Free Software is a political action


In conversation with Richard M. Stallman.

Before I interview Richard M. Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and the man behind the GNU operating system, I decide that's its necessary to make sure I have the facts straight. We hear about Free Software and Open Source a lot, but how many of us really understand the crucial distinctions between the two? So I spend some time imbibing the various issues - what Free Software is (i.e., not gratis necessarily, but free to be distributed, hacked and changed at will); how it differs from Open Source (Eric Raymond's brain child: you can look at the source code to an OS program, but don't necessarily have any other rights over it); what the GPL is (the General Public License, which covers all Free Software and is passed on to new users automatically) the distinction between Copyright and Copyleft (which names the distribution concept embodied by the GPL). It's hard work, but by the end I think I have it all just about straight.

Richard Stallman vor dem British Museum, Juli 1999, Foto

An ongoing attempt to reinsert ideology into software coding

But forget all that. It's not about licenses. It's not about definitions (although Richard Stallman is indeed a man obsessed by clarity, with how to use language precisely, as if it were an extended coding lanugage - he even tells me 'happy hacking' as I go away to write up this piece) - no, the key to understanding this man, the self-styled Saint IGNUcius, and the base of free code that he minds over, is ideology. The GNU initative is an ongoing attempt to reinsert ideology into software coding, to make hackers and users aware of the political issues at stake in the development, distribution and use of software.

There was, once upon a time, a situation in which no one needed to state the proprieties of free software, or do any work to promulgate the ethos behind it. Back in the early 1970s, when Stallman was working at the MIT Artifical Intelligence Lab, he was part of a software-sharing community that had already existed for many years. It was a community typical of many, in which the sharing of software was considered a fundamental part of the working process. 'We didn't call our software "free software",' says Stallman, 'because that term did not yet exist; but that's what it was. Whenever people from another university or a company wanted to port and use a program, we gladly let them. If you saw someone using an unfamiliar and interesting program, you could always ask to see the source code, so that you could read it, change it, or cannibalise parts of it to make a new program.'

But in the early 1980s, that situation began to change significantly. When MIT discontinued the PDP-10 series computer, nearly all of the software written for the free ITS system which ran on it was lost. Stallman:

'When they discontinued the PDP10, most of our software was useless, because it had been written for the PDP10 specifically, and couldn't be ported. Then came the spin-off company, Symbolics, which wiped out the community at MIT by hiring away nearly all of the hackers from the AI lab. Very few hackers were left at MIT, and we were unable to keep the system going. We couldn't sustain ourselves. This was the hardcore of the free software hackers, and now it was gone.'

Further contributing to an already dire situation were negative role models such as those of Brian Reed, who developed Scribe ('a respected piece of work, the first text formatter with semantic markup', Stallman remarks), and then instead of sharing it with the community, licensed it to a company.

'That was a very bad inspiration to a lot of people. People assumed he must be making a lot of money and that they could be doing the same. Later on, incidentally, he said that he actually never did make very much. So it was decision that really benefitted no-one!'

Given the general situation, and models such as Reed, many hackers began to view the proprietary software system - in which purchasers are not allowed to change or share the applications that they buy - as an acceptable paradigm which would allow them to make both good money and good software. But did this happen in a piecemeal way, or were big companies like Microsoft, with their drive to take over the home PC market, involved?

'Microsoft is entirely irrelevant. They were making an OS for tiny toy computers that none of us had the slightest interest in, because they were too weak compared with the computers we were using. Nowadays a PC is a real computer, but then it was just a toy. Microsoft, even if you think of it in the later 80s was not so powerful: it was only in the1990s that it actually became dominant.

So people who focus on Microsoft as a key force in the privatisation of software are making a mistake. Microsoft is simply the most successful of the privateers. The others have subjugated fewer users, but not for lack of trying. To me - because I think of this as a matter of whether I have freedom or not - I don't care whether I'm chained by a big company like Microsoft, or a small company like Sun, or a start-up company or individuals, or whatever. I don't want to have a master. I'm not willing to accept the chains, no matter who is holding them. We should focus on what Microsoft does to subjugate people, and not on the fact that they manage to do it to so many people at once.'

For Stallman, then, the spectacle of software users being more and more subjugated by proprietary software developers invoked a crisis of conscience.

'I was faced with a choice. One: join the proprietary software world, sign the nondisclosure agreements and promise not to help my fellow hackers. Two: leave the computer field altogether. Or three, look for a way that a programmer could do something for the good. I asked myself, was there a program or programs I could write, so as to make a community possible again?'

GNU is not UNIX

As it turned out, there was: the GNU operating system, a free operating system, with which 'we could again have a community of cooperating hackers - and invite anyone to join.' GNU was to be a Unix-compatible system composed of discrete pieces of free software developed in a shared, distributed community, in which all code was open. This was to be the ideological and political basis of the Free Software movement, protected by the Copyleft license, which ensures that no GNU code can never be used in proprietorial product. ('Did any privateers ever try to use your code in their products?' I ask. 'Yeah,' he replies, 'a couple of times, but we rang 'em up, pointed to the license, and they backed off.')

Copyleft uses copyright law, but instead of being a means of privatising software, it flips it over to serve the opposite of its usual purpose - keeping software free. 'Everyone,' Stallman explains, 'gets permission to run the program, copy the program, modify it, and distribute modified versions - but not permission to add restrictions of their own. So the proprietary software makers can't get in.'

And what about Eric Raymond's Open Source movement? Does that not share certain similarities with Free Software?

Richard Stallman: Free Software is a political action which places the principle of freedom above everything else. It is completely different from Open Source, which is a purely practical way of getting software written, and doesn't raise the point that users deserve freedom. Open Source has no ideology.

But isn't Open Source ideological, in the sense that it is a part of the neo-libertarian model in which the 'free market decides', and the best environment for development is an open, unrestricted, distributed one?

Richard Stallman: You may be right. Open Source may well be the best model for developing software. It might produce better software than Free Software. I don't know about that - I can't say. But the most impotant thing for the future of the software community is for people to be thinking about the issue of the freedom. Then we can be on guard against people who invite us to give it up. Because people are constantly inviting us to give it up. There are lots of proprietary programs you can get which will run on a free operating system like GNU/Linux. And each one of them is an opportunity to give up some freedom for convenience.

You can see his point. After spending so much time and involving so many people in coding the GNU OS, it would be a tragedy to let the privateers infest the system with chunks of proprietary code, just for the sake of convenience. That would be a triumph of brute pragmatism - a pragmatism which eschews any notions of putting ethics first, of providing for the future, of thinking about anything other than the moment - over the considered political efforts of the whole Free Software movement. 'These people are not contributing to the software community,' Stallman exclaims with obvious distaste. 'They are just making a non free program.' Whilst he might accept the practicalities of the position of taken by Open Source advocates - and the possibility that it might produce superior software - Richard Stallman will always place the freedom of GNU software above all other imperatives.

So the ideology of Free Software comes first. But how far is the Free Softwae Foundation prepared to go in limiting certain freedoms in order to keep the movement strong? Isn't the Copyleft license quite protectionist? Must you be prepared to legislate restrictively in order to protect the principle freedoms?

Richard Stallman: Yes! Absolutely! Some values in society must be protected. It's a question of what kinds of freedoms you want to have. Not all freedoms can co-exist: some most be selected above others. And in fact, today we're entering a time in which the freedoms afforded to trademark owners and the owners of licenses are going to create a situation in which the freedom someone has is going to depend totally on the amount of money that they have. You still have the possibility for total freedom, but how much you can have depends on how wealthy you are. It's a truly frightening scenario. I'm concerned with telling people about the real issues that affect their freedom in using the Internet and their computers generally. Copyright is the most important, and the most Draconian, form of regulation of the Internet that exists. It effects more people, and effects what people want to do much more than these other kinds of regulation - like ICANN - that people are making a fuss about.

But what about cases such as MP3 and the spread of Warez? Doesn't you think that the increased facility of copying and distributing digital files is contributing to a situation in which proprietary software makers will have to think hard about alternative models of revenue anyway? Aren't, perhaps, the days of proprietary software at an end?

Richard Stallman: Don't underestimate the power of the software companies. Don't underestimate the power of these people. They have a massive amount of money and incredible influence with governments. You're in great danger if you talk about the future of trading gratis software, or sound files, or whatever, being assured. There is a strong likelihood that these people will find a successful strategy to combat this.

And remember that Warez is not 'free software'. It's a gratis binary file. You can exchange it with anyone, sure, but you're still not able to take the source and modify it for your own purposes. That's not truly free.

So do you condone the trading of warez, basically, even if you think it's a second best to free software?

Richard Stallman: Yes. It would be a dreadful thing to have to say that I didn't condone it. I think if you use a piece of software and you like it, you should be able to give it to a friend. You should have that freedom. But at the Free Software Foundation, we won't exchange proprietary software, because we want to behave legally.

So essentially, what you and the FSF want is the right for everyone to exchange software freely, to have the right to modify it as they see fit, and not have to skulk about while they're doing it?

Richard Stallman: Exactly. And sometimes we're going to have to make certain concessions to get there. For instance, when we first starting writing GNU software, we were forced to use Unix because we didn't have any other operating system to base it on. I had to think long and hard about this, and in the end I decided it was justified, because we were using it only to remove the necessity of its existence. Now, that principle still applies. Any of our developers may use a piece of commercial software, but only if they're copying it, so that it can be thrown away.

Do you think that things will get tougher from here on? Is it going to get harder and harder for the FSF to survive in an online environment which is becoming more and more commercialised?

Richard Stallman: I don't think that there's a linear dynamic here. These various activities can go on side by side. If the amount of commercial activity goes up, that doesn't mean that the non commercial activities have gone down, or that they have been changed in any way. The net's not uniform - it's heterogeneous, and a lot of the people working on proprietary software, or open software - they vary in their attitudes. They're not all thinking the same thing. Some are shameless exploiters. Some really want to feel that they're contributing, and they don't quite get it... some are defensive about it and say 'Oh well, we're not all rich like you'. A lot of people, they just assume that I somehow must have been rich when I started the GNU project, so that I just didn't have to face the issues that they would face. But actually I did. I didn't know how I was going to make a living.

And how exactly do you manage to make a living, then?

Richard Stallman: Actually, I've made money in a number of ways since I started the GNU project. After I quit my job at MIT, I was doing some work on documentation, improving MIT's documentation. Then when GNU Emacs came out, I started selling copies of that - but then the FSF took over selling the copies. At that point, I began to make money from free software consulting - which is more than I ever made at MIT, actually. Then in 1990, I got a McArthur Fellowship Prize, which I've saved and invested. I haven't really looked at how that's doing, but I could possibly be alright for a while...

So what's the long term plan?

Richard Stallman: Actually, I don't have one. Things change too unpredicatably for long term plans to be of any use. I see what the problems are, and I look for opportunities to do something effective about one of them. We may not make progress in any particular area, but at least I know we'll make progress somewhere.

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