. When
these beings use computers, this act of friendship takes the form of
sharing software. Friends share with each other. Friends help each
other. This is the nature of friendship. And, in fact, this spirit
of goodwill — the spirit of helping your neighbor, voluntarily
— is society's most important resource. It makes the difference
between a livable society and a dog-eat-dog jungle. Its importance
has been recognized by the world's major religions for thousands of
years, and they explicitly try to encourage this attitude.
When I was going to kindergarten, the teachers were trying to teach
us this attitude — the spirit of sharing — by having us do
it. They figured if we did it, we'd learn. So they said, “If
you bring candy to school, you can't keep it all for yourself; you
have to share some with the other kids.” Teaching us, the
society was set up to teach, this spirit of cooperation. And why do
you have to do that? Because people are not totally cooperative.
That's one part of human nature, and there are other parts of human
nature. There are lots of parts of human nature. So, if you want a
better society, you've got to work to encourage the spirit of sharing.
You know, it'll never get to be 100%. That's understandable. People
have to take care of themselves too. But if we make it somewhat
bigger, we're all better off.
Nowadays, according to the U.S. Government, teachers are supposed
to do the exact opposite. “Oh, Johnny, you brought software to
school. Well, don't share it. Oh no. Sharing is wrong. Sharing
means you're a pirate.”
What do they mean when they say “pirate”? They're
saying that helping your neighbor is the moral equivalent of attacking
a ship. [Laughter]
What would Buddha or Jesus say about that? Now, take your favorite
religious leader. I don't know, maybe Manson would have said
something different. [Laughter] Who knows what L. Ron Hubbard
would say? But …
STALLMAN: Of course, he's dead. But they don't
admit that. What?
QUESTION: So are the others, also
dead. [Laughter] [Inaudible] Charles Manson's also
dead. [Laughter] They're dead, Jesus's dead, Buddha's
STALLMAN: Yes, that's true. [Laughter] So
I guess, in that regard, L. Ron Hubbard is no worse than the
others. [Laughter] Anyway — [Inaudible]
QUESTION: L. Ron always used free software —
it freed him from Zanu. [Laughter]
STALLMAN: Anyway, so, I think this is actually the
most important reason why software should be free: We can't afford to
pollute society's most important resource. It's true that it's not a
physical resource like clean air and clean water. It's a
psycho-social resource, but it's just as real for all that, and it
makes a tremendous difference to our lives. You see, the actions we
take influence the thoughts of other people. When we go around
telling people, “Don't share with each other”, if they
listen to us, we've had an effect on society, and it's not a good one.
That's Freedom Two, the freedom to help your neighbor.
Oh, and by the way, if you don't have that freedom, it doesn't just
cause this harm to society's psycho-social resource, it also causes
waste — practical, material harm. If the program has an owner,
and the owner arranges a state of affairs where each user has to pay
in order to be able to use it, some people are going to say,
“Never mind, I'll do without it.” And that's waste,
deliberately inflicted waste. And the interesting thing about
software, of course, is that fewer users doesn't mean you have to make
less stuff. You know, if fewer people buy cars, you can make fewer
cars. There's a saving there. There are resources to be allocated,
or not allocated, into making cars. So that you can say that having a
price on a car is a good thing. It prevents people from diverting
lots of wasted resources into making cars that aren't really needed.
But if each additional car used no resources, it wouldn't be doing any
good saving the making of these cars. Well, for physical objects, of
course, like cars, it is always going to take resources to make an
additional one of them, each additional exemplar.
But for software that's not true. Anybody can make another copy.
And it's almost trivial to do it. It takes no resources, except a
tiny bit of electricity. So there's nothing we can save, no resource
we're going to allocate better by putting this financial disincentive
on the use of the software. You often find people taking economic,
the consequences of economic reasoning, based on premises that don't
apply to software, and trying to transplant them from other areas of
life where the premises may apply, and the conclusions may be valid.
They just take the conclusions and assume that they're valid for
software too, when the argument is based on nothing, in the case of
software. The premises don't work in that case. It is very important
to examine how you reach the conclusion, and what premises it depends
on, to see where it might be valid. So, that's Freedom Two, the
freedom to help your neighbor.
Freedom Three is the freedom to help build your community by
publishing an improved version of the software. People used to say to
me, “If the software's free, then nobody will get paid to work
on it, so why should anybody work on it?” Well, of course, they
were confusing the two meanings of free, so their reasoning was based
on a misunderstanding. But, in any case, that was their theory.
Today, we can compare that theory with empirical fact, and we find
that hundreds of people are being paid to write free software, and
over 100,000 are doing it as volunteers. We get lots of people
working on free software, for various different motives.
When I first released GNU Emacs — the first piece of the GNU
system that people actually wanted to use — and when it started
having users, after a while, I got a message saying, “I think I
saw a bug in the source code, and here's a fix.” And I got
another message, “Here's code to add a new feature.” And
another bug fix. And another new feature. And another, and another,
and another, until they were pouring in on me so fast that just making
use of all this help I was getting was a big job. Microsoft doesn't
have this problem. [Laughter]
Eventually, people noted this phenomenon. You see, in the 1980's a
lot of us thought that maybe free software wouldn't be as good as the
non-free software, because we wouldn't have as much money to pay
people. And, of course, people like me, who value freedom and
community said, “Well, we'll use the free software
anyway.” It's worth making a little sacrifice in some mere
technical convenience to have freedom. But what people began to note,
around 1990 was that our software was actually better. It was more
powerful, and more reliable, than the proprietary alternatives.
In the early '90's, somebody found a way to do a scientific
measurement of reliability of software. Here's what he did. He took
several sets of comparable programs that did the same jobs — the
exact same jobs — in different systems. Because there were
certain basic Unix-like utilities. And the jobs that they did, we
know, was all, more or less, imitating the same thing, or they were
following the POSIX spec, so they were all the same in terms of what
jobs they did, but they were maintained by different people, written
separately. The code was different. So they said, OK, we'll take
these programs and run them with random data, and measure how often
they crash, or hang. So they measured it, and the most reliable set
of programs was the GNU programs. All the commercial alternatives
which were proprietary software were less reliable. So he published
this and he told all the developers, and a few years later, he did the
same experiment with the newest versions, and he got the same result.
The GNU versions were the most reliable. People — you know
there are cancer clinics and 911 operations that use the GNU system,
because it's so reliable, and reliability is very important to
Anyway, there's even a group of people who focus on this particular
benefit as the reason they give, the main reason they give, why users
should be permitted to do these various things, and to have these
freedoms. If you've been listening to me, you've noticed, you've seen
that I, speaking for the free software movement, I talk about issues
of ethics, and what kind of a society we want to live in, what makes
for a good society, as well as practical, material benefits. They're
both important. That's the free software movement.
That other group of people — which is called the open source
movement — they only cite the practical benefits. They deny
that this is an issue of principle. They deny that people are
entitled to the freedom to share with their neighbor and to see what
the program's doing and change it if they don't like it. They say,
however, that it's a useful thing to let people do that. So they go
to companies and say to them, “You know, you might make more
money if you let people do this.” So, what you can see is that
to some extent, they lead people in a similar direction, but for
totally different, for fundamentally different, philosophical
Because on the deepest issue of all, you know, on the ethical
question, the two movements disagree. You know, in the free software
movement we say, “You're entitled to these freedoms. People
shouldn't stop you from doing these things.” In the open source
movement, they say, “Yes, they can stop you if you want, but
we'll try to convince them to deign to let you to do these
things.” Well, they have contributed — they have convinced
a certain number of businesses to release substantial pieces of
software as free software in our community. So they, the open source
movement, has contributed substantially to our community. And so we
work together on practical projects. But, philosophically, there's a
Unfortunately, the open source movement is the one that gets the
support of business the most, and so most articles about our work
describe it as open source, and a lot of people just innocently think
that we're all part of the open source movement. So that's why I'm
mentioning this distinction. I want you to be aware that the free
software movement, which brought our community into existence and
developed the free operating system, is still here — and that we
still stand for this ethical philosophy. I want you to know about
this, so that you won't mislead someone else unknowingly.
But also, so that you can think about where you stand.
You know, which movement you support is up to you. You might agree
with the free software movements and my views. You might agree with
the open source movement. You might disagree with them both. You
decide where you stand on these political issues.
But if you agree with the free software movement — if you see
that there's an issue here that the people whose lives are controlled
and directed by this decision deserve a say in it — then I hope
you'll say that you agree with the free software movement, and one way
you can do that is by using the term free software and just helping
people know we exist.
So, Freedom Three is very important both practically and
psycho-socially. If you don't have this freedom, it causes practical
material harm, because this community development doesn't happen, and
we don't make powerful, reliable software. But it also causes
psycho-social harm, which affects the spirit of scientific cooperation
— the idea that we're working together to advance human
knowledge. You see, progress in science crucially depends on people
being able to work together. And nowadays though, you often find each
little group of scientists acting like it's a war with each other gang
of scientists and engineers. And if they don't share with each other,
they're all held back.
So, those are the three freedoms that distinguish free software
from typical software. Freedom One is the freedom to help yourself,
making changes to suit your own needs. Freedom Two is the freedom to
help your neighbor by distributing copies. And Freedom Three is the
freedom to help build your community by making changes and publishing
them for other people to use. If you have all of these freedoms, the
program is free software for you. Now, why do I define it that way in
terms of a particular user? Is it free software for
you? [Pointing at member of audience.] Is it free software for
you? [Pointing at another member of audience.] Is it free
software for you? [Pointing at another member of audience.]
QUESTION: Can you explain a bit about the
difference between Freedom Two and Three? [inaudible]
STALLMAN: Well, they certainly relate, because if
you don't have freedom to redistribute at all, you certainly don't
have freedom to distribute a modified version, but they're different
STALLMAN: Freedom Two is, you know, read it, you
make an exact copy, and hand it to your friends, so now your friend
can use it. Or maybe you make exact copies and you sell them to a
bunch of people, and then they can use it.
Freedom Three is where you make improvements — or at least
you think they're improvements, and some other people may agree with
you. So that's the difference. Oh, and by the way, one crucial
point. Freedoms One and Three depend on your having access to the
source code. Because changing a binary-only program is extremely
hard. [Laughter] Even trivial changes like using four digits
for the date, [Laughter] if you don't have source. So, for
compelling, practical reasons, access to the source code is a
precondition, a requirement, for free software.
So, why do I define it in terms of whether it's free software for
you? The reason is that sometimes the same program can be
free software for some people, and non-free for others. Now, that
might seem like a paradoxical situation, so let me give you an example
to show you how it happens. A very big example — maybe the
biggest ever — of this problem was the X Window System which was
developed at MIT and released under a license that made it free
software. If you got the MIT version with the MIT license, you had
Freedoms One, Two, and Three. It was free software for you. But
among those who got copies were various computer manufacturers that
distributed Unix systems, and they made the necessary changes in X to
run on their systems. You know, probably just a few thousand lines
out of the hundreds of thousands of lines of X. And, then they
compiled it, and they put the binaries into their Unix system and
distributed it under the same non-disclosure agreement as the rest of
the Unix system. And then, millions of people got these copies. They
had the X Window System, but they had none of these freedoms. It was
not free software for them.
So, the paradox was that whether X was free software depended on
where you made the measurement. If you made the measurement coming
out of the developers' group, you'd say, “I observe all these
freedoms. It's free software.” If you made the measurements
among the users you'd say, “Hmm, most users don't have these
freedoms. It's not free software.” Well, the people who
developed X didn't consider this a problem, because their goal was
just popularity, ego, essentially. They wanted a big professional
success. They wanted to feel, “Ah, lots of people are using our
software.” And that was true. Lots of people were using their
software but didn't have freedom.
Well, in the GNU project, if that same thing had happened to GNU
software, it would have been a failure, because our goal wasn't just
to be popular; our goal was to give people liberty, and to encourage
cooperation, to permit people to cooperate. Remember, never force
anyone to cooperate with any other person, but make sure that
everybody's allowed to cooperate, everyone has the freedom to do so,
if he or she wishes. If millions of people were running non-free
versions of GNU, that wouldn't be success at all. The whole thing
would have been perverted into nothing like the goal.
So, I looked for a way to stop that from happening. The method I
came up with is called “copyleft”. It's called copyleft
because it's sort of like taking copyright and flipping it
over. [Laughter] Legally, copyleft works based on copyright.
We use the existing copyright law, but we use it to achieve a very
different goal. Here's what we do. We say, “This program is
copyrighted.” And, of course, by default, that means it's
prohibited to copy it, or distribute it, or modify it. But then we
say, “You're authorized to distribute copies of this. You're
authorized to modify it. You're authorized to distribute modified
versions and extended versions. Change it any way you
But there is a condition. And the condition, of course, is the
reason why we go to all this trouble, so that we could put the
condition in. The condition says: Whenever you distribute anything
that contains any piece of this program, that whole program must be
distributed under these same terms, no more and no less. So you can
change the program and distribute a modified version, but when you do,
the people who get that from you must get the same freedom that you
got from us. And not just for the parts of it — the excerpts
that you copied from our program — but also for the other parts
of that program that they got from you. The whole of that program has
to be free software for them.
The freedoms to change and redistribute this program become
inalienable rights — a concept from the Declaration of
Independence. Rights that we make sure can't be taken away from you.
And, of course, the specific license that embodies the idea of
copyleft is the GNU General Public License, a controversial license
because it actually has the strength to say no to people who would be
parasites on our community.
There are lots of people who don't appreciate the ideals of
freedom. And they'd be very glad to take the work that we have done,
and use it to get a head start in distributing a non-free program and
tempting people to give up their freedom. And the result would be
— you know, if we let people do that — that we would be
developing these free programs, and we'd constantly have to compete
with improved versions of our own programs. That's no fun.
And, a lot of people also feel — you know, I'm willing to
volunteer my time to contribute to the community, but why should I
volunteer my time to contribute to that company's, to improving that
company's, proprietary program? You know, some people might not even
think that that's evil, but they want to get paid if they're going to
do that. I, personally, would rather not do it at all.
But both of these groups of people — both the ones like me
who say, “I don't want to help that non-free program to get a
foothold in our community” and the ones that say, “Sure,
I'd work for them, but then they better pay me” — both of
us have a good reason to use the GNU General Public License. Because
that says to that company, “You can't just take my work, and
distribute it without the freedom.” Whereas, the non-copyleft
licenses, like the X Windows license, do permit that.
So that is the big division between the two categories of free
software — license-wise. There are the programs that are
copylefted so that the license defends the freedom of the software for
every user. And there are the non-copylefted programs for which
non-free versions are allowed. Somebody can take those
programs and strip off the freedom. You may get that program in a
And that problem exists today. There are still non-free versions
of X Windows being used on our free operating systems. There is even
hardware — which is not really supported — except by a
non-free version of X Windows. And that's a major problem in our
community. Nonetheless, I wouldn't say that X Windows is a bad thing,
you know. I'd say that the developers did not do the best possible
thing that they could have done. But they did release a lot
of software that we could all use.
You know, there's a big difference between less than perfect, and
evil. There are many gradations of good and bad. We have to resist
the temptation to say, if you didn't do the absolute best possible
thing, then you're no good. You know, the people that developed X
Windows made a big contribution to our community. But there's
something better that they could have done. They could have
copylefted parts of the program and prevented those freedom-denying
versions from being distributed by others.
Now, the fact that the GNU General Public License defends your
freedom, uses copyright law to defend your freedom, is, of course, why
Microsoft is attacking it today. See, Microsoft would really like to
be able to take all the code that we wrote and put it into proprietary
programs, have somebody make some improvements, or even just
incompatible changes is all they need. [Laughter]
You know, with Microsoft's marketing clout, they don't need to make
it better to have their version supplant ours. They just have to make
it different and incompatible. And then, put it on everybody's
desktop. So they really don't like the GNU GPL. Because the GNU GPL
won't let them do that. It doesn't allow “embrace and
extend”. It says, if you want to share our code in your
programs, you can. But, you've got to share and share alike. The
changes that you make we have to be allowed to share. So, it's a
two-way cooperation, which is real cooperation.
Many companies — even big companies like IBM and HP are
willing to use our software on this basis. IBM and HP contribute
substantial improvements to GNU software. And they develop other free
software. But, Microsoft doesn't want to do that, so they give it out
that businesses just can't deal with the GPL. Well, if businesses
don't include IBM, and HP and SUN, then maybe they're
right. [Laughter] More about that later.
I should finish the historical story. You see, we set out in 1984
not just to write some free software but to do something much more
coherent: to develop an operating system that was entirely free
software. So that meant we had to write piece after piece after
piece. Of course, we were always looking for shortcuts. The job was
so big that people said we'd never be able to finish. And, I thought
that there was at least a chance that we'd finish it but, obviously,
it's worth looking for shortcuts. So we kept looking around. Is there
any program that somebody else has written that we could manage to
adapt, to plug into here, and that way we won't have to write it from
scratch? For instance, the X Window system. It's true it wasn't
copylefted, but it was free software, so we could use it.
Now, I had wanted to put a window system into GNU from day one. I
wrote a couple of window systems at MIT before I started GNU. And so,
even though Unix had no window system in 1984, I decided that GNU
would have one. But, we never ended up writing a GNU window system,
because X came along. And I said, Goody! One big job we don't have
to do. We'll use X. So I basically said, let's take X, and put it
into the GNU system. And we'll make the other parts of GNU, you know,
work with X, when appropriate. And we found other pieces of software
that had been written by other people, like the text formatter TeX,
some library code from Berkeley. At that time there was Berkeley
Unix, but it was not free software. This library code, initially, was
from a different group at Berkeley, that did research on floating
point. And, so, we kept, we fit in these pieces.
In October 1985, we founded the Free Software Foundation. So
please note, the GNU project came first. The Free Software Foundation
came after, about almost two years after the announcement of the
Project. And the Free Software Foundation is a tax-exempt charity
that raises funds to promote the freedom to share and change software.
And in the 1980's, one of the main things we did with our funds was to
hire people to write parts of GNU. And essential programs, such as
the shell and the C library were written this way, as well as parts of
other programs. The
tar program, which is absolutely
essential, although not exciting at all [Laughter] was written
this way. I believe GNU grep was written this way. And so, we're
approaching our goal.
By 1991, there was just one major piece missing, and that was the
kernel. Now, why did I put off the kernel? Probably because it
doesn't really matter what order you do the things in, at least
technically it doesn't. You've got to do them all anyway. And partly
because I'd hoped we'd be able to find a start at a kernel somewhere
else. And we did. We found Mach, which had been developed at
Carnegie Mellon. And it wasn't the whole kernel; it was the bottom
half of the kernel. So we had to write the top half, but I figured,
you know, things like the file system, the network code, and so on.
But running on top of Mach they're running essentially as user
programs, which ought to make them easier to debug. You can debug
with a real source-level debugger running at the same time. And so, I
thought that way we'd be able to get these, the higher level parts of
the kernel, done in a short time. It didn't work out that way. These
asynchronous, multi-threaded processes, sending messages to each other
turned out to be very hard to debug. And the Mach-based system that
we were using to bootstrap with had a terrible debugging environment,
and it was unreliable, and various problems. It took us years and
years to get the GNU kernel to work.
But, fortunately, our community did not have to wait for the GNU
kernel. Because in 1991, Linus Torvalds developed another free kernel
called Linux. And he used the old-fashioned monolithic design and it
turns out that he got his working much faster than we got ours
working. So maybe that's one of the mistakes that I made: that design
decision. Anyway, at first, we didn't know about Linux, because he
never contacted us to talk about it. Although he did know about the
GNU Project. But he announced it to other people and other places on
the net. And so other people then did the work of combining Linux
with the rest of the GNU system to make a complete free operating
system. Essentially, to make the GNU plus Linux combination.
But, they didn't realize that's what they were doing. You see,
they said, We have a kernel — let's look around and see what
other pieces we can find to put together with the kernel. So, they
looked around — and lo and behold, everything they needed was
already available. What good fortune, they said. [Laughter]
It's all here. We can find everything we need. Let's just take all
these different things and put it together, and have a system.
They didn't know that most of what they found was pieces of the GNU
system. So they didn't realize that they were fitting Linux into the
gap in the GNU system. They thought they were taking Linux and making
a system out of Linux. So they called it a Linux system.
STALLMAN: Can't hear you — what?
STALLMAN: Well, it's just not — you know,
QUESTION: But it's more good fortune then finding
X and Mach?
STALLMAN: Right. The difference is that the
people who developed X and Mach didn't have the goal of making a
complete free operating system. We're the only ones who had that.
And, it was our tremendous work that made the system exist. We
actually did a larger part of the system than any other project. No
coincidence, because those people — they wrote useful parts of
the system. But they didn't do it because they wanted the system to
be finished. They had other reasons.
Now the people who developed X — they thought that designing
across the network window system would be a good project, and it was.
And it turned out to help us make a good free operating system. But
that's not what they hoped for. They didn't even think about that.
It was an accident. An accidental benefit. Now, I'm not saying that
what they did was bad. They did a large free software project.
That's a good thing to do. But they didn't have that ultimate vision.
The GNU Project is where that vision was.
And, so, we were the ones whose — every little piece that
didn't get done by somebody else, we did it. Because we knew that we
wouldn't have a complete system without it. And even if it was
totally boring and unromantic, like
mv. [Laughter] We did it. Or ld, you know
there's nothing very exciting in
ld — but I wrote
one. [Laughter] And I did make efforts to have it do a minimal
amount of disk I/O so that it would be faster and handle bigger
programs. But, you know, I like to do a good job. I like to improve
various things about the program while I'm doing it. But the reason
that I did it wasn't that I had brilliant ideas for a
ld. The reason I did it is that we needed one
that was free. And we couldn't expect anyone else to do it. So, we
had to do it, or find someone to do it.
So, although at this point thousands of people in projects have
contributed to this system, there is one project which is the reason
that this system exists, and that's the GNU Project. It is
basically the GNU System, with other things added since then.
So, however, the practice of calling the system Linux has been a
great blow to the GNU Project, because we don't normally get credit
for what we've done. I think Linux, the kernel, is a very useful
piece of free software, and I have only good things to say about it.
But, well, actually, I can find a few bad things to say about
it. [Laughter] But, basically, I have good things to say about
it. However, the practice of calling the GNU system, Linux, is just a
mistake. I'd like to ask you please to make the small effort
necessary to call the system GNU/Linux, and that way to help us get a
share of the credit.
QUESTION: You need a mascot! Get yourself a
stuffed animal! [Laughter]
STALLMAN: We have one.
QUESTION: You do?
STALLMAN: We have an animal — a
gnu. [Laughter] Anyway. So, yes, when you draw a penguin,
draw a gnu next to it. [Laughter] But, let's save the
questions for the end. I have more to go through.
So, why am I so concerned about this? You know, why do I think it
is worth bothering you and perhaps giving you a, perhaps lowering your
opinion of me, [Laughter] to raise this issue of credit?
Because, you know, some people when I do this, some people think that
it's because I want my ego to be fed, right? Of course, I'm not
saying — I'm not asking you to call it “Stallmanix,”
right? [Laughter] [Applause]
I'm asking you to call it GNU, because I want the GNU Project to
get credit. And there's a very specific reason for that, which is a
lot more important than anybody getting credit, in and of itself. You
see, these days, if you look around in our community most of the
people talking about it and writing about it don't ever mention GNU,
and they don't ever mention these goals of freedom — these
political and social ideals, either. Because the place they come from
The ideas associated with Linux — the philosophy is very
different. It is basically the apolitical philosophy of Linus
Torvalds. So, when people think that the whole system is Linux, they
tend to think: “Oh, it must have been all started by Linux
Torvalds. His philosophy must be the one that we should look at
carefully”. And when they hear about the GNU philosophy, they
say: “Boy, this is so idealistic, this must be awfully
impractical. I'm a Linux-user, not a
What irony! If they only knew! If they knew that the system they
liked — or, in some cases, love and go wild over — is our
idealistic, political philosophy made real.
They still wouldn't have to agree with us. But at least they'd see
a reason to take it seriously, to think about it carefully, to give it
a chance. They would see how it relates to their lives. You know, if
they realized, “I'm using the GNU system. Here's the GNU
philosophy. This philosophy is why this system that I like
very much exists,” they'd at least consider it with a much more
open mind. It doesn't mean that everybody will agree. People think
different things. That's OK. You know, people should make up their
own minds. But I want this philosophy to get the benefit of the
credit for the results it has achieved.
If you look around in our community, you'll find that almost
everywhere, the institutions are calling the system Linux. You know,
reporters mostly call it Linux. It's not right, but they do. The
companies mostly say it that package the system. Oh, and most of
these reporters, when they write articles, they usually don't look at
it as a political issue, or social issue. They're usually looking at
it purely as a business question or what companies are going to
succeed more or less, which is really a fairly minor question for
society. And, if you look at the companies that package the GNU/Linux
system for people to use, well, most of them call it Linux. And they
all add non-free software to it.
See, the GNU GPL says that if you take code, and some code out of a
GPL-covered program, and add some more code to make a bigger program,
that whole program has to be released under the GPL. But you could
put other separate programs on the same disk (of either kind, hard
disk, or CD), and they can have other licenses. That's considered
mere aggregation, and, essentially, just distributing two programs to
somebody at the same time is not something we have any say over. So,
in fact, it is not true — sometimes, I wish it were true —
that if a company uses a GPL-covered program in a product that the
whole product has to be free software. It's not — it doesn't go
to that range — that scope. It's the whole program. If there
are two separate programs that communicate with each other at arm's
length — like by sending messages to each other — then,
they're legally separate, in general. So, these companies, by adding
non-free software to the system, are giving the users, philosophically
and politically, a very bad idea. They're telling the users,
“It is OK to use non-free software. We're even putting it on
this as a bonus.”
If you look at the magazines about the use of the GNU/Linux system,
most of them have a title like “Linux-something or other”.
So they're calling the system Linux most of the time. And they're
filled with ads for non-free software that you could run on top of the
GNU/Linux system. Now those ads have a common message. They say:
Non-free Software Is Good For You. It's So Good That You Might Even
Pay To Get It. [Laughter]
And they call these things “value-added packages”,
which makes a statement about their values. They're saying: Value
practical convenience, not freedom. And, I don't agree with those
values, so I call them “freedom-subtracted
packages”. [Laughter] Because if you have installed a
free operating system, then you now are living in the free world. You
enjoy the benefits of liberty that we worked for so many years to give
you. Those packages give you an opportunity to buckle on a chain.
And then if you look at the trade shows — about the use of
the, dedicated to the use of, the GNU/Linux system, they all call
themselves “Linux” shows. And they're filled with booths
exhibiting non-free software, essentially putting the seal of approval
on the non-free software. So, almost everywhere you look in our
community, the institutions are endorsing the non-free software,
totalling negating the idea of freedom that GNU was developed for.
And the only place that people are likely to come across the idea of
freedom is in connection with GNU, and in connection with free
software, the term, free software. So this is why I ask you: please
call the system GNU/Linux. Please make people aware where the system
came from and why.
Of course, just by using that name, you won't be making an
explanation of the history. You can type four extra characters and
write GNU/Linux; you can say two extra syllables. But, GNU/Linux is
fewer syllables than Windows 2000. [Laughter] But, you're not
telling them a lot, but you're preparing them, so that when they hear
about GNU, and what it's all about, they'll see how that connects to
them and their lives. And that, indirectly, makes a tremendous
difference. So please help us.
You'll note that Microsoft called the GPL an “open source
license”. They don't want people to be thinking in terms of
freedom as the issue. You'll find that they invite people to think in
a narrow way, as consumers, and, of course, not even think very
rationally as consumers, if they're going to choose Microsoft
products. But they don't want people to think as citizens or
statesmen. That's inimical to them. At least it's inimical to their
current business model.
Now, how does free software…well, I can tell you about how
free software relates to our society. A secondary topic that might be
of interest to some of you is how free software relates to business.
Now, in fact, free software is tremendously useful for
business. After all, most businesses in the advanced countries use
software. Only a tiny fraction of them develop software.
And free software is tremendously advantageous for any company that
uses software, because it means that you're in control. Basically,
free software means the users are in control of what the program does.
Either individually, if they care enough to be, or, collectively, when
they care enough to be. Whoever cares enough can exert some
influence. If you don't care, you don't buy. Then you use what other
people prefer. But, if you do care, then you have some say. With
proprietary software, you have essentially no say.
With free software, you can change what you want to change. And it
doesn't matter that there are no programmers in your company; that's
fine. You know, if you wanted to move the walls in your building, you
don't have to be a carpentry company. You just have to be able to go
find a carpenter and say, “What will you charge to do this
job?” And if you want to change around the software you use, you
don't have to be a programming company. You just have to go to a
programming company and say, “What will you charge to implement
these features? And when will you have it done?” And if they
don't do the job, you can go find somebody else.
There's a free market for support. So, any business that cares
about support will find a tremendous advantage in free software. With
proprietary software, support is a monopoly, because one company has
the source code, or maybe a small number of companies that paid a
gigantic amount of money have the source code, if it's Microsoft's
shared source program, but, it's very few. And so, there aren't very
many possible sources of support for you. And that means, that unless
you're a real giant, they don't care about you. Your company is not
important enough for them to care if they lose your business, or what
happens. Once you're using the program, they figure you're locked in
to getting the support from them, because to switch to a different
program is a gigantic job. So, you end up with things like paying for
the privilege of reporting a bug. [Laughter] And once you've
paid, they tell you, “Well, OK, we've noted your bug report.
And in a few months, you can buy an upgrade, and you can see if we've
fixed it.” [Laughter]
Support providers for free software can't get away with that. They
have to please the customers. Of course, you can get a lot of good
support gratis. You post your problem on the Internet. You may get
an answer the next day. But that's not guaranteed, of course. If you
want to be confident, you better make an arrangement with a company
and pay them. And this is, of course, one of the ways that free
software business works.
Another advantage of free software for businesses that use software
is security and privacy. And this applies to individuals as well, but
I brought it up in the context of businesses. You see, when a program
is proprietary, you can't even tell what it really does.
It could have features, deliberately put in that you wouldn't like
if you knew about them, like it might have a backdoor to let the
developer get into your machine. It might snoop on what you do and
send information back. This is not unusual. Some Microsoft software
did this. But it's not only Microsoft. There are other proprietary
programs that snoop on the user. And you can't even tell if it does
this. And, of course, even assuming that the developer's totally
honest, every programmer makes mistakes. There could be bugs that
affect your security which are nobody's fault. But the point is: If
it's not free software, you can't find them. And you can't fix
Nobody has the time to check the source of every program he runs.
You're not going to do that. But with free software there's a large
community, and there are people in that community who are checking
things. And you get the benefit of their checking, because if there's
an accidental bug, there surely are, from time to time, in any
program, they might find it and fix it. And people are much less
likely to put in a deliberate Trojan horse, or a snooping feature, if
they think they might get caught. The proprietary software developers
figure they won't get caught. They'll get away with it undetected.
But a free software developer has to figure that people will look at
that and see it's there. So, in our community, we don't feel we can
get away with ramming a feature down the users' throats that the users
wouldn't like. So we know that if the users don't like it, they'll
make a modified version which doesn't have it. And then, they'll all
start using that version.
In fact, we can all reason enough, we can all figure this out
enough steps ahead, that we probably won't put in that feature. After
all, you're writing a free program; you want people to like your
version; you don't want to put in a thing that you know a lot of
people are going to hate, and have another modified version catch on
instead of yours. So you just realize that the user is king in the
world of free software. In the world of proprietary software, the
customer is not king. Because you are only a customer. You
have no say in the software you use.
In this respect, free software is a new mechanism for democracy to
operate. Professor Lessig, now at Stanford, noted that code functions
as a kind of law. Whoever gets to write the code that just about
everybody uses for all intents and purposes is writing the laws that
run people's lives. With free software, these laws get written in a
democratic way. Not the classical form of democracy — we don't
have a big election and say, “Everybody vote which way should
this feature be done.” [Laughter] Instead we say,
basically, those of you who want to work on implementing the feature
this way, do it. And if you want to work on implementing the feature
that way, do it. And, it gets done one way or the other, you know?
And so, if a lot of people want it this way, it'll get done this way.
So, in this way, everybody contributes to the social decision by
simply taking steps in the direction that he wants to go.
And you're free to take as many steps, personally, as you want to
take. A business is free to commission as many steps as they find
useful to take. And, after you add all these things up, that says
which direction the software goes.
And it's often very useful to be able to take pieces out of some
existing program, presumably usually large pieces, of course, and then
write a certain amount of code of your own, and make a program that
does exactly what you need, which would have cost you an arm and a leg
to develop, if you had to write it all from scratch, if you couldn't
cannibalize large pieces from some existing free software package.
Another thing that results from the fact that the user is king is
that we tend to be very good about compatibility and standardization.
Why? Because users like that. Users are likely to reject a program
that has gratuitous incompatibilities in it. Now, sometimes there's a
certain group of users which actually have a need for a certain kind
of incompatibility, and then they'll have it. That's OK. But when
users want is to follow a standard, we developers have to follow it,
and we know that. And we do it. By contrast, if you look at
proprietary software developers, they often find it advantageous to
deliberately not follow a standard, and not because they
think that they're giving the user an advantage that way, but rather
because they're imposing on the user, locking the user in. And you'll
even find them making changes in their file formats from time to time,
just to force people to get the newest version.
Archivists are finding a problem now, that files written on
computers ten years ago often can't be accessed; they were written
with proprietary software that's essentially lost now. If it were
written with free software, then it could be brought up-to-date and
run. And those things would not, those records would not be lost,
would not be inaccessible. They were even complaining about this on
NPR recently in citing free software as a solution. And so, in
effect, by using a non-free program to store your own data, you are
putting your head in a noose.
So, I've talked about how free software affects most business. But
how does it affect that particular narrow area which is software
business? Well, the answer is mostly not at all. And the reason is
that 90% of the software industry, from what I'm told, is development
of custom software, software that's not meant to be released at all.
For custom software, this issue, or the ethical issue of free or
proprietary, doesn't arise. You see, the issue is, are you users free
to change, and redistribute, the software? If there's only one user,
and that user owns the rights, there's no problem. That
user is free to do all these things. So, in effect, any
custom program that was developed by one company for use
in-house is free software, as long as they have the sense to insist on
getting the source code and all the rights.
And the issue doesn't really arise for software that goes in a
watch or a microwave oven or an automobile ignition system. Because
those are places where you don't download software to install. It's
not a real computer, as far as the user is concerned. And so, it
doesn't raise these issues enough for them to be ethically important.
So, for the most part, the software industry will go along, just as
it's been going. And the interesting thing is that since such a large
fraction of the jobs are in that part of the industry, even if there
were no possibilities for free software business, the developers of
free software could all get day jobs writing custom
software. [Laughter] There's so many; the ratio is so big.
But, as it happens, there is free software business. There are
free software companies, and at the press conference that I'm going to
have, people from a couple of them will join us. And, of course,
there are also companies which are not free software
businesses but do develop useful pieces of free software to release,
and the free software that they produce is substantial.
Now, how do free software businesses work? Well, some of them sell
copies. You know, you're free to copy it but they can still sell
thousands of copies a month. And others sell support and various
kinds of services. I, personally, for the second half of the '80's, I
sold free software support services. Basically I said, for $200 an
hour, I'll change whatever you want me to change in GNU software that
I'd written. And, yes, it was a stiff rate, but if it was a program
that I was the author of, people would figure that I might get the job
done in a lot fewer hours. [Laughter] And I made a living that
way. In fact, I'd made more than I'd ever made before. I also taught
classes. And I kept doing that until 1990, when I got a big prize and
I didn't have to do it any more.
But, 1990 was when the first corporation free software business was
formed, which was Cygnus Support. And their business was to do,
essentially, the same kind of thing that I'd been doing. I certainly
could have worked for them, if I had needed to do that. Since I
didn't need to, I felt it was good for the movement if I remained
independent of any one company. That way, I could say good and bad
things about the various free software and non-free software
companies, without a conflict of interest. I felt that I could serve
the movement more. But, if I had needed that to make a living, sure,
I would have worked for them. It's an ethical business to be in. No
reason I would have felt ashamed to take a job with them. And that
company was profitable in its first year. It was formed with very
little capital, just the money its three founders had. And it kept
growing every year and being profitable every year until they got
greedy, and looked for outside investors, and then they messed things
up. But it was several years of success, before they got greedy.
So, this illustrates one of the exciting things about free
software. Free software demonstrates that you don't need to raise
capital to develop free software. I mean, it's useful;
it can help. You know, if you do raise some capital, you can
hire people and have them write a bunch of software. But you can get
a lot done with a small number of people. And, in fact, the
tremendous efficiency of the process of developing free software is
one of the reasons it's important for the world to switch to free
software. And it also belies what Microsoft says when they say the
GNU GPL is bad, because it makes it harder for them to raise capital
to develop non-free software and take our free software and put our
code into their programs that they won't share with us. Basically, we
don't need to have them raising capital that way. We'll get the job
done anyway. We are getting the job done.
People used to say we could never do a complete free operating
system. Now we've done that and a tremendous amount more. And I
would say that we're about an order of magnitude away from developing
all the general purpose published software needs of the world. And
this is in a world where more than 90% of the users don't use our free
software yet. This is in a world where, although in certain areas of
business, you know, more than half of all the web servers in the world
are running on GNU/Linux with Apache as the web server.
QUESTION: [Inaudible] … What did you
say before, Linux?
STALLMAN: I said GNU/Linux.
QUESTION: You did?
STALLMAN: Yes, if I'm talking about the kernel, I
call it Linux. You know, that's it's name. The kernel was written by
Linus Torvalds, and we should only call it by the name that he chose,
out of respect for the author.
Anyway, but in general, in business most users are not using it.
Most home users are not using our system yet. So, when they are, we
should automatically get 10 times as many volunteers and 10 times as
many customers for the free software businesses that there will be.
And so that will take us that order of magnitude. So at this point, I
am pretty confident that we can do the job.
And, this is important, because Microsoft asks us to feel
desperate. They say, The only way you can have software to run, the
only way you can have innovation, is if you give us power. Let us
dominate you. Let us control what you can do with the software you're
running, so that we can squeeze a lot of money out of you, and use a
certain fraction of that to develop software, and take the rest as
Well, you shouldn't ever feel that desperate. You shouldn't ever
feel so desperate that you give up your freedom. That's very
Another thing that Microsoft, well, not just Microsoft, people who
don't support free software generally adopt a value system in which
the only thing that matters is short-term practical benefits: How much
money am I going to make this year? What job can I get done today?
Short-term thinking and narrow thinking. Their assumption is that it
is ridiculous to imagine that anybody ever might make a sacrifice for
the sake of freedom.
Yesterday, a lot of people were making speeches about Americans who
made sacrifices for the freedom of their compatriots. Some of them
made great sacrifices. They even sacrificed their lives for the kinds
of freedom that everyone in our country has heard about, at least.
(At least, in some of the cases; I guess we have to ignore the war in
[Editor's note: The day before was “Memorial Day” in
the USA. Memorial Day is a day where war heros are
But, fortunately, to maintain our freedom in using software,
doesn't call for big sacrifices. Just tiny, little sacrifices are
enough, like learning a command-line interface, if we don't have a GUI
interface program yet. Like doing the job in this way, because we
don't have a free software package to do it that way, yet. Like,
paying some money to a company that's going to develop a certain free
software package, so that you can have it in a few years. Various
little sacrifices that we can all make. And, in the long run, even we
will have benefited from it. You know, it is really an investment
more than a sacrifice. We just have to have enough long-term view to
realize it's good for us to invest in improving our society, without
counting the nickels and dimes of who gets how much of the benefit
from that investment.
So, at this point, I'm essentially done.
I'd like to mention that there's a new approach to free software
business being proposed by Tony Stanco, which he calls “Free
Developers”, which involves a certain business structure which
hopes eventually to pay out a certain share of the profits to every,
to all the authors of the free software who've joined the
organization. And they're looking at the prospects of getting me some
rather large government software development contracts in India now,
because they're going to be using free software as the basis, having
tremendous cost savings that way.
And so now I guess that I should ask for questions.
STALLMAN: Could you speak up a bit louder please?
I can't really hear you.
QUESTION: How could a company like Microsoft
include a free software contract?
STALLMAN: Well, actually, Microsoft is planning to
shift a lot of its activity into services. And what they're planning
to do is something dirty and dangerous, which is tie the services to
the programs, one to the next, in a sort of zigzag, you know? So that
to use this service, you've got to be using this Microsoft program,
which is going to mean you need to use this service, to this Microsoft
program, so it's all tied together. That's their plan.
Now, the interesting thing is that selling those services doesn't
raise the ethical issue of free software or non-free software. It
might be perfectly fine for them to have the business for those
businesses selling those services over the net to exist. However,
what Microsoft is planning to do is to use them to achieve an even
greater lock, an even greater monopoly, on the software and the
services, and this was described in an article, I believe in Business
Week, recently. And, other people said that it is turning the net
into the Microsoft Company Town.
And this is relevant because, you know, the trial court in the
Microsoft antitrust trial recommended breaking up the company,
Microsoft. But in a way, that makes no sense — it wouldn't do
any good at all — into the operating part and the applications
But having seen that article, I now see a useful, effective way to
split up Microsoft into the services part and the software part, to
require them to deal with each other only at arm's length, that the
services must publish their interfaces, so that anybody can write a
client to talk to those services, and, I guess, that they have to pay
to get the service. Well, that's OK. That's a totally different
If Microsoft is split up in this way […] services and
software, they will not be able to use their software to crush
competition with Microsoft services. And they won't be able to use
the services to crush competition with Microsoft software. And we
will be able to make the free software, and maybe you people will use
it to talk to Microsoft services, and we won't mind.
Because, after all, although Microsoft is the proprietary software
company that has subjugated the most people — the others have
subjugated fewer people, it's not for want of
trying. [Laughter] They just haven't succeeded in subjugating
as many people. So, the problem is not Microsoft and only Microsoft.
Microsoft is just the biggest example of the problem we're trying to
solve, which is proprietary software taking away users' freedom to
cooperate and form an ethical society. So we shouldn't focus too much
on Microsoft, you know, even though they did give me the opportunity
for this platform. That doesn't make them all-important. They're not
the be-all and end-all.
QUESTION: Earlier, you were discussing the
philosophical differences between open source software and free
software. How do you feel about the current trend of GNU/Linux
distributions as they head towards supporting only Intel platforms?
And the fact that it seems that less and less programmers are
programming correctly, and making software that will compile anywhere?
And making software that simply works on Intel systems?
STALLMAN: I don't see an ethical issue there.
Although, in fact, companies that make computers sometimes port the
GNU/Linux system to it. HP apparently did this recently. And, they
didn't bother paying for a port of Windows, because that would have
cost too much. But getting GNU/Linux supported was, I think, five
engineers for a few months. It was easily doable.
Now, of course, I encourage people to use
which is a GNU package that makes it easier to make your programs
portable. I encourage them to do that. Or when somebody else fixes
the bug that it didn't compile on that version of the system, and
sends it to you, you should put it in. But I don't see that as an
QUESTION: Two comments. One is: Recently, you
spoke at MIT. I read the transcript. And someone asked about
patents, and you said that “patents are a totally different
issue. I have no comments on that.”
STALLMAN: Right. I actually have a lot to say
about patents, but it takes an hour. [Laughter]
QUESTION: I wanted to say this: It seems to me
that there is an issue. I mean, there is a reason that companies call
both patents and copyrights things like hard property in trying to get
this concept which is, if they want to use the power of the State to
create a course of monopoly for themselves. And so, what's common
about these things is not that they revolve around the same issues,
but that motivation is not really the public service issues but the
motivation of companies to get a monopoly for their private
STALLMAN: I understand. But, well, I want to
respond because there's not too much time. So I'd like to respond to
You're right that that's what they want. But there's another
reason why they want to use the term intellectual property. It's that
they don't want to encourage people to think carefully about copyright
issues or patent issues. Because copyright law and patent law are
totally different, and the effects of software copyrighted and
software patents are totally different.
Software patents are a restriction on programmers, prohibiting them
from writing certain kinds of programs, whereas copyright doesn't do
that. With copyright, at least if you wrote it yourself, you're
allowed to distribute it. So, it's tremendously important to separate
They have a little bit in common, at a very low level, and
everything else is different. So, please, to encourage clear
thinking, discuss copyright or discuss patents. But don't discuss
intellectual property. I don't have an opinion on intellectual
property. I have opinions on copyrights and patents and software.
QUESTION: You mentioned at the beginning that a
functional language, like recipes, are computer programs. There's a
cross a little bit different than other kinds of language created on.
This is also causing a problem in the DVD case.
STALLMAN: The issues are partly similar but partly
different, for things that are not functional in nature. Part of the
issue transfers but not all of it. Unfortunately, that's another hour
speech. I don't have time to go into it. But I would say that all
functional works ought to be free in the same sense as software. You
know, textbooks, manuals, dictionaries, and recipes, and so on.
QUESTION: I was just wondering on online
music. There are similarities and differences created all through.
STALLMAN: Right. I'd say that the minimum freedom
that we should have for any kind of published information is the
freedom to non-commercially redistribute it, verbatim. For functional
works, we need the freedom to commercially publish a modified version,
because that's tremendously useful to society. For non-functional
works, you know, things that are to entertain, or to be aesthetic, or
to state a certain person's views, you know, perhaps they shouldn't be
modified. And, perhaps that means that it's OK, to have copyright
covering all commercial distribution of them.
Please remember that according to the U.S. Constitution, the
purpose of copyright is to benefit the public. It is to modify the
behavior of certain private parties, so that they will publish more
books. And the benefit of this is that society gets to discuss issues
and learn. And, you know, we have literature. We have scientific
works. The purpose is encourage that. Copyrights do not exist for
the sake of authors, let alone for the sake of publishers. They exist
for the sake of readers and all those who benefit from the
communication of information that happens when people write and others
read. And that goal I agree with.
But in the age of the computer networks, the method is no longer
tenable, because it now requires draconian laws that invade
everybody's privacy and terrorize everyone. You know, years in prison
for sharing with your neighbor. It wasn't like that in the age of the
printing press. Then copyright was an industrial regulation. It
restricted publishers. Now, it's a restriction imposed by the
publishers on the public. So, the power relationship is turned around
180 degrees, even if it's the same law.
QUESTION: So you can have the same thing —
but like in making music from other music?
STALLMAN: Right. That is an interesting
QUESTION: And unique, new works, you know, it's
still a lot of cooperation.
STALLMAN: It is. And I think that probably
requires some kind of fair use concept. Certainly making a few
seconds of sample and using that in making some musical work,
obviously that should be fair use. Even the standard idea of fair use
includes that, if you think about it. Whether courts agree, I'm not
sure, but they should. That wouldn't be a real change in the system
as it has existed.
QUESTION: What do you think about publishing
public information in proprietary formats?
STALLMAN: Oh, it shouldn't be. I mean, the
government should never require citizens to use a non-free program to
access, to communicate with the government in any way, in either
QUESTION: I have been, what I will now say, a
STALLMAN: Thank you. [Laughter]
QUESTION: …for the past four years. The one
thing that has been problematical for me and is something that is
essential, I think, to all of us, is browsing the web.
QUESTION: One thing that has been decidedly a
weakness in using a GNU/Linux system has been browsing the web,
because the prevailing tool for that, Netscape…
STALLMAN: …is not free software.
Let me respond to this. I want to get to the point, for the sake
of getting in more. So, yes. There has been a terrible tendency for
people to use Netscape Navigator on their GNU/Linux systems. And, in
fact all the commercially packaged systems come with it. So this is
an ironic situation: we worked so hard to make a free operating
system, and now, if you go to the store, and you can find versions of
GNU/Linux there, most of them are called Linux, and they're not free.
Oh, well, part of them is. But then, there's Netscape Navigator, and
maybe other non-free programs as well. So, it's very hard to actually
find a free system, unless you know what you're doing. Or, of course,
you can not install Netscape Navigator.
Now, in fact, there have been free web browsers for many years.
There is a free web browser that I used to use called Lynx. It's a
free web browser that is non-graphical; it's text-only. This has a
tremendous advantage, in you don't see the ads. [Laughter]
But anyway, there is a free graphical project called Mozilla, which
is now getting to the point where you can use it. And I occasionally
QUESTION: Konqueror 2.01 has been very good.
STALLMAN: Oh, OK. So that's another free
graphical browser. So, we're finally solving that problem, I
QUESTION: Can you talk to me about that
philosophical/ethical division between free software and open source?
Do you feel that those are irreconcilable? …
[Recording switches tapes; end of question and start of answer
STALLMAN: … to a freedom, and ethics. Or
whether you just say, Well, I hope that you companies will decide it's
more profitable to let us be allowed to do these things.
But, as I said, in a lot of practical work, it doesn't really
matter what a person's politics are. When a person offers to help the
GNU project, we don't say: “You have to agree with our
politics.” We say that in a GNU package, you've got to call the
system GNU/Linux, and you've got to call it free software. What you
say when you're not speaking to the GNU Project, that's up to you.
QUESTION: The company, IBM, started a campaign for
government agencies, to sell their big new machines, that they used
Linux as selling point, and say Linux.
STALLMAN: Yes, of course, it's really the
GNU/Linux systems. [Laughter]
QUESTION: That's right! Well, tell the top sales
person. He doesn't know anything for GNU.
STALLMAN: I have to tell who?
QUESTION: The top sales person.
STALLMAN: Oh yes. The problem is that they've
already carefully decided what they want to say for reasons of their
advantage. And the issue of what is a more accurate, or fair, or
correct way to describe it is not the primary issue that matters to a
company like that. Now, some small companies, yes, there'll be a
boss. And if the boss is inclined to think about things like that, he
might make a decision that way. Not a giant corporation though. It's
a shame, you know.
There's another more important and more substantive issue about
what IBM is doing. They're saying that they're putting a billion
dollars into “Linux”. But perhaps, I should also put
quotes around “into”, as well, because some of that money
is paying people to develop free software. That really is a
contribution to our community. But other parts is paying to pay
people to write proprietary software, or port proprietary software to
run on top of GNU/Linux, and that is not a contribution to
our community. But IBM is lumping that altogether into this. Some of
it might be advertising, which is partly a contribution, even if it's
partly wrong. So, it's a complicated situation. Some of what they're
doing is contribution and some is not. And some is sort is somewhat,
but not exactly. And you can't just lump it altogether and think,
Wow! Whee! A billion dollars from IBM. [Laughter] That's
QUESTION: Can you talk a little bit more about the
thinking that went into the general public license?
STALLMAN: Well, here's the — I'm sorry, I'm
answering his question now. [Laughter]
SCHONBERG: Do you want to reserve some time for
the press conference? Or do you want to continue here?
STALLMAN: Who is here for the press conference?
Not a lot of press. Oh, three — OK. Can you afford if we
— if I go on answering everybody's questions for another ten
minutes or so? OK. So, we'll go on answering everybody's
So, the thinking that went into the GNU GPL? Part of it was that I
wanted to protect the freedom of the community against the phenomena
that I just described with X Windows, which has happened with other
free programs as well. In fact, when I was thinking about this issue,
X Windows was not yet released. But I had seen this problem happen in
other free programs. For instance, TeX. I wanted to make sure that
the users would all have freedom. Otherwise, I realized that I might
write a program, and maybe a lot of people would use the program, but
they wouldn't have freedom. And what's the point of that?
But the other issue I was thinking about was, I wanted to give the
community a feeling that it was not a doormat, a feeling that it was
not prey to any parasite who would wander along. If you don't use
copyleft, you are essentially saying: [speaking meekly]
“Take my code. Do what you want. I don't say no.” So,
anybody can come along and say: [speaking very firmly]
“Ah, I want to make a non-free version of this. I'll just take
it.” And, then, of course, they probably make some improvements,
those non-free versions might appeal to users, and replace the free
versions. And then, what have you accomplished? You've only made a
donation to some proprietary software project.
And when people see that that's happening, when people see, other
people take what I do, and they don't ever give back, it can be
demoralizing. And, this is not just speculation. I had seen that
happen. That was part of what happened to wipe out the old community
that I belonged to the '70's. Some people started becoming
uncooperative. And we assumed that they were profiting thereby. They
certainly acted as if they thought they were profiting. And we
realized that they can just take off cooperation and not give back.
And there was nothing we could do about it. It was very discouraging.
We, those of us who didn't like the trend, even had a discussion and
we couldn't come up with any idea for how we could stop it.
So, the GPL is designed to stop that. And it says, Yes, you are
welcome to join the community and use this code. You can use it to do
all sorts of jobs. But, if you release a modified version, you've got
to release that to our community, as part of our community, as part of
the free world.
So, in fact, there are still many ways that people can get the
benefit of our work and not contribute, like you don't have to write
any software. Lots of people use GNU/Linux and don't write any
software. There's no requirement that you've got to do anything for
us. But if you do a certain kind of thing, you've got to contribute
to it. So what that means is that our community is not a doormat.
And I think that that helped give people the strength to feel, Yes, we
won't just be trampled underfoot by everybody. We'll stand up to
QUESTION: Yes, my question was, considering free
but not copylefted software, since anybody can pick it up and make it
proprietary, is it not possible also for someone to pick it up and
make some changes and release the whole thing under the GPL?
STALLMAN: Yes, it is possible.
QUESTION: Then, that would make all future copies
then be GPL'ed.
STALLMAN: From that branch. But here's why we
don't do that.
STALLMAN: Here's why we don't generally do that.
Let me explain.
QUESTION: OK, yes.
STALLMAN: We could, if we wanted to, take X
Windows, and make a GPL-covered copy and make changes in that. But
there's a much larger group of people working on improving X Windows
and not GPL-ing it. So, if we did that, we would be forking
from them. And that's not very nice treatment of them. And, they
are a part of our community, contributing to our
Second, it would backfire against us, because they're doing a lot
more work on X than we would be. So, our version would be inferior to
theirs, and people wouldn't use it, which means, why go to the trouble
QUESTION: Mmm hmm.
STALLMAN: So when a person has written some
improvement to X Windows, what I say that person should do is
cooperate with the X development team. Send it to them and let them
use it their way. Because they are developing a very important piece
of free software. It's good for us to cooperate with them.
QUESTION: Except, considering X, in particular,
about two years ago, the X Consortium that was far into the non-free
STALLMAN: Well, actually it wasn't open
sourced. It wasn't open sourced, either. They may have said it was.
I can't remember if they said that or not. But it wasn't open
source. It was restricted. You couldn't commercially distribute, I
think. Or you couldn't commercially distribute a modified version, or
something like that. There was a restriction that's considered
unacceptable by both the Free Software movement and the Open Source
And yes, that's what using a non-copyleft license leaves you open
to. In fact, the X Consortium, they had a very rigid policy. They
say: If your program if copylefted even a little bit, we won't
distribute it at all. We won't put it in our distribution.
So, a lot of people were pressured in this way into not
copylefting. And the result was that all of their software was wide
open, later on. When the same people who had pressured a developer to
be too all-permissive, then the X people later said, All right, now we
can put on restrictions, which wasn't very ethical of them.
But, given the situation, would we really want to scrape up the
resources to maintain an alternate GPL-covered version of X? And it
wouldn't make any sense to do that. There are so many other things we
need to do. Let's do them instead. We can cooperate with the X
QUESTION: Do you have a comment, is the GNU a
trademark? And is it practical to include it as part of the GNU
General Public License allowing trademarks?
STALLMAN: We are, actually, applying for trademark
registration on GNU. But it wouldn't really have anything to do with
that. It's a long story to explain why.
QUESTION: You could require the trademark be
displayed with GPL-covered programs.
STALLMAN: No, I don't think so. The licenses
cover individual programs. And when a given program is part of the
GNU Project, nobody lies about that. The name of the system as a
whole is a different issue. And this is an aside. It's not worth
QUESTION: If there was a button that you could
push and force all companies to free their software, would you press
STALLMAN: Well, I would only use this for
published software. You know, I think that people have the right to
write a program privately and use it. And that includes companies.
This is privacy issue. And it's true, there can be times when it is
wrong to do that, like if it is tremendously helpful to humanity, and
you are withholding it from humanity. That is a wrong but that's a
different kind of wrong. It's a different issue, although it's in the
But yes, I think all published software should be free software.
And remember, when it's not free software, that's because of
government intervention. The government is intervening to make it
non-free. The government is creating special legal powers to hand out
to the owners of the programs, so that they can have the police stop
us from using the programs in certain ways. So I would certainly like
to end that.
SCHONBERG: Richard's presentation has invariably
generated an enormous amount of intellectual energy. I would suggest
that some of it should be directed to using, and possibly writing,
We should close the proceedings shortly. I want to say that
Richard has injected into a profession which is known in the general
public for its terminal apolitical nerditude a level of political and
moral discussion which is, I think, unprecedented in our profession.
And we owe him very big for this. I'd like to note to people that
there is a break.
STALLMAN: You are free to leave at any time, you
know. [Laughter] I'm not holding you prisoner here.
STALLMAN: One final thing. Our website: