Interview with Richard Stallman: Four Essential Freedoms

The founder of the free software movement talks about the difference between open source and free software, the dangers of tivoization, and which user-interactive program is most important to him personally.
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When Richard Stallman announced the GNU Project back in 1983, he launched a movement that would, in time, transform the software industry. The Free Software Foundation, also created by Stallman and now sponsor of the GNU Project, has become a driving force behind the adoption of the widely used GNU GPL software license.

We discussed some of the more recent developments with Richard Stallman, whose passion for freedom in computing remains intense. The following Q & A explores the goals of free software, progress that has been made, and ways to maintain or instill freedom in software that we use.

Q: In the past few years we have come to find a number of countries that have decided to embrace Free software as a matter of policy. Many people attribute such milestones to your travels around the globe.

Richard Matthew Stallman: They may be focusing too much on me personally and giving insufficient credit to the rest of the movement. In Ecuador, I personally won the support of President Correa, but that's the only such case I remember. In other countries, other people did most the persuasive work. For instance, the activists of FSF India persuaded the government of Kerala to begin the migration to free software; I could not have done that.

Q: How do you balance the need to preach to groups and individuals, including world leaders, and other important activities such as writing the GNU General Public License version 3 (GPLv3)?

RMS: It is only occasionally that I have a large project such as GPLv3. Most of my work consists of trying to spread awareness of the ideas of free software, and I do it mostly by answering emails such as yours. The basic idea of the Free Software Movement is that the social conditions for use of software are vitally important -- more important even than the software's technical characteristics. A free program respects your freedom and the social solidarity of your community with four essential freedoms:

0. The freedom to run the program as you wish.

Richard Stallman, founder of the free software momement

Richard Stallman

1. The freedom to study the program's source code and then change it so the program does what you wish.

2. The freedom to distribute exact copies to others, when you wish.

3. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others, when you wish.

Everyone knows how to exercise freedoms 0 and 2. If you don't know how to program, then you don't know how to exercise freedoms 1 and 3; but when programmers do so, you can install their modified versions if you wish, so you get the benefits. You can also ask or pay programmers to make the changes you would like to use.

Q: Because software does not have a long history, your sources of inspiration appear not to include people whose life legacy is associated with software. Would you say that the nature of their impact has motivated you to address ethical and moral issues that are not necessarily related to software?

RMS: I was taught ideals of human rights growing up in the United States in the 60s, and then was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and the Antiwar Movement. So I have cared about issues of freedom since before I began programming. Later I started working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab and experienced the free software way of life. Then I took an unusual step: I connected the free software community's way of life with the ideals of freedom I had learned. The result was the Free Software Movement, a movement to give computer users the freedom to cooperate and to control their own computing.

However, my focus on this particular issue of freedom doesn't mean I've lost interest in others’ freedom issues. It's simply that this issue dropped in my lap: I, as a software developer, had a responsibility to fight to end unethical practices in software development. If I did not do so, I would be a victim of them, and very likely at the same time a perpetrator.

In the past decade, I've tried to use the limited fame I've gained from the GNU system and the free software movement as a platform to take action on some other human rights and environmental issues, in stallman.org. I'm not one of the leaders on those issues but I'm glad I can help.

Continued: Microsoft and GNU/Linux


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