Interview with Richard Stallman, Edinburgh, 2004
Transcript of an interview with Richard Stallman that took place
at the School of Informatics, Edinburgh University, on 27th
May 2004; originally published
A person doesn't devote his whole life to developing a new form of
freedom without some pre-existing beliefs that drive him to do so.
What drives you to spend so much time on software freedoms?
First of all growing up in the US in the 1960s, I certainly was
exposed to ideas of freedom and then in the 1970s at MIT, I worked as
part of a community of programmers who cooperated and thought about
the ethical and social meaning of this cooperation. When that
community died in the early eighties, and by contrast with that, the
world of proprietary software, which most computer users at the time
were participating in, was morally sickening. And I decided that I
was going to try to create once again a community of cooperation. I
realized that, what I could get out of a life of participation in the
competition to subjugate each other, which is what nonfree software
is, all I could get out of that was money and I would have a life that
I would hate.
Do you think that the Free Software movement, or parts of it, could or
does benefit from collaboration with other social movements?
I don't see very much direct benefit to free software itself. On the
other hand we are starting to see some political parties take up the
cause of free software, because it fits in with ideas of freedom and
cooperation, that they generally support. So in that sense, we are
starting to see a contribution to the ideas of free software from
Have you considered that the Free Software movement is vital to
oppositional movements in the world that are against corporate rule,
militarism, capitalism, etc.?
Well, we are not against capitalism at all. We are against
subjugating people who use computers, one particular business
practice. There are businesses, both large and small that distribute
free software, and contribute to free software, and they are welcome
to use it, welcome to sell copies and we thank them for contributing.
However, free software is a movement against domination, not
necessarily against corporate domination, but against any domination.
The users of software should not be dominated by the developers of the
software, whether those developers be corporations or individuals or
universities or what.
The users shouldn't be kept divided and
helpless. And that's what nonfree software does; It keeps the users
divided and helpless. Divided because you are forbidden to share
copies with anyone else and helpless because you don't get the source
code. So you can't even tell what the program does, let alone change
it. So there is definitely a relationship. We are working against
domination by software developers, many of those software developers
are corporations. And some large corporations exert a form of
domination through nonfree software.
And also that Free Software developers could provide a technical
infrastructure for these movements that would be impossible to develop
using proprietary software, which are too expensive and locked into an
ideological model that reflects the interests of the dominant
world-system like commoditization, exploitation, control and
surveillance instead of sharing, justice, freedom and democracy?
At the moment I would not go quite so far as to say that nonfree
software couldn't be usable by opposition movements, because many of
them are using it. It is not ethical to use nonfree software.
Because… At least it is not ethical to use authorized copies.
But it is not a good thing to use any copies. You see to use
authorized copies, you have to agree not to share with other people
and to agree to that is an unethical act in itself, which we should
reject. And that is the basic reason why I started the free software
movement. I wanted to make it easy to reject the unethical act of
agreeing to the license of a nonfree program.
If you are using an
unauthorized copy then you haven't agreed to that. You haven't
committed that unethical act. But you are still… you are
condemned to living underground. And, you are still unable to get the
source code, so you can't tell for certain what those programs do.
And they might in fact be carrying out surveillance. And I was told
that in Brazil, the use of unauthorized copies was in fact used as an
excuse to imprison the activists of the landless rural workers
movement, which has since switched to free software to escape from
this danger. And they indeed could not afford the authorized copies
of software. So, these things are not lined up directly on a straight
line, but there is an increasing parallel between them, an increasing
The business corporation as a social form is very closed — it
answers to no one except its shareholders for example a small group of
people with money, and its internal bureaucratic organization is about
as democratic as a Soviet ministry. Does the increasing involvement
of corporations with Free Software strike you as something to be
Not directly. Because as long as a program is free software, that
means the users are not being dominated by its developers whether
these developers be it a large business, a small business, a few
individuals or whatever, as long as the software is free they are not
dominating people. However, most of the users of free software do not
view it in ethical and social terms, there is a very effective and
large movement called the Open Source movement, which is designed
specifically to distract the users attention from these ethical and
social issues while talking about our work. And they have been quite
successful, there are many people who use our free software, which we
developed for the sake of freedom and cooperation who have never heard
the reasons for which we did so. And, this makes our community weak.
It is like a nation that has freedom but most of its people have never
been taught to value freedom. They are in a vulnerable position,
because if you say to them: “Give up your freedom and I give you
this valuable thing”, they might say “yes” because
they never learnt why they should say “no”. You put that
together with corporations that might want to take away people's
freedom, gradually and encroach on freedom and you have a
vulnerability. And what we see is that many of the corporate
developers and distributors of free software put it in a package
together with some nonfree user subjugating software and so they say
the user subjugating software is a bonus, that it enhances the system.
And if you haven't learnt to value freedom, you won't see any reason
to disbelieve them.
But this is not a new problem and it is not
limited to large corporations. All of the commercial distributors of
the GNU/Linux system going back something like 7 or 8 years, have made
a practice of including nonfree software in their distributions, and
this is something I have been trying to push against in various ways,
without much success. But, in fact, even the non commercial
distributors of the GNU+Linux operating system have been including and
distributing nonfree software, and the sad thing was, that of all the
many distributions, until recently there was none, that I could
recommend. Now I know of one, that I can recommend, its called
“Ututo-e”, it comes from Argentina. I hope that very soon
I will be able to recommend another.
Why are the more technically-oriented beliefs of the Open Source
movement not enough for you?
The Open Source Movement was founded specifically to discard the
ethical foundation of the free software movement. The Free Software
movement starts from an ethical judgment, that nonfree software is
anti-social, it is wrong treatment of other people. And I reached
this conclusion before I started developing the GNU system. I
developed the GNU system specifically to create an alternative to an
unethical way of using software. When someone says to you:
“you can have this nice package of software, but only if you
first sign a promise you will not share it with anyone else”,
you are being asked to betray the rest of humanity. And I reached the
conclusion in the early eighties, that this was evil, it is wrong
treatment of other people. But there was no other way of using a
All the operating systems required exactly such a
betrayal before you could get a copy. And that was in order to get an
executable binary copy. You could not have the source code at all.
The executable binary copy is just a series of numbers, which even a
programmer has trouble making any sense out of it. The source code
looks sort of like mathematics, and if you have learned how to program
you could read that. But that intelligible form you could not even
get after you signed the betrayal. All you would get is the
nonsensical numbers, which only the computer can understand.
decided to create an alternative, which meant, another operating
system, one that would not have these unethical requirements. One,
that you could get in the form of source code, so that, if you decided
to learn to program you could understand it. And you would get it
without betraying other people and you would be free to pass it on to
others. Free either to give away copies or sell copies. So I began
developing the GNU system, which in the early nineties was the bulk of
what people erroneously started to call Linux. And so it all exists
because of an ethical refusal to go along with an antisocial practice.
But this is controversial.
In the nineties as the GNU+Linux system became popular and got to
have some millions of users, many of them were techies with technical
blinders on, who did not want to look at things in terms of right and
wrong, but only in terms of effective or ineffective. So they began
telling many other people, here is an operating system that is very
reliable, and is powerful, and it's cool and exciting, and you can
get it cheap. And they did not mention, that this allowed you to
avoid an unethical betrayal of the rest of society. That it allowed
users to avoid being kept divided and helpless.
So, there were many
people who used free software, but had never even heard of these
ideas. And that included people in business, who were committed to an
amoral approach to their lives. So, when somebody proposed the term
“Open Source”, they seized on that, as a way that they
could bury these ethical ideas. Now, they have a right to promote
their views. But, I don't share their views, so I decline ever to do
anything under the rubric of “Open Source”, and I hope
that you will, too.
Given that it helps users to understand the freedoms in free software
when the ambiguous use of the word free in English is clarified, what
do you think of use of name FLOSS as in Free/Libre Open Source
There are many people, who, for instance, want to study our community,
or write about our community, and want to avoid taking sides between
the Free Software movement and the Open Source movement. Often they
have heard primarily of the Open Source movement, and they think that
we all support it. So, I point out to them that, in fact, our
community was created by the Free Software movement. But then they
often say that they are not addressing that particular disagreement,
and that they would like to mention both movements without taking a
side. So I recommend the term Free/Libre Open Source Software as a
way they can mention both movements and give equal weight to both.
And they abbreviate FLOSS once they have said what it stands for. So
I think that's a… If you don't want to take a side between the
two movements, then yes, by all means, use that term. Cause what I
hope you will do is take the side of the free software movement. But
not everybody has to. The term is legitimate.
Are you happy with the development of the community which has grown
out of your vision of a free operating system? In what way did it
develop differently from the vision you had at the beginning?
Well, by and large, I am pretty happy with it. But of course there
are some things that I am not happy with, mainly the weakness that so
many people in the community do not think of it is an issue of
freedom, have not learned to value their freedom or even to recognize
it. That makes our future survival questionable. It makes us weak.
And so, when we face various threats, this weakness hampers our
response. Our community could be destroyed by software idea patents.
It could be destroyed by treacherous computing. It can be destroyed
simply by hardware manufacturers' refusal to tell us enough about how
to use the hardware, so that we can't write free software to run the
There are many vulnerabilities, that we have over the
long-term. And, well the things we have to do to survive these threats
are different, in all cases, the more aware we are, the more motivated
we are, the easier it will be for us to do whatever it takes. So the
most fundamental long-term thing we have to recognize and then value
the freedom that free software gives so that the users fight for their
freedoms the same like people fight for freedom of speech, freedom of
the press, freedom of assembly, because those freedoms are also
greatly threatened in the world today.
So what in your opinion threatens the growth of free software at the
I have to point out that our goal is not precisely growth. Our goal
is to liberate cyber-space. Now that does mean liberating all the
users of computers. We hope eventually they all switch to free
software, but we shouldn't take mere success as our goal, that's
missing the ultimate point. But if I take this to mean “what is
holding back the spread of free software”. Well partly at this
point it is inertia, social inertia. Lots of people have learnt to
use windows. And they haven't yet learned to use GNU/Linux. It is no
longer very hard to learn GNU/Linux, 5 years ago it was hard, now it
is not. But still, it is more than zero.
And people who are, you
know,… if you never learned any computer system, than learning
GNU/Linux is as easy as anything, but if you already learned windows
it's easier. It's easier to keep doing what you know. So that's
inertia. And there are more people trained in running windows systems
than in running GNU/Linux systems. So, any time you are trying to
convince people to change over, you are working against inertia. In
addition we have a problem that hardware manufacturers don't cooperate
with us the way they cooperate with Microsoft. So we have that
inertia as well.
And then we have the danger in some countries of
software idea patents. I would like everybody reading this to talk to
all of — or anybody listening to this — to talk to all of
their candidates for the European Parliament and ask where do you
stand on software idea patents? Will you vote to reinstate the
parliament's amendments that were adopted last September and that
apparently are being removed by the Council of Ministers? Will you
vote to bring back those amendments in the second reading? This is a
very concrete question. With a yes or no answer.
You will often get
other kinds of — you may get evasive answers if you ask
“Do you support or oppose software idea patents?” The
people who wrote the directives claim that it does not authorize
software idea patents, they say that this is because the directive
says, that anything to be patented must have a technical character.
But, somebody in the European Commission involved in this, admitted
that, that terms means exactly what they want it to mean,
humpty-dumpty style, so, in fact, it is no limitation on anything. So
if a candidate says: I support the commissions draft because it won't
allow software idea patents you can point this out. And press the
question: “Will you vote for the parliaments previous
- Okay thanks very much.