An Interview with Richard Stallman
1. What is free software?
RMS: Free software is software that respects the freedom of the users. There are four essential freedoms. Freedom 0 is the freedom to run the program as you wish. Freedom 1 is the freedom to study the source code of the program and change it to do what you wish. We call that freedom to help yourself. Freedom 2 is the freedom to make copies of the program and distribute it to others. We call that freedom to help your neighbour. Freedom 3 is the freedom to publish a modified version of the program for the use of everyone else. That is the freedom to help your community. All four freedoms are essential for the users to be free to participate in a community where they have control over the software they use. When software is not free, we call it proprietary. This means that the developer of the software has power over the users and keeps them in a state of divisions and helplessness.
2. How is it different from the open source software?
RMS: Open source is the term that was used in 1998 by people who liked our free software, but didn't like seeing as the ethical, political issues. They preferred to forget about the deeper aspects--the question of respecting the user's freedom--and focus only on the practical benefits that they got from having the freedom. So people who speak about open source are more or less talking about the same software, but they talk about it in a much more superficial way. They only present practical benefits as their values. And they don't say that this is a matter of freedom by escaping from being dominated by developers.
3. What is GNU? And what is Linux?
RMS: GNU is the name of the free software operating system that I began developing in 1984. I wanted to escape from non-free software because I wanted to use computers in freedom. I didn't want any non-free program which takes away my freedom. The only way to use computers in freedom is to have free software to do all the jobs that you need. In particular you need to have a free software operating system. So I decided to develop one. An operating system is made up of many programs. During 1980s we found a few of those programs (developed by others). We developed most of the programs we needed.
In 1991 just one of the programs we needed was still missing. That program is the kernel—the program that distributes the machines' resources to all the other programs that you run. And then in 1991, before we developed a kernel, someone else developed a kernel and called it "Linux". In 1992 he made it free software. At that point it was possible to use Linux to fill the remaining gap in the GNU system, and the combination was the complete free operating system, GNU+Linux.
You hear many people mistakenly call whole system Linux. This is a mistake because Linux is actually just one part. It is much GNU than it was Linux.
4. A large number of computer users do not know programming; they are only concerned with its application in their professional life. How do you think such users would draw benefits from the free software if they do not have the technical expertise, in any case, to use the four levels of freedom that you have talked about?
RMS: This question is a mistake because every computer user has the expertise to directly exercise freedom 0 and freedom 2. These are the freedoms to run the program as you wish, and to make copies to distribute to others. Every computer user can do that. Now, if you don't know how to program you can't directly exercise freedom 1 and 3; the freedom to modify the program and freedom to publish freedom to publish the modified version. But the other users know how to program. So they exercise freedom 1 and freedom 3, and then you get the benefits of that.
When many users would like a certain change, it only takes one programmer to make that change and release that modified version; then all the other people who want that change just have to install that version and run it. So when everybody has this freedom, somebody will exercise it and then everyone gets the benefit.
The result is that free software develops under the control of users. Even non-programmer users participate in this control by deciding which versions to use. Suppose I am the original developer and I developed program and people liked it. But there is one aspect of it, which is very annoying. Well, some programmer somewhere will change that, because he is free to do so, and he will publish his modified version which doesn't have this annoying aspect. Every user is going to switch to his version. So every user can escape from my bad decision, by virtue of the fact that software is free. And it's not necessary for each user to fix this individually.
That's the reason why freedom 3 is essential. It's the freedom to publish your modified version for others to use. That's what makes it sufficient for one programmer to fix the problem—he can release this changed version, and solve the problem for everyone else, including non-programmer users.
5. What is the nature and scale of free software movement? Who are the people involved in it? And what is the mode of their movement?
RMS: We know there are more than a million developers, because there is one development site with a million registered developers. We estimate that there are tens of millions of users, perhaps a hundred million, but we don't know.
You see, because of the fact that everybody is free and nobody has to get permission for anything, the result is nobody can keep track of what everyone is doing. That's a good thing. There is no central authority with the power to keep track of everyone. The result is that I can't answer your questions very well.
Now, as per who participates? Well all kinds of users participate. There are lots of individual users, there are government users, and there are schools that use free software. There are corporations that are users and there are NGOs that are users. Every kind of organisation in the world is a user.
The Brazilian government is embarking on a project to distribute millions of computers to schools in Brazil with GNU+Linux as the operating system. Large and well-known companies such as google are running completely on free software.
As per who the programmers are who participate? Well, it's hard to know, because nobody is keeping track of everything, but others have done studies. You could take a look at them. I am not an expert on that--I don't try to keep track of who is doing what.
6. Do you think that the free software is, in a way, a fight against the globalisation as pursued by the mega corporations?
RMS: Free software is the embodiment in the area of software of this fight. It's a fight against the globalisation of corporate power, and what we offer instead is the globalisation of cooperation and community. Free software has been global from the very beginning. From the beginning of our movement some 20 years ago it has been global. It's a common to find free programs have developers on several continents. And of course it is going to be used by people on all the inhabitant continents. So we are extremely globalized. When people say they are against globalisation what they really are talking about a specific kind of globalisation--the globalisation of the power of the mega corporations. Of course, it's wrong for corporations to have any power; globalizing something that's unjust makes it more unjust. When you globalize cooperation, voluntary cooperation, that's freedom. Freedom and voluntary cooperation are good, so globalizing them makes them a bigger good.
7. Do you think that the free software should become the part of the democratic and progressive movements of the third world countries? If yes then what should be the specific demands related to it?
RMS: Everyone should insist on moving his or her country towards free software. The specific most important measure is to switch to free software in schools at all levels, including universities. When schools decide between free software and user-subjugating software, they are deciding the future of the country, the future of the society. They are deciding to send millions of students either into freedom and self-reliance and capability, or into the domination and dependence. So schools have a responsibility to make this decision for the good of society. It's wrong for schools to teach students to use proprietary software.
Why does Microsoft offer gratis copies of its non-free software operating system to schools? Because Microsoft wants their cooperation in turning the students into people dependent on Microsoft.They want the students to graduate as Windows addicts. So, of course, the first dose is free--gratis, that is, not freedom-respecting. It's just like the tobacco companies that used to give away free samples of cigarettes. They wanted to turn people into addicts.
But schools are supposed to be concerned for the well being of their students, not just at that moment but also in the rest of their lives. So they have to say no when Microsoft asks them to turn the students into Windows addicts.
Government should also establish policies that all the software whose development they pay for will be released as free software (except when it has to be entirely secret). Once in a while, perhaps when it's for military use, the program must be kept secret entirely and will not be released to public at all. Well, that's legitimate. But when it's going to be made available to the public, the government must always do it as free software.
Thirdly, government should insist on only using free software. Because this way they create a market for support services for free software. That helps create the industries that offer support for users of the free software, which will make easier for everyone else to switch.
8. You have introduced the concept of copyleft as opposed to the copyright. What is copyleft and why are you opposed to copyright?
RMS: First of all it's a mistake to say I am opposed to copyright. That's oversimplification. And copyleft is not a replacement for copyright. It's actually a way of using copyright.
You see I am opposed to the way copyright law is normally used in the field of software. It's normally used to take away the user's freedom. Non-free software is unethical, it is wrong and should not exist. Copyright law is normally a way of forbidding the users from copying the software. And it also prohibits modifying the software. But in fact that's just the 2nd level prohibitions. Because the usual way they stop you from modifying the software is they just not let you have the source code. So practically speaking it's too hard to modify the software. I found a way to use copyright law, the same copyright law, to do the exact opposite: to defend the every user's freedom to copy and distribute and modify my software. So I use copyright. When I publish a program it is copyrighted.
People who say that free software is not copyrighted, that it is in the public domain, are making the mistake. Nearly all free software is copyrighted, and then it has a license that explicitly states your freedom. The license says, one way or another, that you are free to copy it, distribute it, to publish modified versions of it and to run it.
Copyleft is a specific way of doing this. We add a condition that every modified version must be under the same license as the original. So that means that it's illegal for a middleman to put himself in between you and me, get the program from me, strip off the freedom, and pass it on as to you without the freedom. This is something that there are many companies that would like to do. They would just love to take my software, add features to it, and then pass it on to you without the freedom. But I don't want them to do that, because it's wrong for them to take away your freedom. Well in this particular case when they use the code that I wrote, I have a way of stopping them using copyright laws. And I use it. I figure if they are going to use this weapon to attack your freedom why shouldn't I use the same weapon to defend your freedom?
Now, copyleft can also be applied to other kind of things including fictions and art. But I would say that all fictions and art have to be free. I think that people should always have the freedom to make copies and share them, for even for fiction and art. But I don't say that people should be free to modify all fiction or art, and I don't think every one has to have the freedom to distribute it commercially. I think it's all right if copyright laws restrict those activities, if they are handled in the current way.
When it comes to software and other works that serves the practical purposes, which includes things like reference works and education materials, this should all be free, just as software should all be free.
9. The government of India has recently promulgated an ordinance to amend the patents act ostensibly to comply with the TRIPS. Though this has drawn strong protest from the people especially for its likely impacts on public health care, its impact on software industry has largely been overlooked. The ordinance seeks to introduce patenting of software also. What are the dangers of software patenting?
RMS: First of all I would like to say that we shouldn't call that treaty TRIPS. We should call it TRIPES, which stands for "Trade Restricting Impediments to Production, Education and Science." That's a more accurate description than the official name. The official name also uses the propaganda term "intellectual property", which spreads both bias and confusion. The confusion in that term comes from treating copyright and patents and trademarks as if they were one single issue--they are not. They are completely separate issues. And any one who tries to lump them together, treat them as if they were instances of one common thing, is already so confused that he can't possibly talk intelligently about any of them. So we have to reject that term. And we have to reject all the names that use the term, including "TRIPS". So we are concerned here with compliance with the TRIPES agreement.
India should not comply with the TRIPES agreement. India should reject it because it is harmful. The old Indian Patent law was a very wise law; but India, in order to comply with this completely harmful agreement is turning its patent law into something harmful that could kill millions of people by making medicine too expensive for them.
However, our focus here is software, not medicine. Software is not a matter of life and death, but still it is a pretty important area for the society. It affects everyone who uses computers, after all. People sometimes get misled by the term "software patents". We are not talking about patenting programs. We are talking about patenting ideas that can be implemented in programs, ideas for calculations or actions that might be carried out in part of a program.
Any substantial program implements many ideas together. A large program combines thousands of ideas. Look at your word processor. You will see hundreds of different features. Well, each of those features is at least one idea, or there may be dozens of ideas combined in just one feature. You could find thousands of ideas just in the interface of the word processor, and that's not counting the ideas that are used internally and that are not visible to the users.
Well if any of those ideas can be patented, the consequence is anybody who develops a word processor is laying himself open potentially to hundreds of different patent law suits about hundreds of different patents, each of which covers some idea implemented in some part of this large program. This makes software development like crossing a minefield. With each step--each design decision—probably nothing bad happens. But there is a certain chance that your design decision steps on a software patent, which explodes. Fortunately this doesn't kill you, but it destroys your project. This system is absolutely stupid for software development. This is the most crucial thing for people to realize about software and patents. It's not a matter of patenting a program; it's a matter of patenting the ideas that the developer puts together to make a program. Far from being something beneficial for software developers, instead, it's a dangerous for a software developer to develop a software package--he likely to be the victim of a patent law suit.
And it's impossible to develop a large program without using the ideas that are already known. If you are smart you may have a few new ideas and put them together with thousands of already known ideas, to produce an innovative program. (Another way it might be innovative is just by combining those different combinations of ideas.) Either way you are likely to be the victim of patent suits even for an innovative program, because even innovative programs have to use thousands of already known ideas that are likely to be patented by someone else. Most of the time, that "somebody else" would be the megacorporations that lobby for software patents. If the Indian government authorizes software patents it will be doing this for mega corporations.
Another thing to realize is that software patents are often authorized through words that don't mean what they seem to mean. That's the case in the new ordinance. It says that patenting will be allowed for combinations of software and hardware. Maybe they actually intend that. But every program is always used on computer. You could simulate by hand, but that's so slow it is not really useful. Practically speaking the program is always run in combination with computer hardware.
So if a patent can cover the combination of certain computation with hardware, it covers running your program on a PC. I have seen software patents in the US that are actually written that way. They read, "This patent claims the following apparatus: an arithmetic unit, a memory unit, an instruction sequencing unit, and means to perform this computation step and means to perform that computation step and so on for several specific computations steps. Then if a program is running on a computer and it does those computation steps the patent applies and the user can be sued.
10. The Indian Patent Act, as modified in 2002 had made non patentable the following: "a mathematical method or a business method or a computer programme per se or algorithms". The recent amendment states instead: "a computer programme per se other than its technical application to industry or a combination with hardware; a mathematical method or a business method or algorithms;" What would this amendment mean for the software industries? What are the likely impacts on the software movement?
RMS: I think I just answered that.
11. What are the experiences of software patenting in US?
RMS: It's a mad house. There are patents suits over things like JPEG format. And then you get standards like MPEG II which are covered by 39 different US patents suits at once. That shows what this combination-of-ideas problem starts to look like. Microsoft is accumulating patents, and we know that Microsoft intends to use them to prohibit free software. Microsoft few months ago proposed a method for blocking spam, and tried to make this an official standard. Then we saw its license policy for the patents covering this method. Essentially the license policy said that every one is allowed to use this patent at no charge as long as the software is non-free. This method was rejected as an official Internet standard, but Microsoft said it would try to convince few other large companies to implement the standard anyway, try to turn into a de-facto standard.
12. What is the global scenario of software patenting? And how are people fighting against it? What lessons should we draw from it?
RMS: The European Union is now considering a directive which could either authorize or prohibit software patenting. Rather strong grass root movements actually convinced the European Union Parliament to vote to reject software patents. But the European parliament is not very powerful--the European Union is not very democratic. So the parliament's decision does not have the authority that it would have in most countries. So the battle is still going on.
Meanwhile there are some countries such as Brazil and Venezuela that have decided to reject software patents. The US is negotiating bilateral free trade agreements with various other countries, and it tries to put software patents into this. Of course that's a very bad thing. But these free trade agreements are generally bad—the reason is that they give more power to business especially to mega corporations. And they have too much power already. After all, globalization of corporate power didn't happen by accident. It didn't happen in mysterious ways. It happened through government's decisions to hand over power to them. And this includes free trade agreements. Free trade agreements are undemocratic simply because they take further steps into giving more power to mega corporations. Every free trade agreement ought to be resisted.
13. What are your messages for the students and youth of this country?
RMS: Students should begin by insisting, on ethical grounds, that the school make it possible for them to complete their schoolwork using free software exclusively. They can go beyond this by calling on their schools to switch to free software, and for universities to develop free software. At the state or national level, they can press for the government to decide on free software for the schools that it operates. Students can also help organize free software user groups and free software activist groups--the former to help users move to freedom, the latter to encourage society to move to freedom.