[Reader-list] [arkitectindia] Free Software as a Social Movement | Znet Interview with rms

Anivar Aravind anivar.aravind at gmail.com
Tue Dec 20 16:43:49 IST 2005

An Interesting Interview with RMS on  Free Software as a social movement

Also slashdoted at

Free Software as a Social Movement
Justin Podur interviews Richard Stallman

Richard Stallman is one of the founders of the Free Software Movement
and lead developer of the GNU Operating System. His book is 'Free
Software, Free Society'. I caught up with him by phone on December

JP: Can you first of all explain the "Free Software Movement'.

RMS: The basic idea of the Free Software Movement is that the user of
software deserves certain freedoms. There are four essential freedoms,
which we label freedoms 0 through 3.

Freedom 0 is the freedom to run the software as you wish. Freedom 1 is
the freedom to study and change the source code as you wish. Freedom 2
is the freedom to copy and distribute the software as you wish. And
freedom 3 is the freedom to create and distribute modified versions as
you wish. With these four freedoms, users have full control of their
own computers, and can use their computers to cooperate in a
community. Freedoms 0 and 2 directly benefit all users, since all
users can exercise them. Freedoms 1 and 3, only programmers can
directly exercise, but everyone benefits from them, because everyone
can adopt (or not) the changes that programmers make. Thus, free
software develops under the control of its users.

Non-free software, by contrast, keeps users divided and helpless. It
is distributed in a social scheme designed to divide and subjugate.
The developers of non-free software have power over their users, and
they use this power to the detriment of users in various ways. It is
common for non-free software to contain malicious features, features
that exist not because the users want them, but because the developers
want to force them on the users. The aim of the free software movement
is to escape from non-free software.

JP: What was your history with the free software movement?

RMS: I launched the movement in 1983 with a deliberate decision to
develop a complete world of free software. The idea is not just to
produce a scattering of free programs that were nice to use. Rather,
the idea is to systematically build free software so that one can
escape completely from non-free software. Non-free software is
basically antisocial, it subjugates it users, and it should not exist.
So what I wanted was to create a community in which it does not exist.
A community where we would escape from non-free software into freedom.

The first collection of programs you need in order to escape non-free
software is an operating system. With an operating system, you can do
a lot of things with your computer. Without an operating system, even
if you have a lot of applications, you cannot do anything -- you
cannot run them without an operating system. In 1983 all operating
systems were proprietary. That meant that the first step you had to
take in using a computer was to give up your freedom: they required
users to sign a contract, a promise not to share, just to get an
executable version that you couldn't look at or understand. In order
to use your computer you had to sign something saying you would betray
your community.

Thus, I needed to create a free operating system. It happened that
operating system development was my field, so I was technically suited
for the task. It was also the first job that had to be done.

The operating system we created was compatible with Unix, and was
called GNU. GNU stands for "GNU is Not Unix", and the most important
thing about GNU is that it is not Unix. Unix is a non-free operating
system, and you are not allowed to make a free version of Unix. We
developed a free system that is like Unix, but not Unix. We wrote all
the parts of it from scratch.

In 1983, there were hundreds of components to the Unix operating
system. We began the long process of replacing them one by one. Some
of the components took a few days, others took a year or several.

By 1992, we had all of the essential components except one: the
kernel. The kernel is one of the major essential components of the
system. In GNU, we began developing a kernel in 1990. I chose the
initial design based on a belief that it would be a quick design to
implement. My choice backfired and it took much longer than I'd hoped.
In 1992, the Linux kernel was liberated. It had been released in 1991,
but on a non-free license. In 1992 the developer changed the license
for the kernel, making it free. That meant we had a free operating
system, which I call "GNU/Linux' or "GNU plus Linux'.

However, when this combination was made, the users got confused, and
began to call the whole thing "Linux'. That is not very nice.

First of all, it isn't nice because there are thousands of people
involved in the GNU project who deserve a share of the credit. We
started the project, and did the biggest part of the work, so we
deserve to get equal mention. (Some people believe that the kernel
alone is more important than the rest of the operating system. This
belief appears to result from an attempt to construct a justification
for the "Linux" misnomer.)

But there is more at stake than just credit: the GNU Project was a
campaign for freedom, and Linux was not. The developer of Linux had
other motives, motives that were more personal. That does not diminish
the value of his contribution. His motives were not bad. He developed
the system in order to amuse himself and learn. Amusing oneself is
good -- programming is great fun. Wanting to learn is also good. But
Linux was not designed with the goal of liberating cyberspace, and the
motives for Linux would not have given us the whole GNU/Linux system.

Today tens of millions of users are using an operating system that was
developed so they could have freedom -- but they don't know this,
because they think the system is Linux and that it was developed by a
student "just for fun'.

JP: So the GNU+Linux system is not an accident.

RMS: You cannot rely on accidents to defend freedom. Accidents can
sometimes help, but you need people who are aware and determined to do
this. Because it was not designed specifically for freedom, it is no
coincidence that the first license to Linux was non-free. In fact I
don't know why he changed it.

JP: Does the difference between the GNU project and Linux relate to
the difference between "free software' and "open source'?

RMS: As GNU+Linux came to be used by thousands, and then hundreds of
thousands, and then millions, they started to talk to each other: Look
at how powerful, reliable, convenient, cheap, and fun this system is.
Most people talking about it, though, never mentioned that it was
about freedom. They never thought about it that way. And so our work
spread to more people than our ideas did.

Linus Torvalds, the developer of Linux, never agreed with our ideas.
He was not a proponent of the ethical aspects of our ideas or a critic
of the antisocial nature of non-free software. He just claimed that
our software was technically superior to particular competitors.

That claim happened to be true: in the 1990s, someone did a controlled
experiment to measure the reliability of software, feeding random
input sequences into different programs (Unix systems and GNU
systems), and found GNU to be the most reliable. He repeated the tests
years later, and GNU was still the most reliable.

The ideas of Torvalds led by 1996 to a division in the community on
goals. One group was for freedom, the other for powerful and reliable
software. There were regular public arguments. In 1998 the other camp
chose the term "open source' to describe their position. "Open source'
is not a movement, in my view. It is, perhaps, a collection of ideas,
or a campaign.

JP: Since we will be talking about this more, perhaps now is a good
time to define "movement'.

RMS: I don't have a definition ready, I'll have to think of one. Let
us define it as a collection of people working to promote an ideal. Or
maybe, an ideal, together with an activity to promote it.

JP: So, "open source' is missing the ideal part?

RMS: They recommend a development methodology and claim that the model
will produce superior software. If so, to us, it's a bonus. Freedom
often allows one to achieve convenience. I appreciate having more
powerful software, and if freedom helps that, good. But for us in the
free software movement that is secondary.

JP: And in fact one should be willing to sacrifice some power and
convenience of the software for freedom.

RMS: Absolutely.

The Politics of Free Software

JP: Many of ZNet's readers see themselves as part of some movement --
anti-poverty, or anti-war, or for some other form of social change.
Can you say something about why such folks ought to pay attention and
relate to the free software movement?

RMS: If you are against the globalization of business power, you
should be for free software.

JP: -- But it isn't the global aspect of business power, is it? If it
were local business power, that wouldn't be acceptable?

RMS: -- People who say they are against globalization are really
against the globalization of business power. They are not actually
against globalization as such, because there are other kinds of
globalization, the globalization of cooperation and sharing knowledge,
which they are not against. Free software replaces business power with
cooperation and the sharing of knowledge.

Globalizing a bad thing makes it worse. Business power is bad, so
globalizing it is worse. But globalizing a good thing is usually good.
Cooperation and sharing of knowledge are good, and when they happen
globally, they are even better.

The kind of globalization there are demonstrations against is the
globalization of business power. And free software is a part of that
movement. It is the expression of the opposition to domination of
software users by software developers.

JP: How would you respond to those who suggest that free software
activists lack a sense of proportion? Given the vast scale and
suffering of war, invasions, occupations, poverty, doesn't the freedom
to use computers pale to insignificance?

RMS: Maybe our views have been misrepresented. It is impossible for
one person to be involved in all issues. It shouldn't be surprising
that a programmer would be involved where his skills and talents are
most effective.

If I thought free software was the only or most important issue, I can
see how people might think that that lacks proportion. But I do not
think it is the only or most important issue. I just believe this is
where I can do the most good.

A problem arises when people who might be sympathetic to our ethical
position, but focus on other issues, fall into the habit of helping to
pressure others into using non-free software. It falls to me to tell
them they are doing so, that they with their own actions are giving
certain large companies more power. When you send someone a ".doc'
file, a "Word' file, or an audio or video file in RealPlayer or
Quicktime format, you are actually pressuring someone to give up their
freedom. Perhaps because I constantly have to bring this up, people
believe I don't have a sense of proportion.

Sometimes people take for granted that I will participate in those
activities with them. Thus, when I webcast a speech, I have to ask
which format it is going to be webcast in. I am not going to go along
with a webcast of my speech about freedom that you have to give up
your freedom in order to hear or watch. Once I put my coat over a
camera before giving my speech, when I learned it was webcasting in
RealPlayer format.

JP: Gandhi, in his "Hind Swaraj', which was originally a series of
newspaper articles, asked himself and answered a similar question. He
was talking about how India had to get rid not only of British
control, but of all of the bad attributes of "western civilization'.
He asked himself: "How can one argue against western civilization
using a printing press and writing in English'? His answer was that
sometimes you have to use poison to kill poison.

RMS: But knowing English doesn't subjugate -- you didn't have to give
up any freedom in India to know English. And I imagine that in India,
with so many different languages, there was no better language he
could use to communicate.

JP: When you say there was no better language than English, are you
suggesting that it becomes an ethical issue when there is an
alternative, but not before?

RMS: It becomes an ethical issue when there is a restriction. The use
of English might be good or bad for India, but knowing it doesn't take
away your freedom. India regained independence but didn't get rid of
English; in fact, I learned recently that there are people in India
today whose first language is English and don't speak other languages.

By contrast, to put RealPlayer on your computer, you actually have to
give up some of your freedom.

JP: Should ZNet use free software?

RMS: The alternative is herding people into giving up their freedom,
which is acting contrary to the spirit and purpose of Z.

Most people have not recognized that there is an ethical choice
involved in the use of software, because most people have only seen
proprietary software and have not begun to consider alternative social
arrangements. Z Mag is accustomed to looking at the justice of social
arrangements, and could help others consider the social arrangements
about software.

JP: But is there still an ethical issue if there is no alternative?
If, say, there is no free software way of doing a particular job, for
ZNet for example?

RMS: One can live without doing those jobs.

JP: What criteria? How can one decide such a thing?

RMS: If you absolutely must do a particular job then you should
contribute to the creation of a free replacement. If you are not a
programmer, you can still find a way to contribute--such as by
donating money so others can develop it.

JP: So can you see no circumstances in which using non-free software
would be the lesser of evils?

RMS: There are some special circumstances. To develop GNU, I used
Unix. But first, I thought about whether it would be ethical to do

I concluded it was legitimate to use Unix to develop GNU, because
GNU's purpose was to help everyone else stop using Unix sooner. We
weren't merely using Unix to do some worthwhile job, we were using it
to end the specific evil that we were participating in.

JP: So for ZNet, you wouldn't advocate something that involved losing
readers, scaling back operations ?

RMS: You wouldn't have to.

There is a University in Brazil that decided to switch entirely to
free software, but they could not find free software to do certain
necessary jobs, so they hired programmers to develop the free
software. (This cost a part of the money they saved on license fees.)
ZNet could do that, too. If you participate in development of the free
replacement for a program, then you can excuse temporarily continuing
to run it.

In the case of ZNet, I doubt you would need any free software that
doesn't exist. Web sites and magazines already run with free software
exclusively. You could probably switch very easily.

Capitalism and Strategy

JP: I have read other interviews with you in which you said you are
not anti-capitalist. I think a definition of capitalism might help

RMS: Capitalism is organizing society mainly around business that
people are free to do within certain rules.

JP: Business?

RMS: I don't have a definition of business ready. I think we know what
business means.

JP: -- But "anti-capitalists' use a different definition. They see
capitalism as markets, private property, and, fundamentally, class
hierarchy and class division. Do you see class as fundamental to

RMS: No. We have had a lot of social mobility, class mobility, in the
United States. Fixed classes--which I do not like--are not a necessary
aspect of capitalism.

However, I don't believe that you can use social mobility as an excuse
for poverty. If someone who is very poor has a 5% chance of getting
rich, that does not justify denying that person food, shelter,
clothing, medical care, or education. I believe in the welfare state.

JP: But you are not for equality of outcomes?

RMS: No, I'm not for equality of outcomes. I want to prevent horrible
outcomes. But aside from keeping people safe from excruciating
outcomes, I believe some inequality is unavoidable.

JP: Inequality based on how much effort people put forth?

RMS: Yes, but also luck.

JP: You don't want society to reward luck, though.

RMS: Luck is just another word for chance. It is unavoidable that
chance has an effect on your life. But poverty is avoidable. It is
horrible for people to suffer hunger, death for lack of medical care,
to work 12 hours a day just to survive. (Well, I work 12 hours a day,
but that's unpaid activism, not a job -- so it's ok.)

JP: You get the chance to exercise your talents, which is rewarding.
Do you think society should reward people for their innate talents?

RMS: Not directly, but people can use their talents to do things. I
don't have a problem with someone using their talents to become
successful, I just don't think the highest calling is success. Things
like freedom and the expansion of knowledge are beyond success, beyond
the personal. Personal success is not wrong, but it is limited in
importance, and once you have enough of it it is a shame to keep
striving for that, instead of for truth, beauty, or justice.

I'm a Liberal, in US terms (not Canadian terms). I'm against fascism.

JP: A definition would help here too.

RMS: Fascism is a system of government that sucks up to business and
has no respect for human rights. So the Bush regime is an example, but
there are lots of others. In fact, it seems we are moving towards more
fascism globally.

JP: It is interesting that you used the term "escape' at the beginning
of the interview. Most people who think about "movements' think in
terms of building an opposition, changing public opinion, and forcing
concessions from the powerful.

RMS: What we are doing is direct action. I did not think I could get
anywhere convincing the software companies to make free software if I
did political activities, and in any case I did not have any talent or
skills for it. So I just started writing software. I said, if those
companies won't respect our freedom, we'll develop our own software
that does.

JP: But if we are talking about governments and fascism, what do you
do when they simply make your software illegal?

RMS: Well, then you are shafted. That is what has happened. Certain
kinds of free software are illegal.

JP: What is an example?

RMS: Software to play DVDs. There is a program called DECSS still
circulating underground. But not only has the US outlawed it, but the
US is pressuring other countries to adopt the same censorship. Canada
was considering it, I'm not sure how the case turned out. The European
Union adopted a directive and now countries are implementing it with
laws that are actually harsher than the directive.

JP: How do you deal with that?

RMS: We are trying to oppose it in the countries that have not passed
it and, eventually, we hope to get it abolished and liberate the
countries that have. We cannot do that by direct action, but
developing the software can still be done underground. I think that,
in the US, developing it and not distributing it is not illegal.

Free Software Movement Issues

JP: Let's conclude with some of the other issues the free software
movement is dealing with.

RMS: The main issues are hardware with secret specifications, software
patents, and treacherous computing.

On hardware with secret specifications: it is hard to write free
software for hardware whose specifications are secret. In the 1970s
the computer company would hand you a manual with information about
every level of interface, from the electrical signals to the software,
so you could properly use their products. But for the past 10-15
years, there has been hardware whose specs are secret. Proprietary
software developers can get the specs if they sign a non-disclosure
agreement; the public cannot.

So we are forced to experiment and reverse-engineer, which takes time,
or pressure the companies, which sometimes works. The worst example is
in 3-D graphics, in which most chip specs are secret. One company has
published its specs, and drivers have been written for another without
help. But the company ``NVidious' (that's what I call it) has not been
co-operative, and I think people should not buy computers with its

An illustration of software patents is excerpted from my op-ed from
the UK Guardian

A novel and a modern complex programme have certain points in common:
each is large and implements many ideas. Suppose patent law had been
applied to novels in the 1800s; suppose states such as France had
permitted the patenting of literary ideas. How would this have
affected Hugo's writing? How would the effects of literary patents
compare with the effects of literary copyright?

Consider the novel Les Misérables, written by Hugo. Because he wrote
it, the copyright belonged only to him. He did not have to fear that
some stranger could sue him for copyright infringement and win. That
was impossible, because copyright covers only the details of a work of
authorship, and only restricts copying. Hugo had not copied Les
Misérables, so he was not in danger.

Patents work differently. They cover ideas - each patent is a monopoly
on practising some idea, which is described in the patent itself.

Here's one example of a hypothetical literary patent:

Claim 1: a communication process that represents, in the mind of a
reader, the concept of a character who has been in jail for a long
time and becomes bitter towards society and humankind.

Claim 2: a communication process according to claim 1, wherein said
character subsequently finds moral redemption through the kindness of

Claim 3: a communication process according to claims 1 and 2, wherein
said character changes his name during the story.

If such a patent had existed in 1862 when Les Misérables was
published, the novel would have infringed all three claims - all these
things happened to Jean Valjean in the novel. Hugo could have been
sued, and would have lost. The novel could have been prohibited - in
effect, censored - by the patent holder.

Now consider this hypothetical literary patent:

Claim 1: a communication process that represents in the mind of a
reader the concept of a character who has been in jail for a long time
and subsequently changes his name.

Les Misérables would have infringed that patent too, because this
description too fits the life story of Jean Valjean. And here's
another hypothetical patent:

Claim 1: a communication process that represents in the mind of a
reader the concept of a character who finds moral redemption and then
changes his name.

Jean Valjean would have infringed this patent too.

These three patents would all cover the story of one character in a
novel. They overlap, but they do not precisely duplicate each other,
so they could all be valid simultaneously; all three patent holders
could have sued Victor Hugo. Any one of them could have prohibited
publication of Les Misérables.

Other aspects of Les Misérables could also have run afoul of patents.
For instance, there could have been a patent on a fictionalized
portrayal of the Battle of Waterloo, or a patent on using Parisian
slang in fiction. Two more lawsuits. In fact, there is no limit to the
number of different patents that might have been applicable for suing
the author of a work such as Les Misérables. All the patent holders
would say they deserved a reward for the literary progress that their
patented ideas represent, but these obstacles would not promote
progress in literature, they would only obstruct it.

This analogy can help non-programmers see what software patents do.
Software patents cover features, such as defining abbreviations in a
word processor, or natural order recalculation in a spreadsheet.
Patents cover algorithms that programs need to use. Patents cover
aspects of file formats, such as Microsoft's new formats for Word
files. MPEG 2 video format is covered by 39 different US patents.

Just as one novel could infringe many different literary patents at
once, one program can infringe many different patents at once. It is
so much work to identify all the patents infringed by a large program
that only one such study has been done. A 2004 study of Linux, the
kernel of the GNU/Linux operating system, found it infringed 283
different US software patents. That is to say, each of these 283
different patents covers some computational process found somewhere in
the thousands of pages of source code of Linux.

That's why software patents act like landmines for software
developers. And for software users, since the users can be sued too.

Treacherous computing is a plan to change the design of future PCs so
that they will obey software developers instead of you. From the
purpetrators' point of view, it is "trusted", so they call it "trusted
computing"; from the user's point of view, it is treacherous. Which
name you call it expresses whose side you're on. The new XBox is a
preview--it is designed to prevent the user from installing any
software without getting Microsoft's authorization. Here's more
explanation from my essay, 'Can you trust your computer':


The technical idea underlying treacherous computing is that the
computer includes a digital encryption and signature device, and the
keys are kept secret from you. Proprietary programs will use this
device to control which other programs you can run, which documents or
data you can access, and what programs you can pass them to. These
programs will continually download new authorization rules through the
Internet, and impose those rules automatically on your work. If you
don't allow your computer to obtain the new rules periodically from
the Internet, some capabilities will automatically cease to function.

Programs that use treacherous computing will continually download new
authorization rules through the Internet, and impose those rules
automatically on your work. If Microsoft, or the US government, does
not like what you said in a document you wrote, they could post new
instructions telling all computers to refuse to let anyone read that
document. Each computer would obey when it downloads the new
instructions. Your writing would be subject to 1984-style retroactive
erasure. You might be unable to read it yourself.

Treacherous computing puts the existence of free operating systems and
free applications at risk, because you may not be able to run them at
all. Some versions of treacherous computing would require the
operating system to be specifically authorized by a particular
company. Free operating systems could not be installed. Some versions
of treacherous computing would require every program to be
specifically authorized by the operating system developer. You could
not run free applications on such a system. If you did figure out how,
and told someone, that could be a crime.

Anivar Aravind
Free Software foundation of India

"GNU is the system, and Linux is the  kernel."
A proud GNU user http://www.gnu.org
My Weblog at http://www.anivar.nipl.net
Please avoid sending me Word or PowerPoint attachments
See http://www.fsf.org/philosophy/no-word-attachments.html

Knowledge is power... share it equitably!

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