Richard Stallman, Founder of Free Software Foundation: Interview XIII – Real Leader Interviews

Richard Stallman was at the National University of Singapore to give speeches about the Free Software Movement. The red and blue posters were apparently all around campus. And the Real Leader team felt the opportunity to meet him for a Real Leader Interview was practically staring-in-the-face. After an exchange of e-mails and sunrises, they were soon sitting in a lounge with the man who has dedicated his life to a movement he believes in. In their words, it was a wonderful experience and hope you find his words and passion inspiring as well!

About Richard Stallman

Richard Matthew Stallman, often shortened to rms, is a well-known software developer and a software freedom activist who launched the free software movement in 1983. During his college years, he also worked as a staff hacker at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab, learning operating system development by doing it. He started the development of the GNU operating system in 1984. GNU is free software: everyone has the freedom to copy it and redistribute it, with or without changes.

Stallman pioneered the concept of copyleft, and is the main author of the GNU General Public License, the most widely used free software license. Since the mid-1990s, Richard has spent most of his time in political advocacy for free software, and spreading the ethical ideas of the movement, as well as campaigning against both software patents and dangerous extension of copyright laws. His suggestion of starting a free online encyclopaedia in 1999 led to the present day Wikipedia. Stallman has also developed a number of pieces of widely used software, including the original Emacs, the GNU Compiler Collection, the GNU Debugger, and various tools in the GNU coreutils.

 We apologize for the inconvenience caused with watching the video of the interview. Richard did not want to upload this interview in youtube as it is not free (‘free’ as in free speech/freedom, not price). He also wanted us to use a non proprietary video format like ogg theora and not the patented formats like mp4. When we chose to use dropbox to stream the video, dropbox suspended our accounts for generating excessive traffic. Kindly download the video from the icon below.

Video of the interview can be downloaded from here. 

The downloaded video can be played through VLC player.

EB: What was the incident that inspired the Free Software Movement?

RMS: It was the death of the existing free software community that I was part of. During the 70s I was using and developing free software, at the artificial intelligence lab in MIT. We used an operating system, the Incompatible Timesharing System or ITS. It had been written by the system hackers of the lab, the team which I subsequently joined. We created free software and we shared any of it with anybody who wanted it. Occasionally, we got programs from other places as well. I learnt to appreciate this way of life!

But the community collapsed after people in the lab found two competing companies making similar products. Not only that but the PDP-10 which the ITS ran on, became obsolete and the system wouldn’t run on anything else. It was written in assembly language. The community was gone and the software was effectively gone. This dropped me suddenly into a world of proprietary software, which I had learnt to recognize as nastiness – a world were people created obstacles for each other instead of cooperating.

In moral terms it was ugly! I expected that my life would be totally miserable if I accepted that. So I decided to do everything within my power to escape from proprietary software. This also meant, making a place to escape. There was no way in 1983 to buy a modern computer and use it with free software. There wasn’t sufficient free software in the world to do that. My job was to develop that free software, either by writing it personally or finding others to do so. Eventually, we would have enough free software that we could use our computer entirely with free software and reject proprietary software.

EB: How did the principles of free software movement evolve?

RMS: Well at the beginning I did not clearly separate in my own mind the true meaning of the word free. I had to distinguish between gratis and freedom respecting or swatantra. When I started giving speeches and explaining to people, I saw that it was necessary to make that distinction. I also had to formulate specific criteria for what counts as free. I had such criteria in mind in the first year or two, when I was looking at existing licenses and deciding if they were adequate.

I hadn’t written down or published such a definition, but I had to do so. Freedom 1 was to study the source code, freedom 2 was to change the code and freedom 3 was to redistribute it. That’s how I formulated it in the beginning.

Of course, freedom to redistribute really meant either with or without changing it. In the 90s there was a legal dispute, which showed me that I had to be explicit about that. I then said there was a freedom to study and change the source code (freedom 1), freedom 2 to distribute exact copies and freedom 3 to distribute copies of your modified versions. I also found out one must explicitly insist on the freedom to run the program as you wish. Until that time I thought it could legally be taken for granted. Therefore I added the freedom 0 which is the freedom to run the program as you wish.

I learnt it was necessary to insist on the freedom to actually use your modified version. If you study and change the source code – is that real practical freedom or purely theoretical freedom? That depends on whether you actually put your modified version of the source code into use in the place you are running a program.

There are products that only run on manufacturers version and refuse to run the users version of the software. If you can study and change the source code but you cant actually run that version – that’s not practical freedom. Freedom 1 later evolved into freedom to study and change the source code so that the program does computing that way you wish.

Nishanth: What exactly do you mean by free software?

RMS:It’s the difference between gratis and libre. In Hindi I believe, there is muft, which is zero price. And then there is swatantra which is freedom. Every time, I say free I am talking about freedom. When I am talking about price I say gratis and to distribute it for free means gratis. That’s not what I am talking about.

Nishanth: You suggested developing a free online encyclopaedia, that’s now Wikipedia..

RMS: I proposed to develop a free encyclopaedia with the same concept of free – having four freedoms. A manual is part of the software distribution. When you redistribute and change the program, you must change the manual. This means you must be able to change the manual and for which we need to give the 4 freedoms to the manual as well.

In the late 80s I wrote down the reasons why manuals for the free software had to be free. But in the late 90s I extended this to all works that are designed to do practical jobs. Reference books, which are designed to look things up, are also designed to suffice practical jobs. So encyclopaedias must be free!

I proposed how to develop a free encyclopaedia – which is actually different from what Wikipedia does. I proposed that individuals would write and publish articles. Since they would be free, other people could publish their modified versions of the article. Your version might be here and my modified version might be there. The idea was that once we had enough articles, we would figure out a way to index them. Wikipedia does it in a very different way by letting people editing articles in a wiki. You can actually change their version.

EB: Ten years from now what does Wikipedia look like?

RMS: Well I don’t see the future. I only see the present and the past. But there are some flaws in Wikipedia now. When most people are wrong about something, Wikipedia would be wrong about it too. It reflects the culture it’s embedded in. You can see this in the tendency to call the GNU system as Linux. There are even some people who fight passionately to do so. They seem to have an upper hand in Wikipedia. Another error it has inherited is that, when writing about the history of computing – treating patents more important than the invention.

They make it seem like an invention isn’t real unless it’s patented. The article will talk about somebody who patented something than that he invented it. What is the bias here? If it’s the history of technology, we should be concerned with what was invented than what was patented.

I guess that they believe that patents could be documented – somehow better for proving history. I guess the ability to study these contemporary sources is of some use for doing research into history. However, what is significant in terms of the results is what was invented and not patented. If somebody did not patent something does that mean something didn’t happen? You will get that impression from reading a lot about the history of technology.

Nishanth: What would you propose is the alternative for patents, to credit someone for their invention?

RMS: There is no real way to prove it. A patent isn’t proof either because patents have been obtained fraudulently. I read a book called The Telephone Gambit, which presents rather convincing evidence that Alexander Graham Bell obtained patent on the telephone fraudulently. He seems to have done so with the help of a confederate in the patent office as well with other people who designed the whole scheme. He agreed to participate and be the front man.

Dhanya: You do not carry a mobile phone. Why so?

RMS: Mobile phones as implemented now I consider ethically unacceptable because they are surveillance and tracking devices. Imagine that I offered you something that would tell the state where you are and enable the state to listen to you at any time. Would you like to carry that device? But that’s what a mobile phone is. Once I found out that they could track the movements of the person carrying it, I said I cant. I wont do a thing like that, no matter how convenient it is. It could even be used as a listening device. That’s possible because they contain malicious non-free software with a back door. Malicious features are common with non-free software. This is an example of surveillance feature and backdoor feature. There are also malicious features that restrict the users in many mobile phones.

For me the choice is clear, I choose freedom rather than connectivity. That applies to my computer as well. I will not connect to the Internet through systems that require me to identify myself. I will not connect to the Internet at Changi Airport. Then they set it up for people to identify themselves and I treated that as impossible.

Dhanya: Would you have any advice for young programmers?

RMS: It’s important to think about freedom and then come to value freedom. You will see why you shouldn’t take away others freedom!

It was a real honour talking to you, RMS. Thanks for showing us how important it is to have our freedom and how far one can go to keep it!

Thank you,
Nishanth for being there!

More to follow, as always, with Real Leader interviews..

From the Real Leader Team – Dhanya, EB and yours truly (whose only contribution was moral support and adding this line – haha!)..