Interview: Richard M. Stallman
[ This is an interview between Louis Suarez-Potts and Richard
M. Stallman. ]
Richard M. Stallman is the most forceful and famous
software, a term he coined. “Free” here means free
as in “free speech,” not free as in “free
beer.” Stallman's most famous intervention in the “free
software” movement has surely been the GNU General Public
License (GPL), which
Stallman created around 1985 as a general license that could be
applied to any program. The license codifies the concept of
the “central idea” of which Stallman has described as
giving “everyone permission to run the program, copy the
program, modify the program, and distribute modified versions, but not
permission to add restrictions of their own. Thus, the crucial
freedoms that define ‘free software’ are guaranteed to
everyone who has a copy; they become inalienable rights”
(Stallman, “The GNU Operating System and the Free Software
Movement,” in DiBona, Open Sources: Voices from the Open
Every free-software license since probably owes its existence to
Stallman's vision, including those licenses by which OpenOffice.org code
is governed. Stallman's work is of course resolutely practical. A short
list of his coding accomplishments would include Emacs as well as most
of the components of the GNU/Linux system, which he either wrote or
helped write. In 1990, Stallman received a
Foundation fellowship; he has used the funds given him to further
his free software work. (See Moody, Rebel Code for a good
account of Stallman's mission.)
The opportunity for this interview arose when I saw Stallman lecture
at Sun's Cupertino campus in May. At that time, I requested an email
interview with Stallman. He assented, and shortly after, I submitted
the series of questions below, to which he responded, often at length.
However, my efforts for a follow-up failed, so this interview is only
the first pass. As a consequence, I was unable to extend (and
challenge) some interesting avenues; I have also provided as much
context as possible for Stallman's politics in the links. It goes
without saying that Stallman's views are his own and do not
necessarily represent mine or those of OpenOffice.org.
For more information, readers are encouraged to visit the
GNU website, as well as
Stallman's personal site.
I would like, in this interview, to focus on your current
work, and on the problematic of what kind of society we should
like to live in. Your focus now—and for at least the
last seventeen years—has been on working to make the
social arrangements for using software more ethical.
But, [briefly,] what do you mean by the notion of a what I call here
a more ethical society?
We need to encourage the spirit of cooperation, by respecting other
people's freedom to cooperate and not advancing schemes to divide and
This takes us to a point that is quite important and that I am
hoping you can clarify for our readers. The term you prefer
for your ethic is “free software,” where the word
“free” means freedom from constraints and not free
to take. But the term that more and more people are using is
“Open Source,” a term of quite recent vintage
(1998), and, from your perspective, filled with significant
problems. Of the two, free software is a term that implies an
ethic of living and holds out the promise of a more just
society; the other, “open source,” does not.
Is that a fair statement? Would you address that issue, and clarify
the distinctions for our readers?
That is exactly right. Someone once said it this way: open source is a
development methodology; free software is a political philosophy (or a
The open source movement focuses
on convincing business that it can profit by respecting the users'
freedom to share and change software. We in the
free software movement appreciate those
efforts, but we believe that there is a more important issue at stake:
all programmers [owe] an ethical obligation to respect those freedoms
for other people. Profit is not wrong in itself, but it can't justify
mistreating other people.
Along these lines, there has been considerable confusion over how to
name your idea of an ethical society. Mistakenly, many would assert
that you are suggesting a
Anyone who criticizes certain business practices can expect to be
called “communist” from time to time. This is a way of
changing the subject and evading the issue. If people believe the
charges, they don't listen to what the critics really say. (It is much
easier to attack communism than to attack the views of the free
Pekka Himanen, in his recent work, the Hacker Ethic, has
rightly countered these claims. I would go further: that what you
suggest is close to what political theorists such as
Etzioni would describe as a communitarianism (see, for instance,
And communitarianism is by no means hostile to the market economy that
most people associate with capitalism. Quite the opposite. Would you
speak to what could be called the politics of your ethical system?
There is a place in life for business, but business should not be
allowed dominate everyone's life. The original idea of democracy was
to give the many a way to check the power of the wealthy few.
Today business (and its owners) has far too much political power, and
this undermines democracy in the US and abroad. Candidates face an
effective veto by business, so they dare not disobey its orders.
The power to make laws is being transferred from elected legislatures to
nondemocratic bodies such as the
World Trade Organization,
which was designed
to subordinate public health,
environmental protection, labor standards, and the general standard of
living to the interests of business. Under
American Free Trade Associtation], a Canadian company which was
convicted in Mississippi of anticompetitive practices is
for Federal compensation for its lost business due to the
conviction. They claim that NAFTA takes away states' right to make laws
against anticompetitive practices.
But business is not satisfied yet. The proposed
FTAA [Free Trade Area of the
Americas] would require all governments to privatize their [public
facilities] such as schools, water supply, record keeping, even social
security. This is what Bush wants
track” authority to push through.
Peaceful protestors against the FTAA in Quebec were violently
attacked by police,
who then blamed the fighting on the protestors. One protestor
standing on the street was shot in the throat with a plastic bullet at a
range of 20 feet. He is maimed for life, and seeks to press charges of
attempted murder—if the cops will reveal who shot him.
One protest organizer was attacked on the street by a gang that got
out of a van, knocked him down, and beat him up. When his friends came
to the rescue, the gang revealed itself as undercover police and took
Whatever democracy survives the globalization treaties is likely to be
crushed by the efforts to suppress
opposition to them.
The most immediate criticism of your insistence on ethics would be
that the ethic of free software is fine, but not relevant to the real
world of business.
With over half the world's Web sites running on GNU/Linux and
Apache, that is evidently just FUD.
You should not give such falsehoods credibility by appearing to take them
I think it is worse to leave implicit lies unanswered than to address
them directly. The thrust of my argument was that Microsoft, for
instance, would and does claim that free software does not make money
and rather loses money. They argue it's a bad idea all around. I don't
think that Microsoft is to be ignored, just as the WTO should not be
ignored. But: my question was to suggest a rebuttal this self-evident
FUD, not to credit the errors of others.
So, I'll rephrase my question: Microsoft has attacked the GPL
as business foolishness that is also bad for
“America” (whatever that means). They don't care
about community ethics. How do you then counter their FUD, or
for that matter, the FUD of those who share Microsoft's views?
Stallman did not respond to this query for clarification, but as it
happened, a speech
he recently presented at New York University responded to
Microsoft's propaganda. The Free Software Foundation has presented a
defense, of free software,
[To return to the interview…]
On a more individual level, how would you address the criticism of
person who would like to follow your ethical standards but feels she
cannot because she wants also to make money from her intellectual
This hypothetical person appears to believe that developing free
software is incompatible with being paid. If so, she is
misinformed—hundreds of people are now paid to develop free
software. Some of them work for Sun. She is challenging us to solve a
problem that doesn't really exist.
But what if she can't get one of these free software jobs? That could
happen—not everybody can get them today. But it doesn't excuse
developing proprietary software. A desire for profit is not wrong in
itself, but it isn't the sort of urgent overriding cause that could
excuse mistreating others. Proprietary software divides the users and
keeps them helpless, and that is wrong. Nobody should do that.
So what should she do instead? Anything else. She could get a job in
another field. But she doesn't have to go that far—most software
development is custom software, not meant to be published either as
free software or as proprietary software. In most cases, she can do
that without raising an ethical issue. It isn't heroism, but it isn't
But copyright can be thought of as an author's friend.
In the age of the printing press, that was true:
was an industrial restriction on publishers, requiring them to pay the
author of a book. It did not restrict the readers, because the actions
it restricted were things only a publisher could do.
But this is not true any more. Now copyright is a restriction on the
public, for the sake of the publishers, who give the authors a small
handout to buy their support against the public.
In the current situation, then, who benefits most from copyright?
Were I freelancing again, I would not want to release my works without
the minimal security of payment for my labor copyright affords.
You could do that without copyright. It is part of your business
dealings with the magazine you are writing for.
But please note that I don't say copyright should be entirely
abolished. You can disagree with what I said, but it makes no sense to
attack me for things I did not say. What I said in my speech was that
software which is published should be free.
For a more detailed accounting of Stallman's views regarding
copyright as extended to fields outside of software, readers
are urged to go to the GNU web site,
and to Stallman's personal
site. In particular, readers might want to look at
and Globalization in the Age of Computer Networks”
presented at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in
Cambridge, Massachusetts on 19 April 2001. Discussing his
views on copyright as extended to non-software fields,
Stallman mentioned, in the interview, “Those are ideas
that I came to after some years of working on free software.
People asked me the question, ‘How do these ideas extend
to other kinds of information,’ so in the 90s I started
thinking about the question. This speech gives my thought on
On another point: recently, Argentina became the first country to
consider requiring all government offices to use free software (see,
I think the regulation is still being discussed—not adopted yet.
As far as I know, that is still the case… However,
whether the legislation has been implemented or not, the news
is still encouraging, as at least free software is being
considered seriously as a legitimate option. What does this
(and other news) suggest regarding your future efforts? That
is, are you going to pitch the cause more strongly to
Yes. I am on my way to South Africa in two weeks [from the time of
this writing, mid-May], and a Free Software Foundation is being
started in India. There is also great interest in Brazil.
A last point. The so-called “Open Source” movement
is by and large devoid of humor. Not so the “Free
Software” movement. You, in your lectures and in your
song, provide a gratifying humorousness. I'd like to finish by
asking, What do you accomplish by this?
I accomplish mirth. That's the hacker spirit—Ha Ha, Only Serious.