Published July 29, 2011
Richard Stallman is not a man known to compromise. This is the case whether you’re talking about software freedom or where to conduct an interview (hint: he really likes Danish open-faced sandwiches). This developer, a man who attended Harvard and MIT before almost single-handedly creating the GNU operating system, still prefers to use a cheap Chinese netbook as his personal computer, as it runs entirely on free software (see below on what kind of ‘free’ we’re talking about here). In fact, this is one of two things emphasised to me before conducting the interview: understand the difference between ‘free’ and ‘open source,’ and do not say ‘Linux’ to him—say instead ‘GNU/Linux.’
The insistence is far from pedantic, though. What we know of as ‘Linux’ today began in the ‘80s as Stallman’s GNU operating system, with Linus Torvalds’ Linux kernel added to it. These humble beginnings have led to hundreds, if not thousands, of GNU/Linux ‘distros’—types of operating systems—as well as a veritable avalanche of developers coding free software.
DO YOU WANT A MALICIOUS CAR?
Today, Richard travels and lectures on free software and computer liberty both online and offline. He considers free software a matter of human rights. A living legend in the tech world, our interview was briefly interrupted at one point by a star-struck German tourist who recognised him. When I asked if this sort of thing happens a lot, he shrugged. “Not that much. It happens once in a while.”
Which is part of his character—despite his stature in the tech world and his fire-brand status in the free software movement, Stallman is soft-spoken and easygoing, living modestly and speaking in plain terms when sharing his ideas with laypeople, without showing a hint of frustration or impatience.
One commonly used metaphor regarding the difference between free software and proprietary software is that using the latter is like driving a car with the hood welded shut. However, some would argue that they don’t necessarily want to understand how the engine works; they just want it to go.
“Do you want the car to be malicious?” asks Richard. “You don’t need to know how to programme yourself to benefit from the four freedoms [of free software]. Any user can use Freedom 0 and Freedom 2 (ed. – see below for what these four freedoms are). And you might not want to know how to repair or adapt the software, but you can pay someone else to do it for you.” He underscores that numerous proprietary applications use malicious means of tracking what a user does, or where they go on the internet, which the user cannot disable, if they’re even aware they exist. “The only defence is to use free software.”
IDEALISM, FUN AND HATRED!
However, looking around in the free software community, there might be a whole lot of developing going on, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of money changing hands. Why would a developer choose to get into the world of free software?
Richard says, “First, there’s political idealism—wanting freedom and wanting others to have freedom. Another motive is fun. Programming is tremendous fun. I think everyone who’s working on free software is having fun. Another motive is to be admired. People like to be admired. If you make a free programme and a lot of people like it, they’re going to admire you and it feels good. Another is getting a professional reputation as a good programmer. There’s nothing better for your professional reputation than to be able to say, ‘Here’s the programme I wrote. Read the code and you’ll see how good a job I did.’ Another motive is gratitude. If you’ve been using free software for years and appreciate it, then when you write a programme that could be generally useful, that’s your opportunity to pay forward what you have gotten from the community. Another motive is hatred for Microsoft.”
However, Richard qualifies this observation: “Now, I think it’s a mistake to focus the hatred on Microsoft. Because the problem is bigger than that. The problem is non-free software, and Microsoft makes non-free software, but it’s not alone. The problem with focusing just on Microsoft is you might start to think that anything that competes with Microsoft is therefore good. But this is not about choosing a different master. Freedom means not having a master. So, to me it doesn’t matter who the developer of the non-free programme is; it’s equally unjust.”
Richard does say there are people being paid to make free software, that “it’s not shockingly rare, but they are a minority.” Hence the difference between ‘free’ as in ‘no cost’ and ‘free’ as in ‘provides freedom.’
Another of the more common concerns people bring up when presented with the option of switching to free software, or using a GNU/Linux distro, is the fear that there will be a very steep learning curve. Richard dismisses this fear outright.
“Actually, if you want to use it through graphical interfaces, you might not even notice it’s a different system.” He recounted the story of someone he knew that replaced his school’s computers with GNU/Linux instead of Windows, and then told everyone there’d been an upgrade. “And people just used it,” Stallman says, smiling. “Of course, some things were different, but they figured it out.”
When it comes to the future of GNU, and free software in general, Richard insists that he doesn’t keep track of how it’s growing. “I don’t have time to try and measure our progress. That would be a lot of work. I have nothing against it, but I have other work to do. Namely, making more progress.”
Richard doesn’t see himself as being primarily in the role of GNU’s main coder anymore—his aspirations have more to do with ideals. “I don’t focus my work on making it technically better. There are a lot of people doing that, so I leave that to them. I focus on a different part of the job that most of our community doesn’t do. In order to establish lasting freedom, it’s not enough just to give people freedom. You have to teach them to appreciate it, and demand it, because otherwise they’ll let it drop. And they might not even realise what’s hurting them when it does hurt them. So my work is teaching people these types of freedom, and to demand freedom in their lives.”
What Does “Free Software” Mean?
This is an example of the limitations of the English language. ‘Free software’ in this sense means ‘software you have the liberty to do with as you wish’; not necessarily ‘free of charge’, although that is often the case. Stallman specifically identifies four types of freedom that free software provides:
The freedom to run the programme, for any purpose (freedom 0).
The freedom to study how the programme works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbour (freedom 2).
The freedom to improve the programme, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits (freedom 3). Access to the source code is a precondition for this.
Free Software Equivalents Of Proprietary Software
One of the most common things that intimidates people considering trying free software is the fear that they won’t be able to do all the things they’re used to doing on a PC or Mac. On the contrary, though, there is a free software equivalent of just about everything the average desktop user uses a computer for. Here’s a few examples, with descriptions quoted from gnu.org:
iTunes = Rhythmbox. Inspired by iTunes, and has features that include “Easy to use music browser, Searching and sorting, Comprehensive audio format support through GStreamer, Internet Radio support, Playlists”.
Windows Media Player = VLC Media Player, famed app that is known for being able to play pretty much anything.
Photoshop = GIMP (GNU Image Manipulation Programme), a versatile and easy-to-use image software programme that can “be used as a simple paint programme, an expert quality photo retouching programme, an online batch processing system, a mass production image renderer, an image format converter, etc. It has most of the functionality of Photoshop but without the cost.”
MSN Messenger, AIM, Yahoo, ICQ, etc. = Pidgin, which is pretty much the only chat client you need. Add all of your different accounts to just one software programme.
Outlook = Thunderbird, an email client that can more or less do what Outlook can.
Word = AbiWord, a fully functioning word-processing programme.