Better Society through Free Software:
Richard M. Stallman Interview

by Hiroo Yamagata

HY: With your OS kernel HURD coming into the beta stage, it has finally become possible to create a complete system based on the GNU product lineup. Now how does GNU development work?

RMS: Umm, first, please be careful with that word "product". Product implies that something is made to be sold. Now, software companies develop software to sell copies. So that's a product. Whereas the aim of the GNU project is to create a better community. We sell copies to develop software. So there is a fundamental difference.

FSF has four full time programmers, and they write the software. However, there are many volunteers involved. By the way, I'm a volunteer, too. I don*t get paid from FSF. As the president of FSF, I want to encourage people to donate and volunteer, so I want to set an example myself.

HY: So this HURD, do you feel that it is as advanced as you aimed to be in the first place?

RMS: "In the first place", that's not the "reason" that we set out to write HURD. We didn't do it for any technical advancements. That's a very common misunderstanding. The aim of GNU is _social_ advance, that is to expand the freedom of the users. Of course, being a hacker, I would like to see technical advancement. But GNU started out to be able to use a computer without using any proprietary software. Because that way, you can lead a better life. I mean, you can cooperate with people. Proprietary software doesn't let you do that, because it forbids copying and cooperation.

Having said that, in the case of HURD, there is quite a technical advance in it. The underlying design is more clean and powerful, and that hasn't been surpassed by any other existing system.

HY: What do you mainly work on? Do you still write the actual code?

RMS: Yes. I'm still maintaining Emacs, and that involves coding (but mainly debugging). Emacs20, which incorporates some of the Mule code by Mr. Handa, will be released soon.

HY: OK. I'd like to move on to the issue about proprietary commercial software and free...

RMS: You have to be very careful there. Commercial software and Proprietary software are totally different concepts. "Commercial" refers to the financial arrangement of the software. "Proprietary" refers to what the users are permitted to do. Free software must have the freedom to copy, to modify, and have the source code. So proprietary software is mutually exclusive with free software, but there can be commercial software that are free software.

HY: I don't understand. Like what?

RMS: Like GNU Ada. The development is done by a commercial company. But it is released under GPL. The company makes money through support and service contracts. And FSF sells software, too.

HY: In those cases, I'd say that it's not the software that is commercial. The users will be paying for the distribution and the support, aren't they?.

RMS: That's not even an interesting question. It's not a useful way to understand the distinction. It is more useful to focus on the factual consequences of the various alternatives. When you pay for a CD-ROM, you can say you're paying for this part or that part, but in reality, unless you pay the whole amount for the CD-ROM, you're not going to get it. And what you've paid for is not the issue. The issue is what you are allowed to do with it once you got it.

HY: And you argue that all software should be freeware. But is this a realistic argument? Aren't there software that won't be written without financial incentives that being proprietary would provide?

RMS: That question assumes that the software is a good thing, regardless whether it is free or proprietary. I don't think so, because I care about how much freedom I have in my life, not just technical features. I don't think a powerful program makes my life better if I have to wear chains to use it, if using it means I lose my freedom to share. So if these proprietary programs were not written at all...so what? I'd rather have my freedom, than have lot's of software.

HY: Hmmm. Then...how far do you think you can extend the idea of free software? Music, writing, or maybe as far as material goods in certain cases?

RMS: It does not apply to material goods, because (1) we don't have a way to copy them, and (2) in most cases, if you own them, you are allowed to modify them.

This issue does apply to other kinds of information; but since other kinds of information are not used the same way as software, they don't necessary need to be treated exactly like software.

What we need to think of, as a society, is to increase the number of people that can support themselves writing and playing music. Copyright is one way of doing that. But you need to realize that copyright does it badly. Lots of musicians doesn't make a lot of money, even if their records sell tens of thousand copies. Meanwhile, it takes away the user's freedom to copy. Recently some musicians started to distribute their music on the Internet, and encourage copying, and sell their records directly. Like a GPL'd music. They may sell less records, but they make more money.

The same with books. People recently wrote a computer text book, made it freely available and asked readers to send in money if they liked it. And they got a substantial amount of money. Maybe we don't need any system that forces people to pay, such as copyright. Voluntary payments may do the job.

HY: But that system, and the free software system, relies on people's honesty and good will. However, most successful social systems are based on suspicion and mistrust.

RMS: That's total nonsense. All society is based on trust and good will, except maybe for some extreme police states. Most people don't kill and steal, not because they are afraid of the law or police. They don't because its just wrong, and they just don't want to do it!! Trust and good will is the norm, and everything else is an exception.

Proprietary software aggravates selfishness. Of course, people do have a selfish side, but that's not the full story, although business will tell you otherwise. Free software doesn't ask you to be unselfish. It asks you to be selfish in a non-harmful way. It never forces you to be kind and altruistic. It _allows_ you to be kind and altruistic. Most people will want to help friends once in a while, and free software allows it. Proprietary software doesn't, and that's not a good thing for cooperation in society.

HY: Hmmm. Then tell me what you think about pirated software.

RMS: I don't call this copying "piracy", because that is a propaganda word. I don't think it is wrong to copy and share information. Governments can pass laws against it, but that does not make it wrong, just illegal.

An unauthorized copy of a proprietary program has the same drawbacks as an authorized copy. If you want to make more copies and share them, you have to do it in secret; and you cannot get the source code.

So I think that unauthorized copies are not much better than authorized copies. The only good thing about the unauthorized copy is that you avoid giving money to the owner. This is good, because the owner does not deserve a reward for making software proprietary.

However, I can achieve the same thing by *not using the program at all*. I use free software instead.

HY: (!! Wow!!) Umm... now, you're ideas are really far-fetched. How do you evaluate your succe....

RMS: (cuts in) I don't understand what you're saying. Far fetched? How can you say it's far fetched? Far fetched means that it can't be done, but I have been doing it for the last 15 years, which proves that it can be done. And the users of free software are increasing.

HY: But...isn't that because you occupy just a very small fringe of the society? It can't be generalized, can it?

RMS: You know, that's basically bull shit. Sheer speculation masquerading its knowledge. It's a cheap shot that someone may make. Of course, I don't have a time machine, so I can't tell if it's going to take over the world. But the free software movement was often claimed to be totally impossible, and yet we managed to continue and grow. This is positive evidence. And what do you have on the negative?

HY: Hmmmmmmmmmm.....I guess you've went through this sort of conversation, and you've no doubt encountered skeptics and people who have a hard time understanding. Where do people stumble?

RMS: First, the meaning of the word "free". This is "jiyuu" in Japanese, and it doesn't refer to money.

Also, people have lots of assumptions that they unconsciously make. Some people assume everyone is either a Capitalist or a Communist. Since I'm against proprietary software, they think I must be communist. Or people assume I'm jealous of people making a lot of money from software. People are so used to thinking that the important issue is money, it is hard to understand someone with a different priority.

I've never opposed making money, and I'm not against selling copies of software. I'm opposed to taking away users' freedom. That's the issue.

HY: In a lecture, you mentioned that you didn't use passwords, and had no security for your computer.

RMS: Uh-huh. Security might make sense with banks and military facilities, but in a computer lab, that is a sign of a social breakdown.

HY: (!!!) Social Breakdown?!?!!

RMS: Yes. It's like curing the symptom and worsening the disease. The disease here are the young people who are cut off from warmth and anything really worthwhile, who have nothing on their hands that to rebel and get attention by sneaking into other peoples system. But then the attention that they get from this is one of total hate and hostility. Security sends out that message of hostility, and I don't want to be on either side of it.

HY: So, you still don't have security?

RMS: I regret to say that we had to. There was this one person who repeatedly erased our files and there was no choice. So we made a gateway, a login server. But since I thought that this was such a sad thing, I thought I should suffer more from it so I can't log in on that server.

HY: But on the other hand, FSF supports some encryption scheme, doesn't it?

RMS: Well, that's an interesting point. I don*t like people who keeps secret from their neighbors, but you should be able to protect yourself from the government. That's where encryption comes in.

HY: But governments are, in a sense, an expanded form of a neighborhood, aren't they?

RMS: Um, no, I don't think of the United States government in that way. No.

HY: OK, we're running out of space. Anything that you'd like to add?

RMS: About Linux. I am requesting people to call systems using the Linux kernel, "GNU/Linux" or "GNU system using the Linux kernel". This is because the so-called "Linux" system are mostly the GNU system. And another concern is that there is a growing misunderstanding that these systems have little to do with the GNU project, which is creating a split in the free software movement.

HY: But that's rather hard to swallow. I, for one thing, learned much about GNU through Linux, and started to make donations because of that. So there should be a substantial recognition and expansion of the free software world without the name change. And I'd say the kernel is the most central part of a system, so there's nothing wrong to refer to the whole system by its kernel.

RMS: That's another huge misconception. Kernel is only one of the major essential components. I'd say that the compiler is more important.

HY: (...But non-programmers hardly ever use the compiler...)

RMS: But as you say, Linux did contribute a lot to the expansion of the free software world. And I don't have anything against the system, I use it myself and if anyone asks me what system they should use, I say GNU/Linux because its the best system available. I'm concerned about proper credit, and the very real and unnecessary split in the free software world.

And lastly, I'd like to encourage CD-ROM vendors to increase their sales price by a dollar or two and donate that to FSF or some other free software project. That would be advantageous for the society in the long run, because that would lead to more free software. And then they should express how much they are donating for each CD-ROM, so that the users can judge their contribution to the free software movement.

OK, that's it. Happy hacking! (97.8.8)

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page created: September 30, 1997
last update: February 9, 2001