Richard Stallman, Live and Unplugged

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.
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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.

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Tags: Linux, DRM, Copyright

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