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 at Indymedia.
- 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 other movements.
- 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 relationship.
- 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 concerned about?
- 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 Software?
- 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 hardware. 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 moment?
- 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 amendments?”
- Okay thanks very much.