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Issue Six

Issue Six: Research Methodology Online

An interview with Richard Stallman, Founder of the Free Software Foundation

Wizards of OS, Berlin, July 17, 1999

By Geert Lovink
([email protected])

For the conference report see:

Richard Stallman is of the founder of the Free Software Foundation. Being a programmer since the seventies, he noticed in the early eighties that more and more software, which was freely developed, exchanged and modified slowly got privatized. You can read elsewhere on the Net what happened to him, the efforts to create GNU, it's relation to Linux as a GNU kernel, until the eventual split between 'free software' and 'open source', which, according to Stallman has been specifically designed to squash the freedom-related of free software. Just before his presentation, at the Saturday night closing session, I spoke briefly with Richard Stallman.

GL: Do you think it makes sense to compare free software with free webspace, free e-mail, and free access?

RMS: No, because those are free of cost. You do not have to pay for it. They have been made available to you without a fee. Free software is about freedom, not about price. They are not similar issues at all. It is not the same. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have asked an interesting question. He said to someone: how many legs does a dog have if you call the tale a leg? The answer is four. Because calling the tale a leg does not make it a leg. If people have not yet understood that distinction, then we should explain it to them, not dumb ourselves down to the same level of not understanding. We should raise other people up.

GL: Still, it has remained an objective of public access initiatives, to provide people with free services.

RMS: There is something useful in providing everyone with access to the Net. Especially to the extend that the Net contains some useful information on it. Just as everyone having a telephone is a useful thing. There have been government policies to enable everyone to have telephone service. But those are totally different kind of issues. Because while free software does have an effect on equality of access to things, it has a much more important, direct consequence on the freedom of even those who
do have access to software. If there is a very expensive proprietory software package, then it may be that only wealthy people, or wealthy businesses can afford to use it. But it is also the case that even they who can afford to use it, have to give up their freedom in order to use it. So, in addition to perhaps discriminating against some who do not have money, the proprietory software is even hurting those who do have money. It is a fundamental moral offense against freedom and community.

GL: Last night, Tim O'Reilly suggested that the struggle for open source operating systems might still be of importance, but... that there are other issues...

RMS: No please. I don't want... When this happens I must say something. I do not want people to think of me as being connected with the Open Source movement. I am not. There are other issues. I think I disagree with him what they are. Information that is available from web servers raises issues. But I am concerned how they effect our freedom, rather then how they effect our access. I am not going to be satisfied by simply having access to the information so that I can read it, if I pay. I want to be able to share useful information with other people. I am concerned with having sources of information in a form that is free. So I want to see a free encyclopedia developed, available and accessible to everyone in the world, on the web. I think that in 20, 30 years we can do this in a very decentralized way. If we just spread the idea among teachers, at high school and college level. If teachers write, once in a while one article about a subject they have studied a lot. Over 20 years we will have accumulated articles about everything. We need free text books, or more generally things that you can read to study something. Again, this is an area where teachers can work, each contributing a certain small amount. And eventually we will have it all. It will be translated to all human languages. These are the issue I think about regarding 'infoware', to use Tim's term.

GL: Do you think we can learn something from the history of computer sciences, for example, operating systems?

RMS: I think it is important to study history. I am more concerned trying to change the future then to just study the past. I do like to read about history. But what I spend most of my time on is trying to work for a good outcome in these political questions that we face.

GL: Friedrich Kittler today was calling to shift our attention from the fight for free software towards a better understanding of the architecture of hardware, which is determining software all together, both proprietory and free.

RMS: What would you mean by free hardware? Free software means that users are free to copy and modify it. So let us apply that same issue to hardware and see what we get. This table is free, in the sense that you are free to copy and modify it. But you are free to modify it. How are you going to copy a table? There is no table copier. You could build another
table, which is a certain amount of work. Now let us consider a computer. You cannot copy a computer. You do not have copiers. In fact even Intel could not copy a chip. They can stamp out identical chips by a mass production process. But this starts with masks, a design. Not with a chip. Free design and open architectures are different issues. Yes, an open architecture where the specifications are published, that is an important issue. But it is not the analogous of free software in hardware. You have to be careful taking one important issue, and then transferring it by analogy to another domain. Let me explain this with an example. Free software is a manner of freedom to copy, in a certain context, the things you have on your computer.

Let us consider books 50 years ago. In the age of the printing press the only way to copy was to do mass production, with an expensive piece of equipment. In that context I would say that the issue came out in the opposite direction. Copyright was a reasonable system in the age of the printing press, precisely because it did not obstruct readers. We readers could not copy anyway. In order to make copies of a book, in a feasible way, you needed a printing press, which meant you were a publisher. Computers changed the situation. The usefulness of digital information technology is it makes it easier to copy and manipulate information. So the result is: what used to be an insignificant factor in the decision, became very important, namely the readers and users of information, being able to copy. Now, everyone who artificially tries to take it away is doing us real harm. You can't apply analogy here very much. An even better example. If someone is trying to sell you as car for $ 1000, that would probably be a great deal. If someone would try to sell you a container with milk for $ 1000, that's probably a lousy deal. These are analogist questions. But the analogy does not mean that they come out the same.

GL: What is your impression of the development of free software in Europe?

RMS: I do not know anything general. If you ask me about a specific project I might have an opinion.


RMS: The people who developed KDE made a fundamental mistake in the beginning. They chose to use a library which was not free software. The reason they made this mistake is that they were not thinking about the ultimate use of their software, as a part of an entirely free operating system. If they had been thinking about that they would have realized that the use of Qt made it impossible of their software to be part of a completely free operating system. Because we do not talk about these issues enough it is easy for people, who basically want to contribute, to make a mistake because they have not thought enough about the nature of the situation, and which kind of actions will, or will not contribute to the community. That is why I focus, when I speak, and when I write about, for example, which kind of license will make something usable to the community. How can we make sure the work we do is really useful? You have to encourage people to think more about the global context in which they
work. To think about the overall goal of spreading the free software community, in which we can do everything with free software. How can we increase the range of work that we can do? If you use a proprietory software, you are giving up your freedom. The goal is to be able to use computers and keep our freedom by pushing proprietory software out of our lives.

GL: In which circumstances can a free software community thrive best? Is it still within academia?

RMS: Free software developers are in schools, they are hobbyists, in business. You can find them in government agencies, working for companies where they are employed to do something else. You will find them getting hired specifically to write free software. It is a mistake to assume that it is academic, even 10 years ago.

GL: Wouldn't it be good to have local branches of the Free Software Foundation outside of the USA, here in Germany, and elsewhere?

RMS: It might be useful to start similar organizations. Whether they would be directly connected to the Free Software Foundation, or separate is a detail. It would be important to have an organization, to be able to raise funds in Germany, and hire people to write free software, and write the free documentation for it. There is, for example, in France one region is forming a software institute which will develop free software. In addition there is an initiative to put GNU/Linux systems onto lots of schools. There is one of these in Mexico, and in France also. And with so many people learning to hack, you can expect that some of them will be good programmers, and some of them will write some useful software.

This interview was originally posted to Nettime and has been published here with the kind permission of Geert Lovink. <nettime> is a moderated mailinglist for net criticism, collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
more info: [email protected] and "info nettime-l" in the msg body

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Issue Six