GNUisance: Pigdog Journal Interviews Richard Stallman
MB: Well, OK, one of the things we
wanted to do, because a lot of the people who read our magazine
aren't, like, programmers per se, so they might not have actually
heard of you. So, we kind of wanted to do some background stuff about
you. Like, where did you grow up?
RS: New York City.
MB: New York City? In, in
MB: Wow. What did your parents do?
RS: Well, my mother was a public school
teacher, and my father started a printing business. A printing
brokerage business. [I don't know what that is, either.]
MB: How did you start doing, uh, start
RS: I was fascinated by computers from
the moment I heard about them.
MB: When was that?
RS: When I was a kid.
MB: Like, about how old?
RS: I don't know... The first time I,
well, the first time I got to try to write a program was when I went
to summer camp and the counselor had a manual. So I read the manual
and started writing programs on paper.
Richard Stallman again.
NM: What sort of language was it?
RS: That was for assembly language for
the 7094 [I might have misheard this number. Better fact-check
this... naw, fuck it.].
MB: And so you knew that that's what you
wanted to do for ever.
RS: Well, I knew that that was one of
the things I wanted to do. The other things included math and
MB: Uh huh. But this has been it. You
kept going with it.
RS: Yeah, well, what happened was, I
discovered that in programming I could do things that actually, uh,
WORKED. Rather than, I didn't have to just learn about what other
people had done. But, I could actually do something of my own,
something new, and that was very exciting. I could make progress
In physics, I never saw how to do that. I enjoyed learning about
other people's discoveries in physics, but I never saw how to make any
of my own, probably because that's a much much bigger deal. It's much
harder to deal with.
MB: It actually is.
RS: It's a lot harder.
MB: I did physics as an und --
RS: Maybe I don't have the right kind of
mind to make any progress in physics, so but I did have the ability to
accomplish things in programming.
MB: It's [physics is] also a much older
science. I mean, it's -- the easy stuff is well-trod. I mean, it's,
you have to go far out to the edges to get to the --
RS: Not only that, but even at the edges
it's hard you know...
MB: It's really hard.
RS: Because you can't just decide how
to do things new when you're trying to figure out what someone has --
what has happened -- what is, what's THERE --
[OK, right up about here the tape stopped and I was so gung-ho to
talk about why physics is haaaaard and why it's OK for me and Richard
Stallman to have both run away from it like scared rabbits that I
didn't notice it (the tape stopping) for like 20 minutes or
And now it's been so long since the interview that I forget what we
were talking about. Part of what we talked about, I'm sure, was what
a dumbshit I am to have forgotten to keep an eye on the tape.
One of the things we talked about was the Web. Stallman hates the
Web. He doesn't use it. If someone sends him an URL, he uses a
program to fetch it by email. (I think probably Agora, although I'm
So we re-introduce the story with Nick Moffit spouting off about
some point I don't really get.]
NM: It's not like I'm not getting any money
for this. I'm getting paid an hourly wage. If I were to write their
software I'd still be paid an hourly wage. I wouldn't get percentage
profits. I wouldn't get all these other things.
RS: Well I also sometimes have made
money from writing Free Software. I think that's good, but that's not
the issue. Basically, the fundamental decision I made was, that just
wanting to do a certain job with a computer didn't justify
participating in a proprietary software system. Because participating
in that system means you're betraying everybody else.
And so my fundamental decision I reached was that I'm not justified
in refusing to share with everyone else merely because I thought a
certain job was important to get done.
So, what I say to people is, "Don't use a proprietary program."
Now if there's something I want to do that can only be done with a
proprietary program, I normally won't do it. And I, I wait. Sooner
or later somebody will --
LE: Someone will write it.
RS: Right. If I'm in a real hurry, I
might write it. Otherwise I'll wait. Somebody else writes it.
MB: There's something, I mean, there's
something about, like, commercial software on top of Free Software
RS: You mean proprietary software?
MB: Proprietary. Excuse me. Thanks for
correcting my terminology. Uh, there's something almost ingrateful
about it. The fact that so much of Free Software has come from people
donating their time and work and money to you, so that you can
eventually use it --
RS: We work so hard, because we want you
to have a chance to have freedom, and you throw it away.
RS: Even to run a proprietary program on
top of Free Software is sad, cause it means that somebody first had
reached the situation of being free, and then took a step back from
there. So it's sad.
I would say that making proprietary software that runs on top of
Free Software, distributing that, is bad. It's the same evil as
distributing any proprietary software has always been. I wouldn't say
it's _worse_ because it runs on a free system. It's a little bit
more, it's a little bit sadder than the people who use it, because the
people who are using it are people who know that there's another way
of looking at things.
Well, actually, they may not all know, because nowadays, you know,
they may have been told, here's this really neat system, and you can
get it really cheap and it's reliable, and they don't know that it's
the GNU system, because they've been told it's Linux, and they read
all these magazines which never mention anything about ideals of
freedom and community. So maybe they never realize that there's