The Law of Success 2.0: An Interview with Richard Stallman
[ This is an interview between Haegwan Kim and Richard
M. Stallman. ]
First, you mentioned that discussing success is not useful for you
and that's really interesting to me. In this interview mainly I want to
talk about freedom and related issue. But before that, could you tell me
the reason that talking about success is not useful to you?
Because some activities are good for society and some are harmful for
society. Of course, many are neutral. If person A knows how to aim for
success, that may be good or bad for the rest of us. And I didn't set
out to be a success. I didn't set out to make a lot of money or become
famous. I set out to give software users freedom, which is a goal that
deserves to be done. It's a goal that's important in its own right and I
just happened to be the person trying to achieve it.
And to a certain extent I have succeeded. It didn't make me rich but
it's success, to an extent, because at least there is now a large
community of people who use and contribute to free software, so in that
sense it's a success. But when I look at it I don't ask,
am I a success? I ask, do users have freedom?
Great to hear that. Can you tell me why you are so in favour of the
Partly it's because I resent being pushed around. I resent anyone
giving me orders. Partly because I grew up in the US, where people were
taught to think about freedom—or at least were. I don't know if
any of the children are taught any of these things any more. Partly
because not long before I was born, there was a World War against some
horrible dictators and partly because I had the experience of having
freedom in my use of computers when I worked at the MIT artificial
intelligence lab in the 70s.
And so I was sensitised to notice the difference between free
software, freedom-respecting software and user-subjugating software. So
for ten years or so, my work was done on improving a free operating
system, most of the parts of which had been developed at MIT by the
group I was part of.
So working, improving that system meant taking advantage of freedom
all the time, so I came to appreciate freedom.
Okay, I see.
But that's not quite the end.
Because the community fell apart in the early 80s and it was no
longer possible to have the freedom. So I saw the contrast
between living in freedom and losing freedom, and I found non-freedom
disgusting. So I decided to do something to bring freedom back.
Can you tell me how…? You are now trying to bring freedom
back, which conversely means there's no freedom at the moment.
Yes. With regard to software. First of all, this is a big question.
In regard to software, proprietary software does not respect users'
freedom because the program controls the users. If the users aren't free
to change a program and do so either individually or in groups
cooperating, then the program controls the users.
Now, with typical proprietary software there is even a licence that
says what users are allowed to do with the program and what they're not
allowed to do and it can be as restrictive as the developer chooses to
make it. For instance, there is a Microsoft program for managing
webpages, websites, and its licence says it can't be used to publish
anything that criticises Microsoft. So here, nonfree software takes away
your freedom of speech.
This is obviously intolerable. If you can't use your copy freely you
can't control your computing. You can only do what you're told. But
then the second level of control, through the source, through writing
the code of the program; if you use a program whose code was written by
somebody else and you can't see it or change it then that somebody
controls what you do. He could make the program do nasty things to you,
and even if you happen to find out, you still can't change it.
Finding out is difficult because you don't have the source code.
Sometimes you will notice some sign that it's doing a nasty thing.
Other times you won't notice. For instance, Windows has spy features
which send information about the use of the machine to Microsoft and
users can't see that this is happening. It was not easy to find out that
these spy features are there, but people found out. They had to be
somewhat clever, in some cases, to discover these spy features.
And then there is a back door in Windows which allows Microsoft to
forcibly install software changes. It doesn't have to ask permission, it
can just sneak them in. So this is what I mean when I say a program
controls the users. But even if there's no back door to allow the
developer to install changes, it's still the case that the program does
what the developer chose to make it do, and if you don't like that, you
can't change it. So you're stuck with it.
So the back door is sort of icing on the cake for his power, because
it means that even if he forgot to do something nasty, he can put it in
retroactively. Without that kind of back door, he's limited to the nasty
things that he thought of in advance.
There are many proprietary programs that are widely used, that do
surveillance; there are many that are specifically designed to restrict
what users could do. Those restrictions which limit what users could do
on the data in their machines are known as digital restrictions
management or DRM, also sometimes referred to as digital handcuffs. So
the point is, using those programs is like being handcuffed because you
can't just move your hands around anywhere you like, the program is
And these are intentional features. Of course, programs also have
bugs, and if you don't have the source code you can't fix the bugs. So
the users, in order to be free, must have the source code, and they must
be able to run their own modified versions of the source code in place
of the original. And they have to be free also to distribute their
modified versions. Because if you don't have that freedom then you
could fix a problem for yourself but you couldn't fix it for anyone
else, which means that each individual user would have to fix the
problem. It would have to be fixed over and over and over.
Also with the freedom to distribute your modified version, the people
who don't know how to program can benefit.
I understand a bit about freedom for software now.
So if I'm using the free program and I make a change in it, which I
know how to do, then I could publish my modified version and then you.
Perhaps you're not a programmer; you would still be able to get the
benefit of the change I make. Not only that, you could pay somebody to
change the program for you, or you could join an organisation whose goal
is to change a certain program in a certain way, and all the members
would put in their money, and that's how they would hire a programmer to
So the definition of free software is the four freedoms that are
needed for the users to have control of their computing. Freedom zero is
the freedom to run the program. Freedom one is the freedom to study the
source code and change it so it does your computing as you wish. Freedom
two is the freedom to help others, which is the freedom to redistribute
exact copies. And freedom three is the freedom to contribute to your
community, which is the freedom to distribute copies of your modified
versions. So these four freedoms ensure that the users, both
individually and collectively, control the program. If the users don't
control the program then the program controls the users. That's
proprietary software and that is what makes it evil.
Sounds similar to Creative Commons—verifying the types of
Yes. Creative commons publishes various licences.
Yes. Do you agree with all those kind of activities on freedom?
They don't have a position on that.
Creative commons licences grant the users varying amounts of freedom.
Two of their licences qualify as free by our criteria. Those are the
creative commons attribution licence and the attribution share-alike
licence, those. And I think maybe there's also the CC zero licence,
which I usually don't think about. But I think those three are all free
The other creative commons licences do not go far enough to make the
work free. However, I wouldn't say that all published works must be
free. I think the published works that must be free are the ones that
you use to do practical jobs. So that means software, recipes for
cooking—and recipes for cooking are a good examples because, as
I'm sure you know, cooks frequently share and modify recipes.
And it would be a tremendous outrage to stop them. So in effect,
cooks treat recipes as free. But let's look at some more works that are
used for practical jobs. Educational works are used for practical jobs;
to teach yourself or teach others. Reference works are used for
practical jobs; to look up some information. And then there are text
fonts, which we use to display or print text so it can be read. These
are examples of works of practical use. These are not the only examples.
I m sure you can find some more. Anyway, works of practical use are the
ones that I believe must be free.
However there are other kinds of works. For instance, there are
essays of opinion and scientific papers and there are artistic works,
and their contributions to society are of a different kind. They don't
contribute through helping you do practical jobs. They are useful in
other ways. So I draw different conclusions about them. I think the
crucial conclusion for those other works is the freedom to
non-commercially redistribute exact copies, in other words the freedom
I'm interested in what you're doing. You're travelling around the
world, like me, and you're contributing to others, not for yourself.
And I love that way you live and I respect it so much. So I was just
wondering, how you describe yourself?
I describe myself as a free software activist.
Activists means the ones who change the world?
First of all, we haven't changed the whole world, not even in this
regard, we've only changed a part of it.
As you can see, most computer users are still running proprietary
systems such as Windows and Macintosh. And then if they have
smartphones, those smartphones are running proprietary software and it
typically has malicious features too. We have a long way to go to
achieve victory. And the other thing is that what we have achieved, I
did not achieve by myself. But I did start this movement.
Your activities have lasted for a long time, what would be your
advice for being an activist?
I was rather lucky, in a sense. I was in a position to do something
that would forward my cause just working by myself. As other people
showed up who were interested they could join. So it's generally good to
look for a way to do things that way, in other words don't set out at
first to make a large organisation and then begin to achieve something.
Start doing things such that you alone, or a small group of people who
support you, can achieve something, and by achieving something you can
attract the attention of others who might want to join.
In fact, I've read that advice in a book. I don't remember where,
because that was a long time ago, but it fit what I had alreasy done. I
can't say I thought of this as a general principle, but it did work well
in my case.
And the other thing is, don't design your activism with the idea that
first you will raise a lot of money and then with the money you'll be
able to do such-and-such, because on that path you almost never get
anywhere. It's so unlikely you will succeed in raising that money that
chances are you'll spend all your time trying and failing, and never
start doing anything about your cause.
So design your plans so that you can start doing things for the cause
soon and that way you'll spend your time getting a certain amount done
for your cause, which is better than nothing.
And of the ones who follow the raise-money-first path, those few that
succeed in raising the money will find that their years of focusing on
making that money have changed their goals. By the time they have that
money they will be used to trying to do everything to get money. Few
people have the ability to turn around and start directing their efforts
toward something other than getting and keeping a lot of money.
Indeed. Can you tell me how did you gather great people when you
launched the Free Software Foundation?
I don't know if I always gathered great people. Some who came to us
were good and some were not but I couldn't tell very well in advance, I
didn't know how to judge that. But enough of them were good that they've
managed to achieve a lot.
So did you gather people or did people automatically come to your
Mostly people had seen what we had already done and found it
interesting, and they would either help or, in some cases, come back
when the FSF was hiring and we would say we were looking for someone to
hire. Maybe we knew them already—who was a good
programmer—by their contributing as a volunteer, so we knew if we
hired them, they would be good.
I see. Thank you so much for your time. As a final question, I want
to ask you about what we should do to spread the freedom.
The big enemy of freedom is governments taking too much power over
society. They do that with two excuses: the excuse is terrorists or
child pornographers. But we have to realise that anti-freedom is a
bigger danger than either of those. For instance, censoring the
internet. We must not accept laws allowing punishment without a fair
The US set a horrible example when it started grabbing people from
all around the world without a trial. Even now, Obama is continuing
pushing military commissions, which are simply trials that don't live up
to the standards for trials. They're not fair trials.
We know a lot of the prisoners were in Guantanamo because somebody
told a malicious rumour about them, and we can't rely on military
tribunals to distinguish between real evidence and malicious rumour or
the fact that somebody was tortured and eventually said whatever his
Right now, I'm told the Iraqi Government is still committing torture
and I was told 30,000 prisoners who are without trial. This is a monster
that the US created. Governments around the world keep looking for more
power. The problem is, they have too much already.
That's true. How can we get the power back from the governments?
I wish I knew.
I do know something about how we can teach people the need for this.
Governments get their power by focusing people's attention on some
For instance, in the US, how did the Government get its power to
torture and imprison people and even just bomb them? The US practises
targeted killing. There's a list of people who are marked for death and
the US Government will drop bombs on them rather than try to arrest
them. Now, how did all this get started? It's because the US focused
people's attention on the secondary danger of terrorists carrying out
the September 11th attacks in the US.
Now, Bush didn't want an investigation of those attacks. Eventually
he was forced to allow an investigation, but he weakened it and
corrupted the investigators, so we can't trust the results. There has
never been a proper investigation of how those attacks were carried out
and who was responsible. So maybe it was planned by a bunch of
terrorists as the Government says, or maybe Cheney was involved, as some
other people say. Without a real investigation, we'll never know.
But given that excuse, George Bush went on to demonstrate that
tyranny is worse than terrorism, because those terrorist attacks killed
under 3,000 people, and they were used as the excuse for the conquest of
Iraq, in which 4500 or so Americans were killed. So even if we only
consider who's more dangerous to Americans, the answer is Bush.
(Laughter) People can't judge what's right or wrong when the
condition is getting complex and excited too much…
And that ignored the million or so Iraqis that Bush killed and that
Bush prevented us from counting. But by preventing them from being
accurately counted, Bush made it possible for low estimates such as that
of Iraq Body Count to seem plausible.
I read recently some journalists went to look for oil buried just
below the beach in Florida, and some sort of Federal agents ordered them
not to, because they don't want news that the oil is there. They're
hoping to cover up the effects so as to get it out of people's minds.
And whether they're doing that for BP or for Obama or both, it's
offensive to try to stop the public from knowing.
Do you believe that the internet has the possibility to change this
That's a different question. The internet is useful for various
things like sharing valuable information. But it's also useful for
surveillance. So the internet can be used for good things and bad
things. So how do we make sure that we are free to share? How do we
limit the surveillance? It's a matter of stopping the Government from
doing things that are unjust.
Richard Stallman is a software freedom activist and the president
of the Free Software Foundation.