Richard Stallman: Freedom
Software freedom activist visiting New Zealand to help promote the use, dissemination and ideals of free software.
This transcript is provided by Jim Cheetham and is Copyright © 2008 Jim Cheetham
This transcript is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 New Zealand License.
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Please attribute this work by reference to the original participants, Richard Stallman and Kim Hill as broadcast on Radio New Zealand National.
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Interesting sections :-
[00:51] RMS says "Hi" :-)
[01:16] The Dover printer story
[03:57] Opening locked doors
[04:47] "Why should they release software?"
[06:34] Bill Gates' letter to hobbyists
[08:54] How does the GPL work?
[10:13] Is this "Open Source"?
[11:39] Idealism and the corruption of society
[13:17] MP3 players
[14:21] Is there such a thing as "Intellectual Property"?
[17:39] International support for the FSF
[18:23] (break in programming)
[19:05] Libre versus gratis
[20:12] Listener question: proprietary software in cars
[21:19] Pharmaceutical companies
[23:36] Political upbringing of RMS
[24:19] New Zealand Copyright laws
[28:09] Listener question: Google's services
[32:21] Monsanto's Terminator seeds
[33:47] Final words
[34:09] Radio NZ release an Ogg Vorbis copy of the audio
[KH] I am extremely happy to welcome the esteemed elder of hacking culture, Richard Stallman. Now Richard Stallman founded the Free Software Foundation as part of his pioneering campaign against proprietary software. He's been hailed as changing the way the world looks at technology, an eccentric genius, a high-tech Robin Hood who took on the might of Microsoft. In 1984 Stallman launched the GNU project to produce a free replacement for the Unix operating system, which in 1992 became GNU/Linux, the first available free operating system that could run on a PC. Richard Stallman is in New Zealand at the moment and he joins me now; good morning.
[KH] I'm so sorry to keep you waiting, it's been an exciting morning so far.
[RMS] Well at least I was able to wait indoors.
[KH] Yeah well, that's right you're lucky because you are in our Auckland Studio. Now your campaign for free software began, just put it in context for me Richard, twenty years ago or more
[KH] with a jammed printer, the story goes, when you were at MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. Tell me that story.
[RMS] Well that's actually just part of what taught me to appreciate the difference between freedom-respecting software and proprietary software. But, we had a printer called the Xerographic printer and I added various convenient features such as when it finished a print job it would, the system would display a message on your screen saying that your print job was done, and when the printer got jammed it displayed a message on the screen of everyone waiting for a printout saying "the printer's in trouble, go fix it". Well of course those people would want it to be fixed so somebody would fix it . Well, when we got another, much faster improved printer called the Dover it also frequently got paper jams. I wanted to add that feature and I couldn't do it, because the Dover was controlled by a proprietary program, and we did not have the source code for it, and I never even thought of trying to ask Xerox for the source code. But eventually I heard that somebody at Carnegie Mellon had a copy of it, eventually I was there so I went into his office and said "Hi, I'm from MIT, could I have a copy of the printer's software source code?" and he said "No, I promised not to give you a copy", and I was stunned by this. So stunned that I went away thinking about it. I realised that when he signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement he had betrayed us at MIT, his colleagues. What he had done much more than that, he hadn't just betrayed us, he had betrayed you as well, and in fact he had betrayed the whole world; and this made me think of the evil Emperor in the Chinese, famous Chinese novel, quote Ts'ao Ts'ao who had, was reported to have said "I'd rather betray the whole world than have the whole world betray me", and he is considered basically almost like their equivalent of the Devil.
[KH] The culture you come from at MIT was, was a hacker culture, right, and you might need to define the word hacker for me because it's not as we most understand it.
[RMS] Absolutely; what we mean and meant by "hacker" is "enjoying playful cleverness", and this doesn't just mean with computers, if you like playful cleverness you'll find ways to be playfully clever in whatever medium happens to come to hand.
[KH] But in your medium it was about circumventing obstacles to the extent that you would break into rooms to use terminals.
[RMS] That's a bit different, that was actually sort of the informal policy of the lab, that people were not allowed to lock up the scarce terminals that there were
[KH] But that's part of your philosophy isn't it?
[RMS] Right, but the point is that that, it wasn't just that it was, it wasn't so much that I would, would open these doors so that I could use these terminals, but rather, they were supposed to be open, and professors who got above themselves and thought that they were entitled to lock up the scarce terminals when they weren't even there so that nobody could get his work done, that was not allowed, so to speak, and I was enforcing this policy, informally.
[KH] Just the basic question that people always ask of you, no doubt to your constant irritation is, looking at Xerox and the printer for example, why would Xerox give away a vital part of it's commercial product?
[RMS] Well, it's not a matter of "why would they", it's their moral obligation, and I really don't ...
[KH] All right, why should they?
[RMS] Because users deserve freedom. There are four essential freedoms that users deserve; Freedom Zero is the freedom to run the program as you wish, and there proprietary programs that restrict you even in that. Freedom One is the freedom to study the source code of the program and change it to make the program do what you wish. Freedom Two is the freedom to help your neighbour which is the freedom to make and distribute exact copies of the program as you wish. And Freedom Three is the freedom to contribute to your community, which is the freedom to make and distribute copies of your modified versions when you wish. With these four Freedoms, then users, both individually and collectively, have control of their computing, and are free also to help each other. So these Freedoms are socially essential, and no-one has the right, ethically, to deny them to anyone. So I don't really care whether Xerox wants to respect these Freedoms, what I say is, if they don't, they should not be doing this at all.
[KH] So what do you say, or what did you say to Bill Gates, when in his open letter to hobbyists back in 1976, he said "who can afford to do professional work for nothing?"
[RMS] Well, I never even saw that letter, I wasn't using micro-computers, in fact I never did, and I wasn't even aware of his existance at the time. But you'll note that GNU stands for "GNU's Not Unix" ...
[KH] That's right, what do you call that, it's a recursive acronym
[RMS] Right, but this is, it's not "GNU's Not MS-DOS", I wasn't even thinking about MS-DOS which I considered a toy, and the Free Software Movement isn't aimed at Microsoft, it's only later that Microsoft developed almost a monoply and people started thinking of that as the thing that you might replace.
[KH] However the Bill Gates question remains valid, what hobbyist can put three man-years into programming, finding all bugs, documenting his product, and distributing it?
[RMS] Well actually, thousands of us do; because his argument is that Free Software couldn't exist, and the fact is it does. He's like somebody arguing that planes couldn't possibly fly while you can go to the airport and see them taking off. There are tens of thousands of useful Free programs, some big, some small, that were worth packaging for users to conveniently install in free versions of GNU plus Linux operating systems. So, a better question would be; "why do people do this?", but the fact is, we do, and I've seen many reasons for it. One is, politicial idealism like mine, but most people and most developers actually don't share that. Another motive is "fun", because hacking doesn't just mean circumventing, it means playful cleverness, and solving problems, making a program work can be fun, it's one example of hacking, which many of us enjoy.
[KH] Now you came up with a General Public License, the GPL, to counteract software secrecy, how does that work?
[RMS] Well, first of all I should explain that the way you make a program free software is by releasing it with a suitable license that gives users the four essential freedoms. Now we call that license, that statement by the copyright holder, a Free Software license. Well, there are many ways to do that, there are at least dozens of Free Software licenses. The one that's used most often is the GNU General Public License, which I wrote. And, what's special about it, is a condition that we call copyleft, and this condition says whenever you distribute a copy, whether it's an exact copy or a copy of your modified or extended version, that you must do so in the same way. You must release it under the same license, you must provide the source code, and in general you must respect the freedom of those who get copies from you just as we respected your freedom which you took advantage of to distribute these copies.
[KH] And the underlying philosophy of this is that it's a win-win situation because by enabling everybody to have access to all the software the software gets improved for the manufacturer.
[RMS] Well, actually no. There are other people who make that argument and those are the people who promote "quote Open Source unquote" ...
[KH] which you're very keen to distinguish from your own movement
[RMS] Absolutely. Although they're talking about almost the same body of software, with occasional exceptions, the reasons they give are based on different values. They make the argument that this will improve the software for the original developer because they're unwilling to say that that developer is morally obligated to respect the freedom of the users. They base it on practical values only and they take for granted that proprietary software subjugating users is legitimate; whereas I say, and we in the Free Software movement say, that users are entitled to freedom and that proprietary software is a social problem and we're aiming to correct that problem, put an end to that problem.
[KH] I see; I mean it's an extraordinarily interesting position for you to have put yourself in, because you are arguing in an extremely idealistic way in a world that is intensely commercial.
[RMS] Well, it's corrupt. You see, when I grew up I lived in a capitalist country, but today when we have is not what I would call capitalism, it's extreme capitalism, it's a society in which people have taken for granted that everything should be for sale, and I just call that corrupt.
[KH] When was there a time when everything wasn't for sale?
[RMS] In the US in the 1960's enough representatives were elected who were in favour of restricting businesses that it often happened.
[KH] And so, you're not trying to change the entire world, you're trying to change this bit of the world, and this is a distinctively political issue for you.
[RMS] Well, the Free Software movement is concerned with these freedoms for computer software users.
[KH] But, I mean, by extension if computer users, well, if computer users want that freedom then where will it all end?
[RMS] Well, I personally support a lot of other causes for freedom as well, I defend many other kinds of human rights that the Bush regieme has totally trashed. But I didn't invent those movements, you know, I just give them my help as thousands of other people do.
[KH] You don't have an MP3 player and you don't have a cellphone, as we discovered this morning.
[RMS] Well actually, that's not quite true, there is software, there's free software to play MP3 files. Now, in the US, some distributors of this free software have been threatened with suits for patent infringement, because the US has an extremenly stupid policy, allowing software ideas to be patented. Well, if you look at your wordprocessor you'll see that it has hundreds of features, which add up to thousands of different ideas in the code itself, and any one of those could be patented in the US, which means that the developer of a wordprocessor faces thousands, well suppose only 10% of those ideas really are patented, hundreds of potential lawsuits, perhaps from parties unknown that just happen to have got a patent, or bought a patent on some one of those thousands of ideas.
[KH] Do you accept that there is such a thing as intellectual property?
[RMS] It's a meaningless concept to even speak about. I'm not totally against copyright law, and I'm also not totally against patent law, I just say that patent law shouldn't be applied to software, but speaking of those two laws and a dozen other laws as well as "quote Intellectual Property unquote" is a recipe for failing to understand even what the laws actually do, because they're totally different, they have very little in common and all the rest is different and if you lump them together like that you will not understand anything. So anytime someone has an opinion about "quote Intellectual Property unquote" it's a foolish opinion; I don't have one, I've intentionally removed that term from my discourse, because I want to understand these various laws and I want to help you understand them as well, so I just explain that, why patents in software are harmful, and they're harmful to, they're dangerous to all software developers, and in some countries even the users can, the authorized users, authorized by the developer, can get suied by patent holders that they never heard of. But this is a totally different issue from the issue of Free versus proprietary software, which tends to relate to copyright law, but also to contracts. And meanwhile there are also trademarks, which are basically a good system. I, aside from a few details, I think that trademarks should exist, and I'm in favour of them. And so these are three different laws that you confuse together if you speak of "quote Intellectual Property unquote".
[KH] Is Microsoft still trying to, or thinking about trying to, seek royalities for patent infringements? Because it says, or it has been saying, that the Linux kernel alone violates 42 patents.
[RMS] Well, who knows? Because most of those threats are kept secret, the perpetrator says to the victim "Don't tell anyone what I've done to you". I heard from somebody whose name I don't know that his company, which was running the GNU/Linux system on its servers, was threatened by Microsoft and Microsoft demanded that they pay for the use of various ideas that are implemented in the system. When I, he wouldn't tell me his name of the company's name, so I don't actually have any hard evidence that I could present in a court for instance, not that there's anything you could sue them about; but the thing is there's so many of these patents that people don't even bother to ask whether any of these accusations is really justified because they're just too many, they think it's easier to pay.
[KH] So is there international support for your Foundation?
[RMS] Well, yes, the Free Software movement is quite strong in various countries such as Spain, Germany, France, Columbia, Venezuela, Ecuador, Brazil, and Argentina.
[KH] why is it particularly strong in some countries and not others?
[RMS] I don't know.
[KH] I mean I'm wondering whether it comes back a sort of political sensibility.
[RMS] One thing that may help is that, in Spanish if you say "libre" it's not "gratuito", so these two different meanings of the English word "free" have different words.
[KH] Richard, can I; we have to break for the news now.
[KH] Richard Stallman is the leader of the Free Software movement, as we explained before the news. He's arguing, campaigning for four basic freedoms involved with free software, the user's ability to run a program as they wish; to study the source code, to change it so that it does what they wish; the ability to help your neighbour by distributing exact copies; and the freedom to contribute to the community by making and distributing copies of modified programs. In other words, it's a philosophy, a political philosophy. Just before we had to break for the news Richard we wsere talking about international interests, and you were talking about Spain, and "libre".
[RMS] Well, in Spain, and in general in Spanish speaking countries it's easy to make distinctions between these two different meanings of the word "free" because they have different words. We sometimes even say and write "libre" in English to help clarify this, but we also say "Think of Free Speech, not Free Beer".
[KH] Yeah, and that's your distinction really because it it's intellectual property ...
[RMS] Aah, but nothing's Intellectual Property, but there is proprietary software, and sometimes proprietary software is available "gratis", but it's still not acceptable if it doesn't respect your freedoms. On the other hand, people do buy and sell copies of Free Software, that's entirely acceptable, it's permitted by all the Free Software licenses, because we're not against business, we're against; we're for freedom.
[KH] Somebody has emailed us to say that if you're against proprietary software in interfaces, can you ask him, and this is the question to you; how can you possibly travel in a modern car and not feel guilty or ashamed, as these days cars use software on their onboard computers to control almost everything from fuel injection to alarmed central locking.
[RMS] First of all, I don't own a car and I don't mind if I, you know, use the computer of some place that I'm visiting for a little while, even if it has Windows in it I wouldn't have a computer set up for me to use with Windows or own one, but if I'm just visiting a place I won't make those insistences on what other people do. But yeah, it is a real issue with cars, and it gets in the way of people wishing to service their own cars. In the US laws have been proposed to try to do something about this, so this exactly shows you why proprietary software is bad.
[KH] what about pharmaceutical companies, does your philosophy extend to their kind of patent?
[RMS] Well, first of all, software and pharmaceuticals are very different.
[KH] But intellectual property ...
[RMS] Ah, but no-one should talk about "quote Intellectual Property unquote" because it leads people to over-generalise between things that have nothing in common. Now software is something that it easy to modify for millions of people who have learned programming, but pharmaceuticals are totally different. To modify a pharmaceutical in a useful way is extremely hard and then you'd have to test your modification, so you couldn't come up with two issues that are more different.
[KH] If economic gains are not guaranteed by private software rights, would that not lead to less innovation on the part of computer companies, software companies.
[RMS] I don't know, and I don't care.
[KH] Well, that's an interesting response. Why don't you care?
[RMS] Because I want freedom more than I want innovation. If somebody develops an innovative proprietary program I'm not going to use it, because I have to reject it in order to keep my freedom. So as I see it, there's no value in that innovation at all unless and until we develop a free program which embodies the same improvement. So I would just as soon that he not develop that innovative but freedom-trampling program because it's an attractive nuisance. Other people, who don't care as much about their freedom, may be lured to give up their freedom by that attractive feature on a poisonous program. So what I feel is that those people should not develop that software. If you; a plan to develop a proprietary program is a plan to set up a pitfall with bait to lure people in, and you shouldn't do it, it's better to do nothing.
[KH] Were you brought up political?
[RMS] Uh, to some extent. My mother was a Liberal, like about more-or-less half of the citizens of the US at the time and so to that extent I was political.
[KH] And you were I think a classic maths nerd, or a geek.
[RMS] Yes. By the way, before we have to finish I'd like to talk a bit about New Zealand's recent copyright law.
[KH] You may
[RMS] which I think is a bit more important than my childhood. I mean, I'm more than happy to talk about that if we had an hour, but ...
[RMS] One of the big obstacles to Free Software today is the adoption of laws that prohibit Free Software. In the US there are two of them, one of them is patent law, of course that's not limited to Free Software, any program can be the target of that sort of prohibition in the US, but it's particularly bad for us, because our goal is to supply all of people's software needs, so if there's one thing we're not allowed to do, that is a serious problem. But the other prohibition has to do with Digital Restrictions Managememt, and that -- which is also called DRM for short -- means publishing things in encrypted secret formats to stop people, to control how users use their copies. For instance DVDs are designed this way, and the format of a DVD was originally secret, and the companies that set up this conspiracy required everyone making a DVD player to sign a contract with them promising that those DVD players would restrict the users just like all the other DVD players, which by the way is why there's no innovation or progress in DVD players. But someone figured out the secret and wronte a free program that you could put in your computer and use it to watch a DVD. You could also use it to copy a DVD, which I don't see any reason why you shouldn't be able to do.
[KH] As long as you're not selling it.
[RMS] Uh, yeah. So the point is, these companies weren't; having failed with secrecy then got the US to adopt a law prohibiting the distribution of those free programs that you could use to escape from the digital handcuffs that they had built in to those formats. Well today we can see Digital Restriictions Management abounds, for instance Microsoft does it, and Apple does it, Google does it, and Amazon and Sony do it in their e-book readers the Amazon Swindle and the Sony Shredder so, which you should never buy, you shouldn't get any product that's designed to put handcuffs on you. But of course we don't just want to boycott that, we want to develop Free Software that you could use, for instance, to watch your DVD, read your e-book, listen to the music record that looks like a CD but isn't one, and all these other things that you might want to do, which you have a perfect right to do, even; you have a right to watch the DVD, you have a right to read the book, but the Free Software to do this is censored in the US, and also now to some in extent in New Zealand, because of that bad law. The New Zealand law is not quite as nasty as the US law but that's no excuse for it to exist at all.
[KH] Man is born free, Richard, but everywhere is in chains.
[RMS] I'm afraid so.
[KH] One final question ...
[RMS] Especially now with Bush
[KH] Well you haven't got much longer to wait for a change in that direction anyway.
[RMS] I'm afraid his successor will be no better.
[KH] Oh, do you think?
[RMS] It's clear; it's not very likely that Nader will win, or Cynthia McKinney, and other than that Im afraid his successor is going to be no better.
[KH] Erm, you're right, we haven't got an hour to spend talking about you being a maths nerd, but I do have one final question from a listener who says, Google is powered by Free Software, but is doesn't distribute software, it provides a service. Because it does not in the main distribute software, it's not subject to your GPL license. So, you now have a license to handle this problem but it's too late, no-one uses it, do you concede, asks the listener, that.
[RMS] Concede what?
[KH] That you might wake up one day, find that Google is bigger and scarier than Microsoft ever was, and think, oops, my fault.
[RMS] This is a number of important issues that have been mixed together, so that it's impossible to answer without separating out the individual issues.
[KH] Feel free to separate.
[RMS] First of all, is Google doing something wrong when they improve certain programs in the Gnu plus Linux system and then run them on their servers? I don't think so, I think that's part of what everyone's entitled to do. You also are entitled to make improvements in a program and run them. Secondly, is Google doing something wrong with those servers? That's a different question, and I would say yes and no, depending on which server it is, which service. For instance, people mostly think of Google's search engine, I don't see anything wrong with that, at least not with regard to the issues of Free Software, and I don't think that there's anything wrong with running a search engine or with using one. Now people might say if Google's search engine is the main one will they have too much influence, maybe so, that's a very different kind of issue, and not related to the Free Software issue. But Google has other servers, for instance there is something called Google Docs which is a spreadsheet and wordprocessor, and how does it work? Well first of all, Google distributes a proprietary program to your computer and it gets installed in your computer but you don't notice this because it's just inside your browser. So for this reason people do it, and they don't even realise they're running a proprietary program. Well this is totally unacceptable. But what about the server itself? It is a; the server is running a combination of some Free Software that Google got, and perhaps improved, and some other programs that Google simply wrote. And I don't see anything wrong with that, but using somebody ele's server to do your wordprocessing or your spreadsheet is a terrible mistake, because it means you give up control of your computing. You're doing your computing in somebody else's server and you can't have freedom if you do that, you just mustn't do it. But this has nothing to do with whether the software in Google's server is free. I hope it is free, because Google deserves to have control over the software running in it's servers and if it runs a proprietary program it's lost control, but that's a separate issue from your control of your computing, and to do that you've got to do it in your computer or a computer you control with your copy of a Free program. So even if Google were to publish all of the software in the Google Docs server, well that would be a nice contribution to the community but it wouldn't solve this problem, the only solution is run your wordprocessor on your computer. But this only applies to certain kinds of servers -- the search engine is a server too but it is doing a different kind of job, it's not doing your computing, you're just looking through Google's data, well that's a totally different kind of situation and a different issue.
[KH] All right, thanks for that. We're nearly out of time; is there, do you compare what you're talking about to Monsanto's Terminator gene seeds?
[RMS] Yes, that is similar, one of the few other areas outside of information and computers where there's something similar to this issue is in agriculture, and the reason is farmers can copy their plants' (and animals)(?). Of course it's not totally the same, they're not exact copies, they exchange, recombine their genes, but it's similar. So forbidding farmers to save their seeds is evil, and it's not just Monsanto which is trying to do this technically, but there are many patented plant varieties and the, and also there are plant varieties with patented genes, also from Monsanto I believe, and farmers get sued because their corn crop received pollen from genetically modified corn in another field, perhaps miles away, and now has, a certain fraction of them have the patented gene and so Monsanto sues them for patent infringement. So essentially Monsanto is sabotaging agriculture.
[KH] I appreciate your time, thank-you, and thank-you for putting up with such a disruptive morning, what with fire alarms and all.
[RMS] Sure, and remember; people should be free to share, non-commercially, exact copies of any published work because sharing is friendship and to attack sharing is to attack the bonds of society.
[KH] Well, in the spirit of friendship and upholding the bonds of society Richard, and at your request, the audio of todays program will be provided in the non-proprietary, that is "Free" OGG Vorbis format as well as the usual formats from our web page radionz.co.nz/saturday later on today. Richard Stallman, and you can get details of his presence and speaking engagements if you go on our website as well.