Richard Stallman, Live and Unplugged

Monday Mar 31st 2008 by James Maguire
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At a university talk, the forefather of GNU/Linux has a spirited argument with a developer, then sits down for an interview that covers the GPL, his regrets about Debian, and why he loves to protest.

It’s almost 8 PM on a Tuesday night, and the lecture hall here at Virginia Tech University is filled nearly to capacity. The students – many of them computer science majors – have come to hear Richard Stallman, the grand forefather of GNU/Linux. The crowd is chatty and seems in a good mood.

The Web page advertising this event referred to Stallman as a “legend,” and surely he’s influenced software development. He launched the Free Software Foundation way back in 1985, and led the drafting of the most recent GPL. He tends to provoke strong opinions among admirers and detractors alike, but no matter: Stallman is a tireless Free Software promoter, and he always makes his opinion known.

When he walks in, he points to a table full of knick-knacks for sale – his book, some buttons and t-shirts. Among the items is a small stuffed GNU, a teddy bear-like doll.

He gestures toward the GNUs and makes his sales pitch. “We have GNUs,” he announces loudly.

“What’s a GNU?” chimes in a male student.

Richard Stallman, GNU/Linux

Richard Stallman, GNU/Linux forefather

“GNU’s not Unix!” he replies, to general, free-spirited laughter.

And with that inside joke, he begins his talk. His topic tonight is Copyright vs. Community. As Stallman sees it, copyright law benefits large corporations to the detriment of the public good. This antiquated system doesn’t fit with today’s Internet-based life, requiring suppression of user freedom and draconian punishment to enforce it.

His speech starts as a bit of a snoozer as he provides a long-winded background about copy protection in prior centuries. But when he moves into modern times his material clearly engages the audience. If nothing else, the uncontained boldness of his belief system is entertaining.

We have lost the freedom to watch a DVD, he says, because DVDs contain copy protection locks. Digital Rights Management (DRM) – which he calls Digital Restriction Management – is a nefarious thing. DRM is a conspiracy by Apple, IBM, Intel and others to rob us of our freedom, he says.

“If you reward these schemes, you’re being a fool,” Stallman says. It’s only okay to buy DVDs if you have free software to play them. That is, software that circumvents the copy protection.

He speaks of the time he gave a speech in Spain and his host gave him a CD of local music – but the disc had DRM. He gave it back. “If I can’t copy it, I don’t want it.”

He calls Amazon’s new e-book reader, the Kindle, the “Swindle,” because it prevents the free redistribution of books by those who buy them.

In short, he believes that it should be permissible that all public works be copied and distributed, free of charge, by anyone, to anyone.

With that in mind, “Sharing music on the Internet should be legal. Sharing is an act of freedom.” The RIAA is a “public enemy,” he says, a statement that generates big laughs and big applause from the students.

Knowing that his statements raise a question – how would artists be paid? – he proposes two answers. First, there could be a tax on blank discs (or internet connectivity, or other media), with the money given to musicians. Or, we could all be given a voluntary button to push to send a dollar to our favorite authors and musicians. “Wouldn’t you push it?” he asks.

Richard Stallman, GNU/Linux

"Sharing is an act of freedom"

The crowd seems to be with him, but when he takes questions, plenty of doubts arise.

He goes back and forth with a young Indian-American software developer. The developer doubts that professional development can thrive under Stallman’s system:

Developer: I’m a software developer, I create something and somebody buys it and distributes it for free. How do I make a living?

Stallman: I don’t know, there are thousands of ways you could make a living. Like…get a job [big laugh from crowd]. Your question is full of assumptions that don’t make sense. You are assuming that you must make a living from that particular software. But I see no need for that. Because I know there are lots of people who develop free software and they get paid for doing some other thing. Now what is that other thing? Who knows? Maybe some of them are chefs, and some of them are garbage collectors, and some might be paid to write software.

Developer: So don’t you think you’re violating the perfection of the system of writing software, for developers, stacking the deck against them?

Stallman: No. I’m just insisting on freedom for computer users. Although I sympathize with a programmer’s wish to make more money, that is not as important as respecting other people’s freedom. In fact, developing a non-free program is an attack on society, and I hope that you will not be able to do it. I hope that no one will be able to do it. I hope to see non-free software disappear entirely, because it’s an anti-social practice.

Developer: But freedom comes with responsibilities. On one side is freedom, and on the other is the rights of the people who create the content–

Stallman: [getting agitated]: No, no, no, they have no right to subjugate others! Software developers have no right to take away from other people the freedoms they are entitled to. And so non-free software is completely unethical and should not exist at all. That’s why I work on free software. We will give them the free software so your non-free software will fail! [big laugh and applause from crowd].

Developer: There’s a fundamental fallacy in what you’re saying. I don’t have anything against you writing free software–

Richard Stallman, GNU/Linux

Speaking with students after his speech

Stallman: But I have something against your writing non-free software! [Big audience laugh] You subjugate other people! You want to keep them divided and helpless.

Developer: So it’s your word against mine, and obviously–

Stallman: Well, obviously no one can make anyone agree with us – they’re going to make up their minds. If this were a speech about free software, I’d go into the reasons for this…

The other questions from the audience questions are, for the most part, not as contentious. But a few are pretty prickly. Someone asks him a question using the phrase “open source” and he refuses to answer because he objects to the term “open source.” “But perhaps you’d like to restate your questions,” he says. Someone else asks a question that involves the term “intellectual property,” and Stallman disputes the very notion of “intellectual property.”

Many of the questions reveal that the students are in full agreement with his positions. The question period could go on far longer – Stallman finally has to call a halt, with many hands still raised.

Stallman Interview: GPL, Debian, Promoting Free Software

Afterward, many students gather around Stallman, asking him to autograph their copy of his book. One student asks him to sign a Bad Vista sticker, which he declines. Several groups ask to have their picture taken with him, lining up and smiling for a historic photo.

The GNU dolls aren’t selling too well tonight, so Stallman decides to drop the price from $20 to $15, shouting out the new, lower price to the hangers-on. Still, there are few takers.

As the students drift out, Stallman sits down with me for an interview. On a one on one basis, he’s thoughtful, with little of the bluster evident in the Q&A period.

Q: The Free Software Foundation has taken an activist stance against DRM, particularly in its support of the Defective by Design campaign. What outcome do you hope to produce by this?

Richard Stallman, GNU/Linux

Signing autographs. GNU dolls in foreground.

We hope to organize the public to visibly condemn and reject DRM, so that we will discourage companies from trying to inflict it on us.

Q: How do you see GNU/Linux evolving in the next 5-10 years? What sort of developments do you see happening, both for developers and in the marketplace?

I’m afraid I can’t answer that – I have no idea. I’m not particularly good at foretelling the future. And I have to say, it’s not a question that’s tremendously important to me. Because the [GNU/Linux] system already does the things that I want to do. So the question of its further development almost doesn’t matter to me directly, personally. I want it to develop in ways that will satisfy the users, but I’m not necessarily an expert in what they need.

Q: There’s disagreement in the GNU/Linux community about the GPL, with some developers – notably Linus Torvalds – opting for Version 2, and others moving ahead with Version 3. Do you have a sense of where this impasse is headed?

No, I can’t predict. I see a lot of people have switched to GPLv3 so it seems to be a success in that sense. But the purpose of GPLv3 is to defend users’ freedom better. And in that sense, every time a program moves to GPLv3 it gets the benefit of our improved defense of a user’s freedom. And when a program doesn’t move to GPLv3, then users don’t get that benefit.

So it’s unfortunate for those who use Linux the kernel, that their freedom will not be defended by GPLv3. In particular, they may become victims of Tivoisation. And there will be no way to stop it. Except that they themselves will have to understand that should reject those systems.

Richard Stallman, GNU/Linux

More autograph signing

Q: Are you happy with the GPLv3 adoption to date? Is it proceeding as you hoped?

That question would make sense if this were a business trying to be a success. But that’s not what it is. GPLv3 is not something we did because we hoped it would be a success, it’s something we did to do something about problems that had arisen in the use of free software. Therefore, as long as some important programs are still under GPLv2, we can’t protect their freedom better.

So we need to convince the developers of Linux to move to GPLv3. That is, it needs to be done, but we in the GNU Project can’t convince them because they don’t agree with us and don’t listen to us. So someone else will have to convince them.

Q: Is there any area in which proprietary software and GNU/Linux software can meet in the middle, and work together or–

I don’t know what you mean by “can.” Practically speaking, various proprietary programs run on GNU/Linux – it’s not ethical. Proprietary software shouldn’t exist. So yes, free and non-free software can co-exist the same way that free people and slaves can co-exist. But that’s not a desirable state of affairs.

Q: You once said "the prospect of charging money for software was a crime against humanity.” Do you still believe this?

Well, I was not distinguishing the two meanings of free. It took me a few years after I started the Free Software movement to clearly, without exception, distinguish those two meanings. Even in 1985 I still hadn’t seen that.

Q: Which two meanings?

Free, in regard to freedom, and free, meaning gratis. So I see nothing wrong with charging money for a copy of a program. However, I do see something wrong with denying the user of a program the essential freedoms, after he’s gotten his copy, whether he’s gotten it by paying for it, gratis, or however he got it. Once he’s got his copy, he should have his four freedoms.

So the way I put it back then was a result of not seeing clearly the distinction of the two meanings of the word free. And I think now that it was a mistaken way to put it. What I should have said is, ‘Making a program proprietary is an injustice.’

Q: As you look back on your advocacy for Free Software, is there anything you would have changed?

Yeah, there are some things I would have done differently. I would have worked more closely with Debian in the early years. And I would have compromised on certain technical issues which turn out to not to have been so important. And I would have tried to keep a closer relationship, and I hope that way they would have never started non-free software.

With hindsight you can sometimes see it would have better to have done something differently. But that doesn’t mean it would have been possible for me to have seen it before.

Q: One of my favorite quotes of yours is, “I’m always happy when I’m protesting.” Why do you think this is?

Being at a protest is like being at a party. It’s tremendously exhilarating.

(Richard Stallman's appearance was sponsored by Students for Free Culture at Virginia Tech and the Association for Computing Machinery at Virginia Tech)

Richard Stallman, GNU/Linux

With a group of admirers. (All photos by David Lehn)

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