Richard Stallman is the founder of the Free Software Foundation, creator of the GNU project, and much respected coder, and I was lucky enough to be able to ask him a few questions.
How’s your day going?
I am working, as usual. I am sitting in an airplane. My large battery is unusable because its connector has broken (they always break).
How are your days spent now?
Mostly answering email like this one, plus eating (I just spent three days in Italy and had wonderful food), listening to music, and reading. Once in a while I do sightseeing, if I’m in a place where there’s something to see.
I considered as a joke, sending this interview to you as a word file (obviously I decided against it). How would that have been taken?
People send me Word files once or twice a week on the average. I always explain politely why it is important for people to stop the practice of communicating using word files. After all, most of them just don’t know any better.
I would have explained to you politely, too.
What was the first program you ever wrote?
It was a program to add up the cubes of a table of numbers. I wrote it on paper when I was around 10 years old. No computer was available–all I had was a manual. I wanted to write a program, but since I had no computer, only a fascination for the idea of programming, I had nothing particular in mind to program. So I asked the camp counselor who owned the manual to suggest some task I could write a program for.
You were at the MIT AI lab in the 70’s, did you read GEB (Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid) whilst there?
Yes, we all loved it.
What motivated you to do the work you have done for the free software movement?
When the old software-sharing community died, in the early 80s, our old software (which was free, or something close to it) became obsolete or was privatized. Having experienced freedom and lost it, I wanted to get it back again. And I saw a way to attain freedom using my best skill, which was developing software. All I had to do was
develop an operating system that was entirely free software, one that respects the user’s freedom, and all computer users would have a way to use computers in freedom.
So I began developing the GNU operating system.
The difference between ‘open source’ and ‘free software’ is, for the end user at least, not very well defined. What do you see as the fundamental difference between them?
The idea of the free software movement is that every software user deserves certain essential freedoms:
0. The freedom to run the program as he wishes.
1. The freedom to study the program’s source code
and change it to do what he wishes.
2. The freedom to make copies and distribute them to others.
3. The freedom to publish modified versions.
If a progran tramples our freedom, we write free software to replace it, so that we can have freedom.
In the 90s, the GNU/Linux system turned out to have practical advantages as well. Millions of users started using it, mostly because of these advantages–but many of them never heard about the issue of freedom.
In 1998, some of them began talking about “open source” instead of free software. Open source advocates do not say that open source is a matter of respecting the user’s freedom. Instead they recommend a “development model” which they say typically produces “better” software (they mean this in a purely practical sense). To the extent
this is true, it is a nice bonus, but I don’t think this is as important as freedom.
Why do you think the open source group decided to split from the free software movement?
Do you think this has split the focus of your similar efforts, and made them less effective?
The open source advocates don’t work directly against us, and many of them develop free software. However, when our work and the community that we built are mistakenly attributed to “open source”, that certainly interferes with spreading the philosophy of free software.
Do you ever see a full GNU OS coming about? Will you ever replace the code that Linux occupies in the GNU/Linux OS?
I don’t know, but this is not a vitally important question. Rememer, we developed GNU for a purpose–to have a complete free operating system so we could live in freedom. We have a complete free operating system now, the GNU/Linux system, so the crucial goal has been achieved. The fact that it was achieved with the help of Linus Torvalds’ kernel is not a bad thing.
Do you use any non-free software?
I won’t have any non-free software installed on my computer, but I’m willing to type at a non-free program on your computer occasionally.
Under what circumstances would you? Would you not use a windows machine out of principle, even if it were all that was available?
If I am visiting a place where there is a Windows machine, I don’t mind using it a little. That’s as far as I will go. I wouldn’t have a machine set up with Windows for me to use regularly.
Would you use Windows even if Microsoft gave away the source code and compiled files for free?
I don’t care what price they charge, I care whether it respects my freedom. If they make it free software (that is, respect the four freedoms), then I would have no ethical objection to using it. I would probably still prefer GNU/Linux, but that would no longer be a
question of principle the way it is today.
By keeping file formats proprietary, such as GIF, do you think that companies risk harming widespread adoption of that format as free software cannot make use of it?
I am not sure what that means. We use the term “proprietary” to refer to non-free software, but it is not clear what that term would mean for file formats. It would be better to use a clearer term.
The problem with GIF format was that making GIF files uses a data compression algorithm that was patented. That was a big problem, and we asked everyone to stop using GIF format so as to solve this problem. (Fortunately the patents have expired.) However, there is a big difference between a patented technique and a proprietary program.
The GIF case shows why this question isn’t really meaningful for file formats. Compuserve developed GIF format, I think, but the company that attacked it with a patent was Unisys. Compuserve was surely unhappy that Unisys started threatening GIF users, but could not do anyting tp stop it. Did Unisys care if GIF format was used less
because of their patent attacks? I doubt it. Unisys just wanted to bleed others else as much as it could.
Personally I find myself able to work on personal projects, when I have little or no motivation when working on academic projects. What do you think is the main motivator for creating free software?
I have seen several motives for developing free software:
What packages would you recommend to someone coming from a typical Windows/MS background wishing to completely switch to free software?
I can’t help you there. I do almost all my work in Emacs, which is an editor designed for power users. It is probably not what beginners want to use.
Do companies like Apple, with respect to their use of UNIX in the recent OS versions, encourage you?
I’ve never been particularly enthusiastic about the use of Unix. Remember, I led development of the GNU system, whose principal feature is that GNU’s Not Unix.
Apple made the uninteresting parts of its system free, which is a step in the right direction, but not a significant contribution. The more interesting programs, which would have been a contribution, are not free.
We need to stop feeling flattered when companies use our work, and start judging how much they contribute to the community.
What about the increased popularity of free software such as Firefox, as it seems to have appealed to a large number of people who would otherwise be unaware of the free software movement?
I’m glad if Firefox attracts people to the free software community, but you should note that the official binary of Firefox are not free software. The source code is free software, but the binary includes a non-free program and has an EULA whose consistency with free software is dubious.
A volunteer is now working on preparing our own binaries of Firefox and Mozilla.
What would your advice be to people like me, who are about to graduate and enter the commercial sector as a programmer? Can we make a living writing free software, or is it inevitable that we must work writing proprietary code?
Most paid software development work is neither free software not proprietary software–it is software for private use. There’s nothing wrong with developing software for private use, as long as you respect the freedom of the client who’s going to use it, and there’s no plan to release it as proprietary software.
What was the last book you read?
It’s called Signs of Life, by Ricard Solé and Brian Goodwin and is about emergent complexity in living systems. Before that I read The Other Side of the Story, which was a rather clever romantic comedy. I’m also reading Sitti Nurbaya, an old Indonesian novel, to study Indonesian.
What else occupies your time; do you have any personal projects on the go currently?
My work doesn’t consist of projects. My work is spreading the philosophy of free software, leading the free software movement (to the extent that people are willing to follow), and managing the Free Software Foundation.
What is your favourite gadget?
I don’t understand the question.
What computer/software do you use on a daily basis?
Emacs, Emacs, and Emacs.
What do you see yourself and the free software movement doing in the future?
I can’t see the future, because it depends on you. Freedom could triumph or it could be wiped out. If you want it to triumph, you had better join us in fighting for it.