Without Richard Matthew Stallman there would be no GNU, and without GNU there would be no Linux distributions as we know them today.
Richard Matthew Stallman started the GNU's Not Unix project in 1983 to create a totally free operating system, and later the General Public License to guarantee its freedom. By 1991 much of GNU was finished, although it was lacking a kernel - that's where Linus Torvalds and his Linux kernel come in.
Despite the success of GNU/Linux, Stallman hasn't opted for an easy life: he campaigns tirelessly to protect our software freedoms, alerting us to potential threats that new technologies bring.
Linux Format magazine met Richard at the Institute of Engineering and Technology in London, and put to him some of the questions you asked…
Richard Matthew Stallman: First, I want to tell you about free software because I want that to be in the interview. Many users of the GNU/Linux system will not have heard the ideas of free software. They will not be aware that we have ideas, that a system exists because of ethical ideals, which were omitted from ideas associated with the term 'open source'.
The idea of free software is that users of computing deserve freedom. They deserve in particular to have control over their computing. And proprietary software does not allow users to have control of their computing. Proprietary software keeps users divided and helpless. Divided because each user is forbidden to redistribute it to others, and helpless because the users can't change it since they don't have the source code. They can't study what it really does.
So the proprietary program is a system of unjust power. The developers or owner of the program has unjust power over the users, and the program is simply an instrument of that power. This is an injustice, and the idea of free software is to escape from that injustice and put an end to it.
So free software respects the user's freedom. So a program is free if it gives the user the four essential freedoms.
Freedom zero is the freedom to run the program as you wish. Freedom one is the freedom to study the source code and change it so the program does your computing as you wish. Freedom two is the freedom to help others - the freedom to redistribute exact copies when you wish. Freedom three is the freedom to contribute to your community, which is the freedom to distribute your modified copies. And these four freedoms mean that the social system of using and distributing the program is an ethical system.
With these four freedoms the users control the program. Without these four freedoms the program controls the users. It's always one way or the other with software: with free software the users control the program, with proprietary software the program controls the users, and the owner controls the program and through it controls the users.
So this is not a technical issue - it's an ethical issue. It's an ethical issue that arises from the use of certain technology. But because it's an ethical issue and not a technical one, it's important: it's more important than any mere technical issue.
LXF: Most of our readers are passionate about free software…
RMS: But do they think of it as free software?
LXF: Well, when they contact us, many use the term 'free software' - some use 'open source'…
RMS: Ah, that's different, you see. Open source refers to different ideas - a different philosophy. And the difference is fundamental, because it's at the level of values. It's not a disagreement over some detail; it's a disagreement over the most basic thing.
We are aiming for a free society, where the users have freedom. Open source organisations and leaders say they're aiming for better-quality code. These are about as far apart as you can get, because we're saying it's for freedom and social solidarity, and they're saying it's for quality.
LXF: Isn't that one way you can lead people from one system to another, though?
RMS: I don't understand - they're different.
LXF: But if you have a company that makes proprietary software, it might be hard to adjust its mentality towards the GPL and free software. If you can ease it into the idea of open source, through talking about the benefits of quality - once it gets used to the idea, you can expand…
RMS: Actually, you can't. What I've found is that talking to people about open source - it might get them to use some free programs; it might get them to contribute sometimes to free programs. But it reinforces their values, which are the deepest thing that we'd want to change.
So there's a big difference between convincing someone to run some free programs or run a mostly free operating system, and teaching that person to value freedom. They're not the same, and the first doesn't usually lead to the second.
In fact, when the open source philosophy spreads a lot - which it has - it tends to close people's minds to the ideas of free software. It even tends to cover up our existence. Most of the articles that talk about the GNU system, they don't call it the GNU system and they don't call it free software. They describe it as open source, and they give the impression that we - its developers - agree with the open source ideas that the readers have heard of already, and would never guess at what we're really standing for.
LXF: Then do you think in hindsight that, back in the early '80s when you originated the GNU project, the term 'free software' was best? I try to say 'libre'…
RMS: I say 'libre' also, for the same reason.
LXF: When some people hear 'free software', they think of rubbish spyware on Windows machines.
RMS: It took me time to recognise that this distinction was vital. In 1983, when I announced [GNU], I hadn't separated these concepts. It took a few years before I did. So again, in The GNU Manifesto, posted in 1985, there's still some confusion between the two meanings of 'free'.
It was after that that I became aware of the need to emphasise that it's free as in freedom, not free as in price. Think of free speech, not free beer. Sure, it would've been better if I had realised that earlier. Although exactly what I would have said - it's not clear, because the English language doesn't have a word that uniquely means what I want to say.
The only common word for free in the sense of freedom is free, so that's why we say 'free/libre', because with that word we can clarify the point.
I notice there's a statement here in your magazine [LXF143] about LibreOffice, which is an important illustration. Sun acquired StarOffice, and released it as free software under the name OpenOffice.org. But the people at Sun who did this were not supporters, politically, of the ideas of free software.
They were indeed open source supporters. So their goal was to make their program good quality and a success - not to give the users freedom. That wasn't their goal, although since their source code was free software, it did respect the user's freedom, but they weren't thinking about it in those terms.
So they made a list of extensions, and in it they put proprietary extensions. Around last May, we - the Free Software Foundation - announced a plan to make our own extensions site for OpenOffice.org, which would not have the non-free extensions. It was a serious problem that OpenOffice.org was promoting these programs, giving people the idea that non-free programs were OK.
So, what could I do about it? Well, we asked people, let's make our own list of extensions. LibreOffice uses our list of extensions - they've taken it over.
That problem is solved, and the reason that they did this was that the people who are making this version of the program are free software activists - they care about freedom. They will take decisions for the sake of freedom. This shows that people who don't think about freedom or value freedom will sometimes do things for other reasons that help our freedom.
But you can't count on that. Sometimes people will find it suits their motives better to do things that work against our freedom. Linus Torvalds originally developed Linux as proprietary software, in 1991. In 1992 he released it under the GNU GPL, and thus, combining Linux with the GNU system became possible as a way of making a completely free operating system.
But he didn't do that because he valued freedom - he had other motives. I'm not completely sure what they were. And then in 1996, he began inserting pieces of non-free software into Linux - the binary blobs for firmware.
When we at the FSF found out about this, we started campaigning for something to be done about it - that was several years ago. We started pushing for the free distributions of GNU/Linux to get rid of the blobs. And then Alexandre Oliva started distributing Linux-libre, which is Linux with the blobs deleted.
LXF: Is there any value in having an official GNU distribution? You see a lot of these purely free GNU/Linux distributions, such as Trisquel and gNewSense, and a lot of them are falling back - they're really scattered projects. Is there room for an official GNU? GNU's GNU/Linux?
RMS: I think it would be good if more of them started working together. But I don't want to start another distro that would be GNU - because that would be a slap in the face to all of those people working on those distros now, and I don't like taking a side among them, having a preference among them. It would be sort of unfortunate to do that.
LXF: Many of our readers want to know what exactly you run as an example. There are the photos on your site of you working with a ThinkPad, but you don't recommend that now.
RMS: I don't use the ThinkPad - those photos are from years ago. Now I'm using this Lemote machine - Yeeloong - you can think of that as 'remote' with a Chinese accent!
I chose this machine because it's free all the way down to the BIOS. It has a MIPS-type processor, a Chinese version of the MIPS. In any case, the point is, it solves that problem.
LXF: Did you have to modify this, or can you buy it as a purely free piece of hardware?
RMS: I wouldn't call it that - I would call it specified hardware. But yeah, you can buy it.
LXF: And what are you running on it?
RMS: I'm running gNewSense, which is the only totally free GNU/Linux distro that runs in a MIPS. The others are for PCs, so they won't run. gNewSense supports also PCs.
LXF: Going back to the bigger picture, what would you say is the biggest threat to free software in 2011?
RMS: There are several. There are legal prohibitions, such as software patents in some countries that have foolish policies. And there are laws that censor free software explicitly, such as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the US, which censors free software that you can break digital handcuffs with.
The European Union has similar laws. Both the US and the EU try to push nasty laws like that on to other countries, through treaties that they ask them to sign. So these are malicious governments.
Then there are the obstacles created by manufacturers, working together often with Microsoft. For instance, there are many pieces of PC hardware that can only be used from Windows. And typically the specs of that hardware are not available, so that of course is an unethical practice - to sell someone a product and refuse to tell them how to run it. That shouldn't be allowed.
Another obstacle is the tendency to sell computers with bundled Windows. I would recommend prohibiting that practice, too.
Then there's the tendency of some companies to donate gratis, or nearly gratis, copies of their non-free programs to schools. Microsoft does this, Apple does this - and I've read that the Gates Foundation does this. Bill Gates's idea of charity is to get school students hooked on Windows, so that he can make more money. That's not charity, I think.
LXF: A question one of our readers wanted to ask: is a world of only free software still feasible? Should that still be the ultimate goal?
RMS: Yes, it's the goal, I think. That's my goal. Now, it may be impossible to totally eradicate the last little bits of non-free software. After all, in almost 200 years of abolitionism, we haven't eliminated slavery. There are places where people are effectively slaves. I've read claims that some foreign workers in the UK are effectively slaves, because if they were to complain, they would end up getting deported. So it's hard to totally eliminate some form of abuse, but I'm sure that a society in which proprietary software is an unusual exception is possible if we demand one together.
LXF: A lot more people are using smartphones and tablets as their primary computing platforms, with their app stores…
RMS: That doesn't change anything, really. A smartphone is a computer - it's not built using a computer - the job it does is the job of being a computer. So, everything we say about computers, that the software you run should be free - you should insist on that - applies to smartphones just the same. And likewise to those tablets.
Now, what should we say about those app stores? Well, first of all, the Apple and Microsoft app stores forbid free software. They only allow non-free software. This shows how evil they are. But remember, they're on the basis of a non-free operating system.
If you want to live in freedom, you need to not just insist on apps that are free, but to insist on an operating system that's free. So the 'iMoan' and the 'iBad' are fundamentally bad. They can't get you anywhere near freedom, so you shouldn't use them.
And likewise, Windows Phoney 7 is not going to give you any freedom, so those products are obviously totally bad. They continue the mistreatment by distributing these non-free apps, and only nonfree apps - it makes the nastiness bigger, but even if they hadn't done that, it would still be unacceptable.
Now, Android is a different case. The source code of Android is free as Google releases it, but they use a non-copyleft license, except for the case of Linux - which is under GPL v2. So the result is that the licence doesn't protect the users from lock-down, or Tivoization - which is the practice of making a free program's executable effectively non-free, by stopping the user from installing and using his own version.
So many kinds of smartphone with Android in them block the user from installing his own versions of the software.
LXF: There's still a battle going on here to win the minds of a lot of people - they don't even know what source code is.
LXF: My parents for instance - it's a case of trying to find the right approach…
RMS: I use the analogy of recipes. It's a good analogy, because a program is a lot like a recipe. They're both a series of steps to be carried out to get some desired result. And if you look at the way that cooks use recipes, you'll see that in practice they enjoy the same four freedoms in the way they use recipes.
Cooks cook recipes freely, they study and change them when they wish, they redistribute copies, and if they make a modified version, they might distribute copies of their version. So imagine if businesses and the state decided to impose proprietary recipes. Suppose the state said: starting tomorrow, if you copy or change your recipe we will put you in prison and call you a pirate. Imagine how angry all cooks would be.
A lot of people who don't know anything about programming will understand this. The state hasn't tried to do it with recipes - but that's exactly what it's tried to do with software.
LXF: One last thing, do you still do any hacking these days?
RMS: I occasionally do some hacking, but not programming - not with computers. I think the Guantanamero (http://stallman.org/guantanamero.html) was a hack, a song parody of Guantanamera. I've written another song parody in Spanish since then.
LXF: Is there going to be a follow up to the Free Software Song?
RMS: I don't think so!
First published in Linux Format Issue 145
Liked this? Then check out 24 things we'd change about Linux
Sign up for TechRadar's free Week in Tech newsletter
Get the oddest tech stories of the week, plus the most popular news and reviews delivered straight to your inbox. Sign up at http://www.techradar.com/register