GNUisance: Pigdog Journal Interviews Richard Stallman
ES: OK, so, here's kind of an evil
RS: "I'd like to ask a devil's advocate
ES: It's not a devil's advocate question.
RS: Please don't.
ES: It's not a devil's advocate. It's just,
I've heard, some people come out and say, "You know, that Richard
Stallman guy, he's a Communist!", and "That's his religion!".
RS: Well, they're wrong.
ES: Are you a Communist?
RS: No. [testifying] I am not now, nor
have I ever been... [Laughter]
ES: OK, all right.
RS: But I won't name names of anyone
else who might be, because that's against my principles.
ES: So it's not un-American computing.
RS: No this American computing. This
is about freedom. That's why we use so many quotes from the
founders of our country.
MB: But how would you respond to someone
who say, "That's a, that's a very socialist viewpoint, that we all
have this software, that we share it together..."
RS: No, it's not.
MB: "We give it to each other, to each
according to his needs..."
RS: Yes, but it's not socialist or
Communist because those have to do with centralized ownership of
things. We're not talking about centralized anything. It's about
We have a paradoxical situation where one particular area of
business, it's not business in general, it's one line of business,
uses a particular business practice that's based on subjugating the
public, based on dividing and conquering. Well, when there's a
business practice that conflicts with an important value like freedom
and community, prohibit it.
MB: [surprised] "Prohibit" is a strong
RS: Absolutely. When people made paper
by dumping poison in the river, what did, that was, hurting the
MB: Ah. *That's* prohibited.
RS: So we prohibited it. Now, it's not
that there's anything wrong with making paper, or we didn't prohibit
business, we didn't prohibit making paper, we prohibited dumping
poison in the river.
Now, I'm concerned with the poisoning of a resource that is not
physical, but is even more important than most of the physical
resources we care about. And that is the goodwill of the community.
The will to help your neighbor.
When people were told, "If you share with your neighbor, you're a
pirate," that is attacking this resource directly. You shouldn't
Now, as it happens, for the most part, people doing this base it on
the support of the government. There's explicit government
intervention to help them subjugate and divide people. It's very
easy to stop it. Society and it's government should stop helping
software owners to divide the users.
ES: Should, should all software be free?
ES: Is that because software's so
RS: No, it just that, well, if software
were totally insignificant there'd be no point in making any fuss
about it. But, no: if you're using software, you should be free to,
to do, to treat other people right while you're using it.
Some of the same things apply to _anything_ you can have on your
computer. Anything published. Anything published that you can have
on your computer, you should have the right to mail a copy to your
MB: Like a novel, a painting?
RS: A novel, a song...
MB: An MP3?
RS: Well, whatever.
ES: So are you against copyright?
RS: Not necessarily totally. For works
that are _functional_, like software and documentation, people should
have the freedom to even publish and sell improved versions. So, all
such things should be free.
The things that are not functional, that are cultural, in a sense,
that you look at rather than run, those raise, those raise part of the
same issues but not all of them. Because people don't have a
practical need to modify them in the same way we have a practical need
to modify and improve and adapt functional things.
For non-functional things, the need to modify them, well, that
REASON for modification doesn't exist.
ES: How does that apply to free documentation
for free software?
RS: [petulant] OK, well, don't ask
another question before I'm finished answering one, or I'll never get
anything answered and we'll be clear.
ES: Uh, OK.
MB: Yeah, cut it out, Zach.
RS: The point is, for cultural things I
propose a compromise system where people can privately redistribute
copies occasionally, but public commercial distribution would still be
covered by copyright. Now that, that compromise system might be OK
for cultural things, but it would not be OK for functional things,
because for functional things like software and documentation, we need
to be free to make a modified version and publish that.
NM: The interesting thing is, I had... The
explanation that I always gave people when I was handing out CDs at
user groups, you know, and so on and so forth, they'd usually ask me,
you know, well, "How many licenses do I get with this software
distribution?" And the explanation that I would give is that I would
say, "Your computer is your private personal property. I have no
right telling you what you can or cannot do with it." That's usually
the extent of the way I explained it.
[I have no IDEA of what Nick's talking about there. But, whatever.
Keep on trucking, brother.]
NM: Do you think that -- ?
RS: That's not the whole story, but I
think that's a pretty good way of saying it. There are certain
situations where I might disagree with that, but they don't relate to
copying of software. They relate to other things.
LE: Does your viewpoint include microcode?
RS: Well, it depends. If you can load
up your microcode by typing on your machine, then, yes. But if you
can't, then, uh, it's a moot point. You know, I'm not concerned with
the computer inside my microwave oven. Yes, I know that there's a
computer in there, but there's no facility for loading programs onto
it, so the issue doesn't arise in practical life.
Now, I'm not wanting to send somebody a copy of this program and be
scared to because of the Information Police.
MB: Now, you _might_ want to modify the
RS: Yeah, but it would be _terribly_
MB: It would not be the easiest thing in
LE: Um, I was thinking specifically of say,
RS: We do, now that there are computers
with the BIOS that you can load...
NM: Flashable, yeah.
LE: That's what I was specifically...
RS: I think that we _should_ have a free
BIOS. Let's now -- that's on our task list, a free BIOS. That you
can use to launch Linux so it can --
MB: [smugly] GNU/Linux.
RS: Well, no, it's --
MB: Oh! The GNU/Linux _system_! I got
RS: You have to launch Linux, which then
runs the rest of the GNU/Linux system. Cause Linux is the kernel, and
the BIOS starts the kernel.
MB: I thought that I had you there.
LE: Now think that there is already a free
BIOS project, that...
RS: There's a _project_, yeah. I spoke
to people a few months ago briefly, how, whether they're making
progress I don't know, but I...
LE: I know, but it's an important job.
RS: I told them that they were, maybe,
they were making a kind of mistake because they were imagining all the
features that it might be nice to have in a BIOS. Instead of getting
started writing a minimal one that could be useable.
LE: I was thinking of MR-BIOS...
NM: Mister BIOS!
ES: Mister BIOS!
LE: Yes, is that not a free BIOS?
ES: No, I don't think it is.
LE: Well it's copyrighted, it's just
ES: Yeah... It's commercial.
RS: Well, the alternatives are "free" or
"proprietary". "Commercial" is not the alternative of "free". There
is commercial free software, not all that much of it but its amounts
are increasing, AND there is plenty of non-commercial, non-free
ES: Where would Mozilla be?
RS: Mozilla is in some sense commercial
free software. But a better example would be GNU Ada [except nobody's
heard of it] which is, it's supported by a company. That's it's only
business. Supporting GNU Ada.
Now I guess ABI Suite is another commercial free program. Which I
believe is now being re-released under the GPL. Or was recently. Or
will be soon.
RM: If I may, just to cast light on the
earlier question: Micro Research BIOS was never free in the Free
Software Guidelines sense. It is now even less, it is even further
from being free than it used to be. It has now gone -- you can't even
get the binaries the way you used to be able --
LE: Oh no? Well, it's been a long time since
I played with it.