Geert Lovink on Wed, 21 Jul 1999 21:24:41 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Interview with Richard Stallman (@WOS/Mikro/Berlin)

An interview with Richard Stallman
Wizards of OS, Berlin, July 17, 1999
By Geert Lovink

For the conference report see:

Richard Stallman is of the founder of the Free Software Foundation. Being
a programmer since the seventies, he noticed in the early eighties that
more and more software, which was freely developed, exchanged and modified
slowly got privatized. You can read elsewhere on the Net what happened to
him, the efforts to create GNU, it's relation to Linux as a GNU kernel,
until the eventual split between 'free software' and 'open source', which,
according to Stallman has been specifically designed to squash the
freedom-related of free software. Just before his presentation, at the
Saturday night closing session, I spoke briefly with Richard Stallman.

GL: Do you think it makes sense to compare free software with free
webspace, free e-mail, and free access? 

RMS: No, because those are free of cost. You do not have to pay for it. 
They have been made available to you without a fee. Free software is about
freedom, not about price. They are not similar issues at all. It is not
the same. Abraham Lincoln is reported to have asked an interesting
question. He said to someone: how many legs does a dog have if you call
the tale a leg? The answer is four. Because calling the tale a leg does
not make it a leg. If people have not yet understood that distinction,
then we should explain it to them, not dumb ourselves down to the same
level of not understanding. We should raise other people up. 

GL: Still, it has remained an objective of public access initiatives, to
provide people with free services.

RMS: There is something useful in providing everyone with access to the
Net. Especially to the extend that the Net contains some useful
information on it. Just as everyone having a telephone is a useful thing. 
There have been government policies to enable everyone to have telephone
service. But those are totally different kind of issues. Because while
free software does have an effect on equality of access to things, it has
a much more important, direct consequence on the freedom of even those who
do have access to software. If there is a very expensive proprietory
software package, then it may be that only wealthy people, or wealthy
businesses can afford to use it. But it is also the case that even they
who can afford to use it, have to give up their freedom in order to use
it. So, in addition to perhaps discriminating against some who do not have
money, the proprietory software is even hurting those who do have money. 
It is a fundamental moral offense against freedom and community. 

GL: Last night, Tim O'Reilly suggested that the struggle for open source
operating systems might still be of importance, but... that there are
other issues... 

RMS: No please. I don't want...  When this happens I must say something. I
do not want people to think of me as being connected with the Open Source
movement. I am not. There are other issues. I think I disagree with him
what they are. Information that is available from web servers raises
issues. But I am concerned how they effect our freedom, rather then how
they effect our access. I am not going to be satisfied by simply having
access to the information so that I can read it, if I pay. I want to be
able to share useful information with other people. I am concerned with
having sources of information in a form that is free. So I want to see a
free encyclopedia developed, available and accessible to everyone in the
world, on the web. I think that in 20, 30 years we can do this in a very
decentralized way. If we just spread the idea among teachers, at high
school and college level. If teachers write, once in a while one article
about a subject they have studied a lot. Over 20 years we will have
accumulated articles about everything. We need free text books, or more
generally things that you can read to study something. Again, this is an
area where teachers can work, each contributing a certain small amount. 
And eventually we will have it all. It will be translated to all human
languages. These are the issue I think about regarding 'infoware', to use
Tim's term.

GL: Do you think we can learn something from the history of computer
sciences, for example, operating systems? 

RMS: I think it is important to study history. I am more concerned trying
to change the future then to just study the past. I do like to read about
history. But what I spend most of my time on is trying to work for a good
outcome in these political questions that we face.

GL: Friedrich Kittler today was calling to shift our attention from the
fight for free software towards a better understanding of the architecture
of hardware, which is determining software all together, both proprietory
and free.

RMS: What would you mean by free hardware? Free software means that users
are free to copy and modify it. So let us apply that same issue to
hardware and see what we get. This table is free, in the sense that you
are free to copy and modify it. But you are free to modify it. How are you
going to copy a table? There is no table copier. You could build another
table, which is a certain amount of work. Now let us consider a computer. 
You cannot copy a computer. You do not have copiers. In fact even Intel
could not copy a chip. They can stamp out identical chips by a mass
production process. But this starts with masks, a design. Not with a chip. 
Free design and open architectures are different issues. Yes, an open
architecture where the specifications are published, that is an important
issue. But it is not the analogous of free software in hardware. You have
to be careful taking one important issue, and then transferring it by
analogy to another domain. Let me explain this with an example. Free
software is a manner of freedom to copy, in a certain context, the things
you have on your computer. 

Let us consider books 50 years ago. In the age of the printing press the
only way to copy was to do mass production, with an expensive piece of
equipment. In that context I would say that the issue came out in the
opposite direction. Copyright was a reasonable system in the age of the
printing press, precisely because it did not obstruct readers. We readers
could not copy anyway. In order to make copies of a book, in a feasible
way, you needed a printing press, which meant you were a publisher. 
Computers changed the situation. The usefulness of digital information
technology is it makes it easier to copy and manipulate information. So
the result is: what used to be an insignificant factor in the decision,
became very important, namely the readers and users of information, being
able to copy. Now, everyone who artificially tries to take it away is
doing us real harm. You can't apply analogy here very much. An even better
example. If someone is trying to sell you as car for $ 1000, that would
probably be a great deal. If someone would try to sell you a container
with milk for $ 1000, that's probably a lousy deal. These are analogist
questions. But the analogy does not mean that they come out the same. 

GL: What is your impression of the development of free software in Europe? 

RMS: I do not know anything general. If you ask me about a specific
project I might have an opinion. 


RMS: The people who developed KDE made a fundamental mistake in the
beginning. They chose to use a library which was not free software. The
reason they made this mistake is that they were not thinking about the
ultimate use of their software, as a part of an entirely free operating
system. If they had been thinking about that they would have realized that
the use of Qt made it impossible of their software to be part of a
completely free operating system. Because we do not talk about these
issues enough it is easy for people, who basically want to contribute, to
make a mistake because they have not thought enough about the nature of
the situation, and which kind of actions will, or will not contribute to
the community. That is why I focus, when I speak, and when I write about,
for example, which kind of license will make something usable to the
community. How can we make sure the work we do is really useful?  You have
to encourage people to think more about the global context in which they
work. To think about the overall goal of spreading the free software
community, in which we can do everything with free software.  How can we
increase the range of work that we can do? If you use a proprietory
software, you are giving up your freedom. The goal is to be able to use
computers and keep our freedom by pushing proprietory software out of our

GL: In which circumstances can a free software community thrive best? Is
it still within academia? 

RMS: Free software developers are in schools, they are hobbyists, in
business. You can find them in government agencies, working for companies
where they are employed to do something else. You will find them getting
hired specifically to write free software. It is a mistake to assume that
it is academic, even 10 years ago. 

GL: Wouldn't it be good to have local branches of the Free Software
Foundation outside of the USA, here in Germany, and elsewhere? 

RMS: It might be useful to start similar organizations. Whether they would
be directly connected to the Free Software Foundation, or separate is a
detail. It would be important to have an organization, to be able to raise
funds in Germany, and hire people to write free software, and write the
free documentation for it. There is, for example, in France one region is
forming a software institute which will develop free software. In addition
there is an initiative to put GNU/Linux systems onto lots of schools. 
There is one of these in Mexico, and in France also. And with so many
people learning to hack, you can expect that some of them will be good
programmers, and some of them will write some useful software. 

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