Interview with Richard Stallman
Please find below an excerpt of the interview byJeremy Andrews with Richard Stallman.
JA: The story of your encounter with non-free printer software in the early 80's is very well known. This incident ultimately resulted in your founding the GNU Project in 1984, and the Free Software Foundation in 1985. You have remained quite active in this movement ever since, as a public speaker and a prolific author of free software. Of which of your many achievements in the past two decades are you the most proud?
Richard Stallman: What I am proud of is that we have built a community where people can use computers and work together in freedom.
JA: What are the largest challenges you're facing today?
Richard Stallman: Software patents. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The broadcast flag. Cards with secret specifications. Non-free Java platforms.
In other words, organized efforts by people with power to put an end to our freedom.
JA: Is there a plan for addressing these issues?
Richard Stallman: Regarding the laws, not much of one, in the US. In other countries that do not yet have these laws, we can try to prevent them.
JA: That's a bit scary.
Richard Stallman: It is.
"Free Software" vs. "Open Source":
JA: You regularly have to explain the differences between "free software" and "open source software", and yet the media continues to confuse these terms. For our readers that may therefor be confused themselves, can you explain the differences, and why it is important to get it right?
Richard Stallman: Free software and open source are the slogans of two different movements with different philosophies. In the free software movement, our goal is to be free to share and cooperate. We say that non-free software is antisocial because it tramples the users' freedom, and we develop free software to escape from that.
The open source movement promotes what they consider a technically superior development model that usually gives technically superior results. The values they cite are the same ones Microsoft appeals to: narrowly practical values.
Free software and open source are also both criteria for software licenses. These criteria are written in very different ways but the licenses accepted are almost the same. The main difference is the difference in philosophy.
Why does the philosophy matter? Because people who don't value their freedom will lose it. If you give people freedom but don't teach them to value it, they won't hold on to it for long. So it is not enough to spread free software. We have to teach people to demand freedom, to fight for freedom. Then we may be able to overcome the problems that today I see no way to solve.
JA: Another frequent area of confusion is the name 'GNU/Linux'. Why is the GNU project's contribution significant enough that it should be in the name of the operating system, especially compared to other large pieces of any Linux-kernel based operating system, such as XFree86?
Richard Stallman: It's no coincidence that the code we wrote for the GNU system is the largest single contribution to the GNU/Linux system today. Many other people and projects have developed free software programs now used in the system; TeX, BSD code, X11, Linux, and Apache are noteworthy examples. But it was the GNU Project that set out to develop a complete free operating system. The combined system we use today is founded on GNU.
JA: In talking about GNU Linux...
Richard Stallman: I prefer to pronounce it GNU-slash-Linux, or GNU-plus-Linux. The reason is that when you say GNU-Linux it is very much prone to suggest a misleading interpretation. After all, we have GNU Emacs which is the version of Emacs which was developed for GNU. If you say "GNU Linux", people will think it means a version of Linux that was developed for GNU. Which is not the fact.
JA: You're trying to point out instead that it's a combination of the two.
Richard Stallman: Exactly. It's GNU plus Linux together.
JA: Which makes up the GNU+Linux operating system that everyone uses.
Richard Stallman: Exactly.
JA: What is gained by people using the term GNU/Linux?
Richard Stallman: People know that Linus Torvalds wrote his program Linux to have fun. And people know that Linus Torvalds did not say that it's wrong to stop users for sharing and changing the software they use. If they think that our system was started by him and primarily owes existence to him, they will tend to follow his philosophy, and that weakens our community.
It's an interesting anecdote to think that the whole operating system exists because an undergraduate thought that it was a fun project. But the real story is that this system exists because of people who were determined to fight for freedom and willing to work for years if that's what it took. That's a story that teaches people something worth learning.
When people forget that, they start drifting toward the practical but superficial values shared by the open source movement and Microsoft: the idea that the only thing that matters about your software is whether it gets your jobs done and what it costs.
JA: Which begins to answer my next question, what is lost when people refuse to use the term GNU/Linux?
Richard Stallman: What's lost is an opportunity to teach people. The software is equally free regardless of whatever name you call it--if, that is, the distro you're using really is free. But the only free GNU/Linux distro I know of is UTUTO. Most versions of the GNU/Linux system are not entirely free software. All the commercial distributors put in non-free software. And then there's Debian which keeps all the non-free software clearly separated, but does distribute it. And those who sell Debian GNU/Linux often add a few non-free programs as a "bonus"... They invite you to think it's a bonus you're getting that your freedom is no longer complete.
If you happen to be running a version of GNU/Linux which doesn't have the non-free software, then the situation is not materially changed by the name you use. But the situation we're likely to find ourselves in five years from now depends on what we teach each other today.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, but if you called it an onion you'd get cooks very confused.
JA: Thank you.
Richard Stallman: Happy hacking!