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December , 2006
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* INTERVIEW

Free Software is voice of protest against corporate monopoly: Stallman

Dr. Abhay Kumar
Source: Toxics Link, Date: December , 2006

1. What is free software?

Picture of Richard StallmanRMS: Free software is software that respects the freedom of the users. There are four essential freedoms. First is the freedom to run the program as you wish. Second freedom to study the source code of the program and change it and to do what you wish. We call that freedom to help yourself. Third freedom is the freedom to make copies of the program and distribute it to others. We call that freedom to help your neighbour. Fourth freedom 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 ?

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 the third freedom 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 monopolistic practices 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. What are the areas in which proponents of free software should work to make it popular?

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.

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. 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.

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