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One-on-one with Richard Stallman, part 2Free software is a social movement

The SCO lawsuit: a big problem for the free software world, or something that only the lawyers at Cravath, Swaine and Moore are thinking about? Ask Richard Stallman -- founder of the free software movement -- and he's likely to tell you there are some bigger issues for his community these days. The software-patent issue in Europe, for one. Then there's the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and, of course, the proliferation of proprietary software is something that bothers the GNU Project founder. recently spoke with Stallman, who's also founder and president of the Free Software Foundation, about the SCO lawsuit and other issues. According to Stallman, who spends much of his time traveling to promote the work of the FSF (he was home only 106 days last year), of bigger concern right now are what he describes as the ethical problems associated with proprietary software, and users' unfamiliarity with these issues.

What is the current focus of the Free Software Foundation? How big is the staff, and what do they do? The staff...

of the FSF is around nine people now. Right now, none of them are programmers. We've shifted our emphasis from mostly software development to promoting and defending the community in other ways. For instance, one thing we do is [maintain] a directory of free software, which now has about 2,100 packages in it.

Another thing we're doing is, we chase down license violations [of the GNU GPL which, among other things, mandates that the source code of licensed software be available to the public for modification]. We have a full-time person whose job is mostly doing that.

Another thing we do is, we sell books about free software. We also support some activities; we have a development-hosting site. Can you describe some of the projects and issues that you travel for?
I went to Brussels for an event sponsored by the European Parliament about software patents, and I'm going to another one in May. There's a big battle now about whether there will be software patents in Europe. So far, SCO hasn't sued anyone for patent infringement, but there is some danger that they might be able to do so. In general, how do you feel about where the free software movement is today?
We have some major weaknesses. One major weakness is that, although a lot of people are aware of how nice it is and a practical thing to be working with free software, most of them have never thought about the issues of freedom, and that weakens us, because people who don't value their freedom are likely to toss it away. Can you explain how the use of software patents differs from the practice of copyrighting specific products?
A software patent does not cover one program, it covers an idea. A patent is an absolute monopoly on using a certain idea. And if you develop a program and you use that idea -- or if a court decides that that idea is implemented by your program, whether you realize it or not -- then you can get sued, even though you wrote the program yourself. It doesn't matter where you found the idea or even if you thought of it yourself.

Important standards are restricted in the U.S.; this is what software patents mean. Software patents are a disaster for programmers. They're an excuse for lawsuits. They make it dangerous to write a program or even use one. So we're fighting to make it clear that software patents are not valid in Europe.

There's no real consideration of changing the system in the U.S. Europe is where there's a battle. You mentioned that you're concerned with 'promoting and defending the community.' Is this right?
Yes, we promote free software as an ethical issue, as a social issue. Computer users should always have the freedom to share and change the software they use. It's wrong to try to stop someone. That's why I don't do it. If I thought it were legitimate to make a non-free program and use that method to make money, then I guess I would have done it, because I haven't sworn a vow of poverty. But non-free software is wrong; it's an ugly way of life. What do you say to people who believe developers have a right to protect their code, who don't want others taking credit for it?
Well, I'm not in favor of plagiarism, which is copying and saying you wrote it. That's lying. I do not condone plagiarism. I think, however, that copying something for your friend is legitimate. No one should ever have the power to stop you from making an exact copy, noncommercially, of any published work. But for the works that are functional -- that is, you use them to get a job done -- things like programs and recipes, you need to be able to see what's going on. You need to be able to change it.

Imagine if it were the norm that when you rent an apartment or even buy a house, the furniture is all screwed down and you're not allowed to move it. Imagine buying a car which you're not allowed to change or repair. Now, car makers recently have started trying to do that, and a lot of Americans are angry -- they do it using computers, by the way, computer software, they're using that essentially to thwart people's ability to maintain the car. And congressmen are considering passing a law against this, because a lot of people are very angry.

It's the same thing for a computer program. It's just that there are not quite as many people who've learned how to tinker with computer programs as there are who've learned to tinker with cars. But that'll be different in 20 years. Do you think, in the big picture, that the SCO lawsuit is a small thing?
Yes. This lawsuit, I think, whatever its outcome is, will have much less effect than software patents or the Digital Millennium Copyright Act or treacherous computing. Getting back to that -- the lawsuit -- I know you've said that the crucial components of GNU/Linux were in place before IBM came along. But has IBM at least contributed by spreading awareness of GNU/Linux?
Yes. They have done that, although of course they've done it in a somewhat confused fashion, because they're calling the whole system 'Linux.' And, of course, they don't tell people that the whole point of it is so that you can kick your non-free software out of your life. Because that is the point of it. That's the reason why I began developing a free operating system. Because I wanted to be able to use computers without doing anything I'd be ashamed of, and I'm ashamed of participating in the non-free software world, so I don't anymore. I developed a way out.

Another way to think of it is that, we built a new continent in cyberspace where we could go live and be free. And the nice thing is that, because we built it, we didn't have to steal it from aboriginal peoples. It was completely empty, and we invite everyone to live there with us. No immigration restrictions. There's room for everyone in the world. Come live in the free world and be free. That's our idea. You won't hear IBM saying that. IBM just says it's powerful and reliable and that there's some sort of vague warm fuzzy associated with it.

Click here for part 1 of's interview with Richard Stallman


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Where do you want to see the free software movement in 20 years?
The ideal would be that there's no non-free software anymore. It shouldn't exist. It's an antisocial way of treating other people.

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