Richard Stallman at the First Hackers Conference in 1984

The first Hackers Conference was held in Sausalito, California, in November 1984. The makers of the documentary Hackers: Wizards of the Electronic Age interviewed Richard Stallman at the event. They included only parts of the interviews in the film, but made some other footage available. Stallman's statements at the conference went beyond what he had written in the initial announcement of GNU.

It was at this conference that Richard Stallman first publicly and explicitly stated the idea that all software should be free, and makes it clear that “free” refers to freedom, not price, by saying that software should be freely accessible to everyone. This was probably the first time he made that distinction to the public.

Stallman continues by explaining why it is wrong to agree to accept a program on condition of not sharing it with others. So what can one say about a business based on developing nonfree software and luring others into accepting that condition? Such things are bad for society and shouldn't be done at all. (In later years he used stronger condemnation.)

Here are the things he said:

“My project is to make all software free.”

“Imagine if you bought a house and the basement was locked and only the original building contractor had the key. If you needed to make any change, repair anything, you'd have to go to him, and if he was too busy doing something else he'd tell you to get lost and you'd be stuck. You are at that person's mercy and you become downtrodden and resigned. That's what happens when the blueprints to a computer program are kept secret by the organization that sells it. That's the usual way things are done.” Video

“If I'm offered a chance to use a piece of software provided I would agree not to share it with anyone, I feel that it would be wrong, it would spiritually [1] hurt me to agree. So I don't want them investing in software that's owned. And I don't believe that anything is justified to encourage them to invest in software that's owned. I think the really great software has been done by hackers who were doing it because they loved it, because it was playful cleverness, and that will continue in any case. I think there are alternative ways of arranging for some amount of money to go into paying salaries of people, paying them to spend their time writing programs. If people want certain kinds of programs to be written, they can come up with other forms of organization—I can suggest a few—but the important thing is there are lots of alternative ways of doing things. This one has been chosen because it gets the people investing in software companies the most profits of any of the available ways.” Video

“I don't think it's a social imperative to give them the most possible profit. I think the social imperative is that information that's developed should be accessible to everyone as freely as possible. If we look at the principle underlying—the incentive principle, give people incentives to do the things you wish to encourage—and then we say, ‘what are we giving people incentives for?’ we see that we are not giving them any incentives to do the things that benefit society most. If a person has a choice, he can write a program and then encourage everyone to use it in any way that's good for him or he can write the program and then market it hoarding the plans, telling people they are not allowed to share it with their neighbors, being very obnoxious and obstructive. We see he has an incentive to be obnoxious and obstructive, he doesn't have an incentive to cooperate. I think that's sick, I think that's a bad social organization, because we are encouraging most what's not good for us.” Video


[1] Stallman was referring to the tendency for your choices to affect your subsequent ways of thinking and deciding—that they train your mind to give increased heed or decreased heed to your conscience. Subsequently Stallman decided to stop using the word “spiritually” to refer to this, so that people would not think he meant anything supernatural.