Interview with Richard Stallman: Four Essential Freedoms: Page 2

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Q: Some of the more ubiquitous GNU/Linux distributions are ones that incorporate proprietary drivers and other proprietary software. When and where (in the system) is it acceptable to make short-term compromises in order to create a user base large enough to make Free software compelling for the entire industry to support? Is a so-called "critical mass" needed at all?

RMS: The central idea of the Free Software Movement is that you deserve the four freedoms, and that taking them away from you is wrong. If we were to grant legitimacy to certain non-free software merely because it is convenient, that would contract the central idea. It would be hypocritical, and it would defeat the whole point. You cannot advance the cause of freedom by legitimizing the denial of freedom.

The people that put non-free software into GNU/Linux distributions do so precisely because they are not concerned with users' freedom. They are not supporters of the Free Software Movement, and they usually don't speak about "free software" at all. Instead they talk about "open source", a term coined in 1998 to duck the ethical issues of freedom and social solidarity and focus only on practical convenience. See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html for more explanation.

Q: There are ongoing efforts and even complete projects that mimic Microsoft technologies and bring their functionality to GNU/Linux. How would you say one should handle the need to interact with peers who rely on Microsoft technologies while at the same time maintaining one's freedom?

RMS: I am all in favor of implementing in free software the languages, file formats and protocols popularized by non-free software, when we can do so. However, in many cases these formats and protocols are secret, which means we must do difficult reverse engineering, or patented, which means that implementing them is prohibited. These legal obstacles to the development of free software are among the biggest threats we face.

Q: Recently, with various software patent deals, Microsoft has attempted to marginalize GNU/Linux by adding price and liability to certain distributions of it. What do you think would be the effect of embracing such distributions?

Interview: Richard Stallman
"A patent is an artificial government-imposed monopoly on implementing a certain method or technique."

~ Richard Stallman

RMS: A meaningful discussion of software patents has to start by explaining what software patents are, and what they do.

A patent is an artificial government-imposed monopoly on implementing a certain method or technique. If the method or technique can be implemented by software, so that the patent prohibits the distribution and use of certain programs, we call it a software patent.

A large program implements thousands of methods and techniques together. Each one of them is an idea that might be patented, and thus represents a possible lawsuit against the program's developers and its users. Thus, software patents make software development a dangerous activity. They are an absurd system and ought to be abolished entirely.

Free software is vulnerable to software patents, just like proprietary software and custom software (most of the software industry develops custom software).

I intend to do everything possible to stop Microsoft (or anyone) from converting free software into proprietary software through the use of software patents. Microsoft's deal with Novell tried to do that, and we designed version 3 of the GNU GPL to thwart that scheme.

Q: Microsoft encourages developers to build Web sites that incorporate Silverlight. For GNU/Linux to be able to view Silverlight objects, Moonlight, which is built on top of Mono, needs to be downloaded from Novell's Web site. Would you advise GNU/Linux users to install Moonlight and accept such changes in the World Wide Web?

RMS: Moonlight is free software, so I don't see anything bad about installing Moonlight as such. It seems that the reason it needs to be downloaded from Novell's web site is that it isn't ready to be included in any GNU/Linux distros. However, I don't know what Moonlight actually does.

What I can say in general is that we should continue to demand that web sites use standard (and unpatented) formats and protocols, and put pressure on those that don't.

Q: What about Adobe Flash and its equivalent viewers, such as Gnash, which is Free software?

RMS: Flash illustrates the problems that arise when web sites use nonstandard proprietary formats. I am glad that Gnash, our free Flash player, is making progress, but we had to wait years for this.

People who don't value their freedom are likely to lose it. This is just as true in computing as in other areas of life, and Flash is an example. Flash is inherently a problem because it requires a non-free plug-in. But how did the problem grow to a significant size? This happened because many web users installed the Flash plug-in without first checking whether it was free software. Their foolish disregard for their own freedom made them vulnerable.

The development of Gnash means we may be able to put an end to this particular outbreak of non-freedom. But if people don't learn to stop installing non-free plug-ins, the web will be vulnerable to other outbreaks in the future. It is a lot less work to avoid these problems than to fix them. We need to teach people to refuse to install non-free plug-ins; we need to teach people to care more about their long-term interest of freedom than their immediate desire to view a particular site.

Continued: On Linus Torvalds: "I'm sure he is aware of the dangers."


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