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The Basement Interviews
Freeing the Code
Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Movement, speaks to
Published 21 st March 2006 1
Richard Stallman was born in Manhattan, NY, in 1953. An only child whose
parents divorced when he was nine, Stallman led a solitary childhood.
Talented in math and physics, and with a fascination for reading about ancient
civilisations, he became obsessed with computers long before he had access
to one, and at the age of nine he was writing computer programs on paper.
His mother remarried, but Stallman never felt he truly had a home until he
attended Harvard, where he studied for a degree in physics. In 1971, while
still a freshman, Stallman began working at the MIT Artificial Intelligence
Laboratory, 2 where he became a "hacker", 3 and took part in the development
of the Al Lab's fabled operating system, the Incompatible Timesharing
System 4 (ITS).
It was at the Al Lab that Stallman developed his ideas about Free Software —
a process kick-started by his failed attempt to adapt a Xerox printer to
automatically alert users when their print jobs had completed. To do so
Stallman needed the printer source code. This was denied him, on the
grounds that it was proprietary information.
The interview took place in June 2005 ( http://poynder.blogspot.com/2006/03/basement-
2 The MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory was an interdisciplinary research entity at MIT which
became one of the most influential and accomplished in the fields of artificial intelligence and robotics.
Research at MIT in the field of Artificial Intelligence began in 1959. In 1963, the (then) "Al Group"
was incorporated into the newly -formed Project MAC, only to split off again in 1970, as the MIT
Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. MIT Al Lab
3 A hacker is a person who creates and modifies computer software and computer hardware, including
computer programming, administration, and security. In computer programming, a hacker is a
programmer who hacks or reaches a goal by employing a series of modifications to exploit or extend
existing code or resources. In computer security, however, a hacker is a person able to exploit a system
or gain unauthorised access through skill and tactics. Thus for many the word has taken on a negative
connotation that earlier hackers like Stallman resent. Stallman has written on the "true" meaning of the
word hacker, and how the media has overly focussed on the negative meaning at:
4 ITS, the Incompatible Timesharing System, was an early, revolutionary, and influential MIT time-
sharing operating system; it was developed principally by the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at MIT.
In the spirit of hacker humour it was called the Incompatible Timesharing System — a reference to the
earliest MIT time-sharing operating system, the Compatible Time-Sharing System, which dated from
the early 1960s.
5 The human-readable source code is necessary in order to modify software programs since the
computer-executable code generated from "compiling" the source code is inexplicable to humans.
Decompilation is very difficult. Moreover, a great deal of the original programmer's instructions,
including commentary, notations, and specifications, are not included in the translation from source to
object code during compilation.
Angry that without it he was unable to make things better for his colleagues,
Stallman began pondering on what he calls "the ethics of the issue." His
conclusion: sharing information is an important way in which humans co-
operate, so anyone refusing to share source code is committing a hostile act.
But it was a subsequent event that was to prove the real incentive for
founding the Free Software Movement. In the early 1980s MIT decided to
license the LISP system 6 it was developing to two spin-off companies set up
by ex-hackers. 7 One of these companies, Symbolics, later announced that it
would not allow MIT to copy across to its own system any of the
improvements and additions made to the software by Symbolics.
Interpreting this as an aggressive attempt to kill off the MIT system, and so
make the Al Lab dependent on Symbolics, Stallman embarked on a legendary
hacking campaign, independently replicating on the MIT system all the
improvements made by Symbolics (and also passing them on to the
competitor spin-off company LMI). Stallman's efforts were later memorialised
by author Steven Levy in his book Hackers 8
Eventually the Al Lab switched to a newer Symbolics machine — a machine
on which the MIT software Stallman had been working on couldn't run.
Concluding that the MIT system was now "non-free software", and convinced
that his community had been "destroyed", Stallman decided to launch a
project devoted to writing "free software", and in January 1 984 he left the Al
Lab in order to do so.
From that point on Stallman has dedicated his whole life to the cause of Free
Software. In 1984 he launched the GNU Project, 9 with the aim of developing a
free UNIX-like operating system 10 ; in 1985 he founded the Free Software
Foundation so that programmers could be employed 11 to help write the GNU
6 Originally specified in 1958, Lisp is the second-oldest high-level programming language in
widespread use today; only Fortran is older. Like Fortran, Lisp has changed a great deal since its early
days, and a number of dialects have existed over its history. Today, the most widely -known general-
purpose Lisp dialects are Common Lisp and Scheme.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lisp programming language
7 Symbolics, Inc and Lisp Machines, Inc. (LMI) were spun out of the Al Lab and staffed by ex
hackers, including Russell Noftsker and Bill G o: ( Symbolics I and tchard Greenblatt and Thomas
Knight ( LMI) http : //en. wikipedia . org/wiki/Sy mbolics
8 Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution, Steven Levy, Penguin, 1984. Stallman's hacking efforts
are covered in a chapter called "The last of the true hackers".
9 The name GNU is a recursive acronym for "GNU's Not UNIX", which was chosen because its design
is UNIX-like, but it contains no actual UNIX code. The plan for the GNU operating system was
announced in September 1983 and software development work began in January 1984. The project to
develop GNU is known as the GNU Project, and programs released under the auspices of the GNU
Project are called GNU packages or GNU programs. Prominent components of the GNU system
include the GNU Compiler Collection (GCC), the GNU C Library (ghbc), the GNU Emacs text editor,
and the GNOME graphical desktop.
10 Unix or UNIX is a computer operating system originally developed in the 1960s and 1970s by a
group of AT&T Bell Labs employees including Ken Thompson, Dennis Ritchie, and Douglas Mcllroy.
http : //en . wikipedi a . or g/w iki/Unix
11 The Free Software Foundation (FSF) is a non-profit organisation founded in October 1985 to support
the Free Software Movement and in particular the GNU project. From its founding until the mid-1990s
FSF's funds were mostly used to employ software developers to write free software. Since the mid- to
system; and in 1989 he created the General Public Licence, or GPL 12 — a
revolutionary new type of copyright licence that he dubbed "copyleft".
What is revolutionary about copyleft is that it exploits traditional copyright law
— whose very raison d'etre is to make creative expression proprietary — to
achieve the opposite effect. By attaching a copyleft licence to their software,
developers are able to assert ownership, but then give away some of their
rights — particularly the right to copy and modify the software in order to allow
others to build on it. In doing this, rather than simply placing the software in
the public domain, they (the creators) are able to stipulate the terms on which
they are making the software freely available, and so control how it is used by
To better express his vision, Stallman articulated the "Four Freedoms of Free
Software". These are: the freedom to run a program as you wish; the freedom
to study the source code and change it to do what you wish; the freedom to
make copies and to distribute them to others; and the freedom to publish or,
more generally, distribute modified versions.
"I don't believe that software should be owned," Levy quotes Stallman as
saying in 1983, because the practice "sabotages humanity as a whole. It
prevents people from getting the maximum benefit out of the program's
Nevertheless, Free Software has been widely misunderstood: As Stallman
frequently has to stress, Free Software does not imply software that is "free of
charge", but software that users are free to run, study, copy, and redistribute
modified versions of. As such, its source code must always be freely
available, and it must never be made proprietary.
For this reason the GPL doesn't only specify that software licensed under it
must be free, but that the software code must remain free even when it is
modified and redistributed. This latter characteristic is often described — to
Stallman's ire — as having a viral effect, since it encourages the proliferation
of Free Software. 13
late 1990s there are now many companies and individuals writing free software, so FSF's employees
and volunteers mostly work on legal and structural issues for the free software community. Financial
figures available via Guidestar indicate that gross receipts in 2004 were $1,030,490, of which $619,148
was from gifts and grants. FSF currently employs nine people.
12 GNU General Public License (GNU GPL or simply GPL) remains the most popular free software
license. The latest version of the license, version 2, was released in 1991. GPLv3 is currently being
developed ( http : //gplv3 . f sf . org) .
13 As Stallman commented to me in 2003 after reading an I had written "To compare anything
to a virus is extremely unfriendly. As regards the GPL, it is also inaccurate. The GPL's domain does
not spread by proximity or contact, only by deliberate inclusion of GPL -covered code
in your program. It spreads like a spider plant, not like a virus. People who hate the GPL have the right
to say that it "contaminates" othei software: that's misleading, but they have freedom of speech.
However, if you don't hate the GPL, would you please not use smear words like "viral" and
"contaminate" to describe it?"
By the early 1990s the GNU operating system was practically complete.
However, following the repeated delay of its kernel — the GNU Hurd 14 — the
system lacked a vital component. Into this vacuum flowed Linux, a free kernel
developed in Finland by Linus Torvalds. 15
Since Linux was also UNIX-based, it was compatible with the GNU system —
so hackers began to combine Linux with the GNU components to create a
complete operating system, and a plethora of GNU/Linux "distributions"
quickly spread around the world.
To Stallman's growing dismay, however, these distributions were increasingly
referred to not as GNU/Linux, but simply Linux — a shortening that not only
ignored Stallman's pivotal role but, to his frustration and anger, the philosophy
behind Free Software.
To his further dismay, in 1998 the Open Source Initiative was launched. 16
Adopting a more pragmatic and business-oriented approach, open source
advocates played up the technical benefits of the GNU/Linux system, and
downplayed Stallman's concepts of freedom. In short, the very community he
had set out to help was undermining Stallman's aims.
Non-cognoscenti often struggle to understand the subtleties between Open
Source and Free Software. After all, both groups believe that the source code
of computer programs should be freely available, and most open source
software is still licensed under Stallman's GPL.
In those subtleties, however, lies an ideological gulf. On the open source side
the emphasis is on creating better, cheaper and more efficient software. Free
software advocates, by contrast, continue to stress the philosophy of the four
freedoms outlined by Stallman — for FSF advocates it is an issue of ethics
and ethical behaviour, not technical superiority.
Open source advocates also highlight the merits of the new software
development model pioneered by Torvalds when creating Linux (and
The GNU Hurd is the GNU project's replacement for the UNIX kernel. The Hurd is a collection of
servers that run on the Mach microkernel to implement file systems, network protocols, file access
control, and other features that are implemented by the UNIX kernel or similar kernels (such as Linux).
Development on the Hurd began in 1990. By the early 1990s, it was the only major part of the GNU
OS that was incomplete. Today no official release of the Hurd has yet been made, and the system is
15 In the narrowest sense, the term Linux refers to the Linux kernel, but it is commonly used to describe
entire UNIX-like operating systems that are based on the Linux kernel combined with libraries and
tools from the GNU Project and other sources.
16 The Open Source Initiative (OSI) is an organisation dedicated to promoting open source software. It
was founded in February 1998 by Bruce Perens and Eric Raymond when Netscape Communications
Corporation, published the source code for its flagship Netscape Communicator product as free
software, due to lowering profit margins and competition with Microsoft's Internet Explorer software.
OSI came about when a group of people interested in free software and GNU/Linux decided to
introduce a new marketing term for free software, seeking to position it as bu in fri n.lh and less
ideologically loaded. This led to creating the term "open source" and a schism with Richard Stallman
and his Free Software Foundation. Eric Raymond was president of OSI from its founding until
compellingly articulated in 1997 by Eric Raymond in his essay The Cathedral
and the Bazaar 17 ).
In short, by exploiting the Internet, Torvalds was able to organise and co-
ordinate thousands of geographically dispersed volunteer developers to write
software code in a new and more efficient manner than had historically been
possible. Raymond characterised this as being like a bazaar, in which a
babble of different agendas and approaches is — somewhat counter-
intuitively — able to produce a better end result than the top-down approach
famously enunciated in 1975 in by Frederick Brooks in his book The Mythical
Brooks' view was that writing software is like building Reims Cathedral. 19 As
such, he argued, its design "must proceed from one mind, or from a small
number of agreeing resonant minds". Raymond, however, argued that the
Bazaar approach developed by Torvalds both speeds up development time,
and reduces the number of bugs. As he put it: "Given enough eyeballs, all
bugs are shallow." 20 In other words, given a large enough pool of peer
reviewers, every problem will be obvious to someone, and so fixed.
Since Free Software is about ethics, not efficiency, for Stallman such
technical benefits are merely a bonus, not an essential requirement.
Moreover, he argues, focusing on technical superiority distracts people from
the underlying philosophy of Free Software.
But asked to choose between Free Software and Open Source software, and
often struggling to understand the philosophy of Free Software, hackers
increasingly embraced the Open Source vision — which rapidly acquired
greater mindshare than the more rigorous ethical approach promulgated by
As a consequence, says Stallman, it is now hard to find a distribution of
GNU/Linux that meets the FSF's definition of free, and "the goal of making a
completely free operating system has been not just forgotten but almost totally
Unprepared to compromise over the dilution of the free software philosophy,
and a frequent critic of the Open Source Movement, Stallman has become a
Nevertheless, the GPL remains a core component of both the Free and Open
Source software (FOSS) movements. Whether it can maintain this centrality,
The Cathedra! and the Bazaar Eric S Raymond, O'Reilly, 2001
18 The Mythical Man-Month and Other Essays on Software Engineering, Frederick P Brooks, Addison
Wesley, 1995 (Anniversary Edition)
19 The Notre-Dame de Reims (Our Lady of Rheims) is the Cathedral of Reims, France, where the kings
of France were once crowned.
20 Raymond described this as Linus' Law, not least because it was based on something that Torvalds
had said. More formally . Raymond expressed it thus: "Given a large enough beta-tester and co-
developer base, almost every problem will be characterised quickly and the fix obvious to someone."
wntmgs/cathedral-bazaar/cathedral-bazaar/arO 1 s(
however, is debatable. Current attempts to develop Version 3.0 of the licence
have attracted considerable criticism. Specifically, the new licence's attempts
to prevent the merging of free and proprietary software into a single system,
and its anti-patent and anti-DRM provisions 21 have not been well received by
some. In January, for instance, Torvalds indicated that he did not intend to
convert Linux to v3 because of its DRM provisions. 22
Indeed, many are predicting that GPLv3 could further marginalise Stallman.
Writing recently 23 in c\net, for instance, the president of the Association for
Competitive Technology 24 Jonathan Zuck commented: "Stallman and the Free
Software Foundation have every right to continue their ideological crusade
against proprietary software, but will anyone follow?"
Few, however, dispute the seminal contribution Stallman made to what one
might call the wider "free knowledge movement", and he remains a force to be
reckoned with. The GPL has also been highly influential outside the software
space. The increasingly popular range of Creative Commons 25 licences, for
instance, is a direct extension of copyleft principles to other media, including
text, video, and music.
In recent years, Stallman has also become a very effective campaigner
against corporate and government attempts to allow software to be patented,
and he is an energetic and constant critic of digital rights management, 26
which he prefers to call "digital restrictions management".
In 1990 Stallman received a $240,000 MacArthur Fellowship. 27 This ended in
1995, and today he survives courtesy of the constant speaking invitations he
receives. He is, he says, now like a medieval king, who has to keep moving in
order not to be too great a financial burden on his subjects.
" This interview was undertaken before the process of drafting GPLv3 began. Consequently there is no
discussion of it with Stallman. The new licence is expected to be completed by 2007.
22 Torvalds: No GPL 3 for Linux, c|net Stephen Shankland, January 26 th 2006.
23 GPL 3.0: A bonfire of the vanities, Jonathan Zuck, March 10 til 2006
24 The Association for Competitive Technology is a Washington, DC-based trade group specialising in
technology issues. ACT's membership roster has some 3,000 companies including Microsoft.
25 Launched in 2002, Creative Commons offers a range of protections and freedoms for authors and
artists based not on the "all rights reserved" of traditional copyright but on a voluntary "some rights
reserved" principle, http ://creativecommons. org/
26 Digital rights management (DRM) is the umbrella term referring to any of several technologies used
to enforce pre-defined policies controlling access to software, music, movies, or other digital data.
DRM critics argue that the phrase "digital rights management" is a misnomer and the term "digital
restrictions management" is a more accurate characterisation of the functionality of DRM systems.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital rights management
27 The MacArthur Fellows Program or MacArthur Fellowship (sometimes nicknamed the "genius
grant") is an award given by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation each year to typically
20 to 40 citizens or residents of the USA, of any age and working in any field, who "show exceptional
merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work" . According to the Foundation website,
"the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's
originality, insight, and potential".
I catch up with Stallman in Brussels, Belgium, where he has come to attend a
public demonstration against software patents. 28 He is ensconced in an
apartment in the French quarter, across the way from a chestnut-tree-lined
park that, on this sunny afternoon, is home to a medley of prams, dogs, bikes,
Stallman himself answers the door. Without his shoes on, he is considerably
smaller than I envisaged. His long curly black hair, now going grey, and untidy
shaggy beard make him the very picture of what my wife's Scottish Aunt
Nonie would have called a "Heery Oobie" [aka hairy hippie].
His green eyes meet mine unemotionally; they seem almost puzzled. As he
appears unsure of the formalities I push my way in and shake his hand. We
climb a flight of stairs and walk into a long room with a wooden parquet floor
partially covered with red rugs.
At the stair end is a wooden table and benches. On the table is placed a bottle
of red wine, some cheese and a bag of chocolate chip cookies. At the other
end of the room is a long green wooden bay window. Positioned around the
room are several pieces of antique wooden furniture, possibly walnut. In one
corner is a large TV; in another a hi-fi system. On the floor is a very large toy
We move across to the window end where two large sofas are positioned
beside each other to form an L-shape, both also covered with red rugs. A
nearby coffee table is heaped with books and paper.
Stallman sits on a sofa with his back to the window, a laptop computer
whirring beside him. I perch on the other sofa, beside a beautiful black cat that
sleeps throughout the interview. Stallman is wearing a red T-shirt that sits
uncomfortably on his potbelly. I note that half way along his forearm, up and
over his elbow, is a long scar — a remnant of several painful operations
following a bad fall in an icy airport in Finland.
I have already had a couple of phone conversations with Stallman, during
which he revealed himself to be a somewhat bad-tempered interviewee. An
odd mixture of the amiable and the irascible, he is willing to share oceans of
time with journalists and email enquirers, but snappish and irritable when
answering their questions.
28 Not without effect perhaps. Shortly after this interview European politicians threw out a
controversial bill — the Computer Implemented Inventions Directive — that would have allowed
software to be patented in Europe. Specifically, in July 2005 The European Parliament voted 648 to 1
to reject the Directive. http://news.bbc.co.Uk/l/hi/technology/4655955.stm
Today he is especially crotchety. As he talks his voice oscillates between a
pleasant Jack-Nicholson-like baritone and the peeved falsetto of a frustrated
adolescent; the latter occurring whenever he concludes that his interlocutor is
being obtuse, or asking stupid questions.
Before we start Stallman walks to the hi-fi and inserts a CD. It turns out to be
The Antenna Repairmen, 29 an "experimental percussion trio" with a passion
for ceramic instruments; these range from udu drums 30 and bowls, to tubes,
vases, and ghatams. 31 As a consequence, our conversation is interspersed
with odd percussive noises, and the muffled rattle-and-cracking sound one
might envisage emanating from the kitchen of an inebriated chef. All in all, it
seems an appropriate accompaniment to Stallman's querulous mood.
For the first part of the interview Stallman lounges on the sofa minutely
examining his split ends, and picking at his hands and T-shirt. Every now and
then he sits upright and snaps: "That is total confusion; I can't answer that";
or: "I don't understand what you are talking about." At one point he accuses
me of misrepresenting something he said; another time he complains that my
questions are driving him "nuts".
When I counter that he is a somewhat combative person he gets up from the
sofa and spends the rest of the interview on his feet, occasionally taking
sauntering walks to the further reaches of the room to grab a chocolate chip
cookie, now and then throwing out his feet in small dance kicks. (In his
younger days, Stallman was a folk dancing aficionado.) At one point he
begins playing with and pummelling the large toy bear on the floor.
Two hours later the black cat sleeping next to me gets up, stretches, and
starts to scratch the rug on the sofa. I take this as a signal for me to depart.
As I am about to leave, however, Stallman engages me in conversation again
at the stair head. Having earlier refused to comment on anyone from the
Open Source Movement, he now invites me to sit at the wooden table at the
end of the room, and turn my tape recorder back on. Then, between
mouthfuls of cheese, he starts to complain about how Eric Raymond always
exaggerates his early contribution to Free Software. Raymond does this,
Stallman asserts, in order to give his later apostasy greater weight.
" Arthur Jarvmen, Robert Fernandez, and M B Gordy founded the Antenna Repairmen in 1978 while
graduate students in the percussion department at CalArts . They wanted to perform their own works,
and to explore repertoire that was well off the beaten path. Most of the early Repairmen performances
included elements of theatre and poetry. The rationale behind the group's name is that it can't possibly
give you a clue as to what they do; you just have to check it out.
30 The udu is an African vessel drum originated by the Igbo people of Nigeria. The instrument is played
by hand and produces a special and unique bass sound by quickly hitting the big hole in it.
http://en.wi ' ki/Udu
31 A ghatam is a percussion instrument, used in South Indian Carnatic music. It is nothing but an
earthenware pot; the artist uses both hands, wrists, fingers and nails to hit the outer surface of the walls
of the ghatam. An airy low-pitch sound is created by hitting over the hole.
http://en.wiki i /Ghatam
With this extra material on tape I slip back into the sunny streets of Brussels,
conscious that a film crew will shortly arrive to interview Stallman in
connection with a documentary they are working on.
Stallman's parting had been as abrupt and unceremonious as his welcome.
Walking back to my hotel I conclude that, struggle as he might to connect with
others, and impatient as he may become with them, Stallman craves the
company of people. Indeed, I formed the impression that he had held me back
not because he wanted to rant about Raymond, but simply because he didn't
want to have to sit on his own until the film crew arrived.
The interview begins..
RP: When did you first come into contact with computers?
RS: My first contact with computers was by reading an operating system manual at
summer camp when I was about nine years old. I was so fascinated that I began to
write programs on paper.
RP: What -was the appeal?
RS: I guess in some senses the attraction was that you get to solve lots of puzzles. So
it was a sort of general-purpose solve-puzzles thing. And the idea that you could
program a machine to do something — regardless of whether the thing it did was in
any way useful — I found just fascinating.
RP: When did you finally get to program for real?
RS: In 1969, when I was 16, 1 attended the IBM Scientific Centre in New York as an
after-school activity. We had access to a computer for a while. And since I had no
applications to use on the computer, the only thing I could do that I found interesting
was what I had read about in manuals. So I wanted to learn about and write operating
system software. I became fascinated by the software of the operating system.
RP: Apart from computers what were your early interests?
RS: I was interested a lot in math and physics; also history, especially ancient history.
RP: What did you find interesting about ancient history?
RS: I found it fascinating to think of ancient civilisations that were very different but
far away in time and so hard to make out.
RP: In his book about you Free as in Freedom,' 2 Sam Williams describes you as a
child prodigy who had to cope with his parents divorcing, and then the death of
beloved grandparents. I guess you had a dramatic start to life?
RS: Such things happen to a lot of people but, yes, I found it very painful; and it had a
powerful effect on me.
RP: You stayed with your mother, who married again — but you remained an only
child. Did you feel very sol • a g your early years?
RS: It wouldn't have occurred to me to think about such a question; but yes, the
answer is obvious: I felt very solitary when I was a child.
RP: Sam Williams also talks about the difficulties you had connecting with people as
a child. He speculates as to whether you had Asperger's Syndrome," and says that
you got very frustrated that others did not seem to think clearly enough. Is that
RS: Well, it was clear that I had trouble getting along with people; but there were
many reasons and I can't say I know what they all were. It is quite clear I don't have
Asperger's Syndrome, but I have sometimes speculated that I have a slight, "shadow",
version of it. (Some say that many people within the "normal" range have mild,
"shadow" versions of various serious conditions).
RP: Did you find it easier when you arrived at Harvard, where you must have been
surrounded by other smart people?
RS: I learned to get along better with people as I got older. In so far as I was older by
the time I went to Harvard I found it easier. The one thing I never learned, however,
was how to get along with women in dating.
RP: Because of your family sanation perhaps?
32 Free as in Freedom, Sam Williams, O'Reilly, 2002
33 Asperger syndrome (sometimes called Asperger's syndrome, AS, or the more common shorthand
Asperger's), is characterised as one of the five pervasive developmental disorders, and is commonly
referred to as a form of high-functioning autism. In very broad terms, individuals with Asperger's have
normal or above average intellectual capacity, and atypical or poorly developed social skills, often with
emotional/social development or integration happening later than usual as a result.
RS: That's possible. But the usual stuff men learn that enables them to get along with
women, I never learned.
RP: While studying at Harvard you also began working at MIT's AI Lab.
RS: Yes, my job there was essentially to improve the operating system, which
fascinated me and so, for me, was a perfect job.
RP: And when you graduated you chose to stay on at the AI Lab. Your degree was in
physics, so presumably you could have chosen a career in physics or math. Why did
you stay on at the AI Lab?
RS: Because with math and physics all I could do was study. With computers, by
contrast, I could do things that were actually useful to people; so I felt I was achieving
something, and this gave me a satisfaction far beyond merely learning something.
RP: Folklore has it that two early experiences you had at the AI Lab influenced your
subsequent decision to develop Free Software: an attempt by MIT administrators to
impose passwords on the computer system, and your inability to obtain the source
code for a Xerox printer.
RS: There were a number of events. But yes, one was that people tried to introduce
security. You see, the Incompatible Timesharing System was developed by hackers,
and they wrote it without any security at all. It was understood that security was a
method for the administrators to restrict the users. Since the hackers didn't want to
allow administrators to control them, they decided not to implement security.
Essentially, they were saying to the administrators: "We just won't let you control
what we, or any user, can do." By the way, I was not the only one to resist —
although I did resist longer than anyone else. The whole group shared these views.
RP: You have described the attempts to impose security on ITS as fascism. Why?
RS: Actually it wasn't a term I coined: it's the term everyone used. Nevertheless, it's
quite appropriate. If there are controllers, and they control what everyone can do, their
philosophy in effect is to prohibit anything that might weaken their control. Consider
what that philosophy means and how it would be if the rest of your life were run in
that way. We used to say that a shared computer with internal security is run like a
The ethics of the issue
RP: The problem with the printer occurred when you wanted to fix it but couldn't get
access to the source code to do so?
RS: Not fix it, no.
RP: To adapt it then?
RS: Please, stop guessing. I would prefer it if you did not interrupt me when I am
answering a question. The issue with the printer was that I wanted to make it possible
for the system to notify users when a job was printed, or if the printer was in trouble.
That would have allowed people to go and collect their output only when it was
complete, rather than having to guess. Guessing was difficult because sometimes
there was a paper jam, or a long queue of jobs.
The problem was that we didn't have the source code for the printer to enable me to
do this. I could have asked Xerox but I assumed that if we didn't have the source code
we couldn't get it. So I didn't ask Xerox.
RP: What happened then?
RS: I was told that someone at Carnegie Mellon 34 had the source code, so the next
time I was in Pittsburgh I sought him out and asked him for it. But he refused, on the
grounds that he had signed a non-disclosure agreement. 35 That made me very angry.
RP: Presumably if you had asked Xerox you would have got the same answer, or have
been asked to sign an NDA yourself.
RS: Probably, and the danger is that they might have said yes. If that had happened I
wouldn't have learned the ethics of the issue.
RP: What do you mean by the ethics of the issue?
RS: That man had done something wrong when he refused to share the code with me.
In fact, I thought he was a bastard for saying no, since he could have made things
much better for the AI Lab by cooperating with us.
He had also done something wrong when he signed the NDA, which was a promise to
do something else that was wrong: promising to be hostile to the whole world is an
extremely nasty thing to do. So signing an NDA in effect was betraying the whole
world. He should not have done that; and Xerox should not have asked him to. And it
was thinking about what he had done to us that taught me to appreciate the wrong.
RP: The -wrong was in refusing to share the source code?
RS: Right. The point is that sharing knowledge is an important way in which people
cooperate. To refuse to tell someone what he needs to know is hostile. To promise in
advance not to tell others is betraying them.
Carnegie Mellon University is a private research university located in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. It
was formed in 1967 by the union of the Carnegie Institute of Technology and the Mellon Institute of
Industrial Research. Carnegie Mellon is renowned for its unique interdisciplinary environment and as
an innovative leader in education. The computer science and computer engineering programs are
considered to be among the best in their fields. http://en \
35 A non-disclosure agreement (NDA), also called a confidential disclosure agreement (CD A),
confidentiality agreement or secrecy agreement, is a legal contract between at least two parties which
outlines confidentiality materials the parties wish to share with one another for certain purposes, but
wish to restrict from generalised use. In other words, it is a contract through which the parties agree not
to disclose information covered by the agreement. A NDA creates a confidential relationship between
RP: I guess the most significant incident that he/pat shape your views on the ethical
issues of sharing software was the decision by the AI Lab to licence some of its
software to two spin-off companies.
RS: Yes, MIT did something both wrong and stupid: it made the LISP system I had
been working on non-free software. It licensed the software to two companies [LMI
and Symbolics 36 ] but failed to retain for MIT the right to redistribute changes made by
RP: This led to Symbolics insisting that any changes they made to the software could
not be copied to the MIT version?
RS: Right. They decided that while users at MIT could use Symbolics' system, they
were not allowed to put Symbolics' changes into MIT's system. They thought that if
their changes stopped going into the MIT version it would just die, and all the MIT
users would then switch to the Symbolics system. This would leave LMI without a
live, maintained system version. 37
RP: So you embarked on a coding marathon designed to ensure that all the changes
and improvements made by Symbolics were replicated in MIT's system?
RS: Yes, I thought of it as a war in which Symbolics had tried to invade the AI Lab.
So I set about matching all the changes made by Symbolics.
RP: What was the final outcome?
RS: By 1983 LMI had grown and hired programmers, so I figured they could now do
their own maintenance. In addition, the AI Lab had started buying a newer Symbolics
machine, which the MIT software wouldn't run on. While I was working on the
system I had also been thinking about the ethical issues of what had happened, and I
could see that it was time to stop doing this.
RS: Because I didn't like the fact that even the MIT system was now non-free
software. This meant that by continuing to work on the MIT system I was working on
non-free software, and I wanted to stop doing that. Besides, while I had thwarted the
aims of Symbolic's aggression it didn't change the fact that my community was gone.
RP: The AI Lab didn't close.
Symbolics, Inc and Lisp Machines, Inc. (LMI), two companies spun out of the AI Lab and staffed
by ex hackers, including Russell Noftsker and Bill Gosper (Symbolics), and Richard Greenblatt and
( LMI I vmbolics
37 Symbolics action was not perhaps surprising. Stallman was passing all the changes he made to the
LISP system on to LMI, which was a competitor to Symbolics. As Levy quotes Noftsker saying in
Hackers: "We develop a program or an advancement to our operating system and make it work, and
that might take three months, and then under our agreement with MIL, we give that to them. And then
[Stallman] compares it with the old ones and looks at that and sees how it works and re-implements it
[for the LMI machines]. He calls it reverse engineering. We call it theft of trade secrets."
RS: No, there were still professors and graduate students, but all the hackers had left
except me, and it was the hackers who made the place exciting to hack in. It was they
who opposed security and prevented fascism; and when they were gone what had
been exciting about the Lab had started to change with their absence. In effect my
community was destroyed, so in 1983 I decided to develop a Free Software operating
system as a way of creating another community in which people were free to
RP: Many people find the term Free Software confusing, and tend to assume that it
implies software that is free of charge. When you use the term free, however, you are
talking not about cost, but about the right of users to do certain things with the
software. Perhaps it -would help if you were to define Free Software for me?
RS: It's quite simple: Free Software is software in which the user has certain essential
freedoms, and there are four of these freedoms. Freedom is the freedom to run the
program as you wish; Freedom 1 is the freedom to study the source code and change
it to do what you wish; Freedom 2 is the freedom to make copies and to distribute
them to others; and Freedom 3 is the freedom to publish or, more generally, distribute
modified versions. These freedoms are what define Free Software.
RP: Why are they important?
RS: Because they are the same freedoms people enjoy when they use recipes and
other types of functional information. Imagine, for instance, how angry you would
feel if you were told that starting today you could not copy or change a recipe, and
that if you did you would be called a pirate and put in prison for years. Understand
this and I think you will appreciate why I started the Free Software Movement.
Free Software Movement
RP: How did you go about creating the Free Software Movement?
RS: First, I wrote a document addressed to hardware manufacturers asking them to
support this as a way in which they could save money. They did not respond, so I
rewrote the document addressing the public and programmers, and I posted it on the
Net in 1983. I told them I was developing the GNU operating system, and that it
would be a UNIX-like operating system. 38 I hoped programmers would join me and
help write the code. Then on January 5 th ' 1984 I quit my job at MIT and I began
RP: And in 1985 you founded the Free Software Foundation [FSFJ. Why?
RS: Two or three programmers had voluntarily joined in during 1984, but I wanted to
raise funds to pay programmers to write parts of GNU. I figured that the release of
' 8 A copy of the letter is available here: http : //www . gnu . or g/gnu/initi al - announcement . html
GNU Emacs" would show people that the project was not just talk, and that we could
produce useful software. So I thought it might make sense to ask people to donate
RP: Did you attract a lot of money?
RS: Well, we got a lot more money from people buying tapes of the GNU Emacs text
editor than from donations. Anyway, the Foundation grew to around 1 1 employees
and its staff developed several essential programs. They worked, for instance, on the
GNU C Library 40 and Bash, 41 the GNU shell. 42
RP: How many people does the FSF employ today?
RS: About nine. And where originally most of them were programmers, today none
of them are.
RP: This reflects the FSF's changing purpose?
RS: It reflects a changing context. With a million or so people contributing to Free
Software development, the amount of good we can do for the community by hiring a
couple more is just not that great.
RP: In order to support your free software efforts you also devised the notion of
copyleft, most notably in the GNU General Public Licence, or GPL. How did you
arrive at the notion of copyleft?
RS: I don't entirely remember: it was years ago. I had seen people put copying
permission statements on their emails, saying for instance: "Copying of this message
is permitted provided this notice is preserved." I then generalised this by permitting
modifications as well. So you could summarise copyleft as saying "Copying and
modification of this work is permitted provided this message is preserved." However,
'" Emacs is a class of . possessing an extensive set of features that is popular with computer
programmers and other technically -proficient computer users. The original Emacs, a set of Editor
MACroS for the TECQ editor, was written in 1975 by Stallman, initially together with Guy Steele .
Many versions of Emacs have appeared over the years, but nowadays there are two that are commonly
used: GNU EMACS (started by Stallman in 1984 and still maintained by him), and XEmacs, a fork of
GNU Emacs which was started in 1991 and has remained mostly compatible. Both use a powerful
extension language, Emacs Lisp, which allows them to handle tasks ranging from writing and
compiling computer programs to browsing the web.
40 Glibc is the GNU project's C standard library. The C standard library is a now-standardised
collection of header files and library routines used to implement common operations, such as
input/output and string handling, in the C programming language. Unlike other languages such as
Pascal and PL/I, C does not include built in keywords for these tasks, so nearly all C programs rely on
the standard library to function. iki/GNU C library
41 Bash is a UNIX command shell written for the GNU project. Its name is an acronym for Bourne-
again shell — a pun (Bourne again / born again) on the Bourne shell (sh), which was an early, important
UNIX shell. Bash is the default shell on most Linux systems as well as on Mac OS X Tiger, and it can
be run on most UNIX-like operating systems. It has also been ported to Microsoft Windows by the
Cygwin and DJGPP projects, http : //en . wikipedi a . org/wiki/B ash
42 In computing, a shell is a piece of software that essentially provides a kind of interface for end-users.
Typically, the term refers to an operating system shell which provides access to the services of a kernel.
http://en.wikn /Shell %28computing%29
there were then various potential loopholes that had to be closed in order to make sure
the intended result was not subverted, which is why the GPL has all the details it has.
RP: One risk, presumably, was that someone else could appropriate the software?
RS: Exactly. Before I started GNU, I had seen instances of software that was free but
that had been made non-free — that is, people had modified versions of Free Software
and then released those modified versions as non-free software. I realised that this
would happen big time unless I could stop it, and if that had happened my goal of
spreading freedom would have been a failure. Copyleft had to avoid that happening.
RP: When did you develop the GPL?
RS: The GNU General Public Licence as such was first released and used in 1989,
but that came after various program-specific licences. There was the GNU Emacs
General Public Licence, for instance, which had been the licence used for copies of
GNU Emacs since the release of the first Emacs in 1985. So the basic ideas had
existed since that time.
RP: Your ideas clearly struck a chord with a lot of programmers, and a large number
of Free Software projects were started. Indeed, the software that was to become the
kernel of the GNU operating system — Linux — was developed in Finland by Linus
RS: Well, Linux was developed years later. We had the GNU system almost
completed before Linus added his piece. Also, I would not say that Linux is the kernel
of the GNU system. GNU is normally used with Linux, but Linux is not a part of
RP: Once Linux was added, however, people began referring to the combined
GNU/Linux system nix. Why do you think so many people now assume that
the Linux kernel is the complete operating system — and so ignore your very
RS: I don't know. One reason may be that the term "operating system" has
historically tended to be used in two ways. On the one hand the nature of UNIX-like
systems is that there is no particular boundary to the set of things that are the
operating system, which usually consists of hundreds of different programs. Since I
was making a UNIX-like system I used that meaning of the term. On the other hand,
there are people who teach classes on operating system development who effectively
teach only about kernels. This ambiguity may have played a role.
In any case, at the very beginning Torvalds said that he had written a kernel, and that
Linux was this kernel. After a while, however, others started talking about the whole
combination as if it were Linux — where in reality it is GNU with some pieces added.
In fact, today's distributions of GNU/Linux often include thousands of packages.
RP: What proportion of the whole package is Linux?
RS: That has changed over time. The only hard figures I have come from a particular
distribution made in 1995. At that time programs released by the GNU Project were
28% and Linux was 3%. Then around 70% of the rest of the software came from other
developments, but the largest part was GNU.
Open Source Initiative
RP: Perhaps the greater visibility: of Linux owes a lot to the launch of the Open
Source Initiative in 1998?
RS: I don't agree. GNU/Linux was already successful by then. Besides, the different
philosophies of the FSF and the Open Source Movement started in the early 1990s, so
that wasn't new either.
RP: Why do you think that the Open Source Movement has gained so much
RS: It's an obvious idea that if you talk about freedom to someone who thinks it is
silly you won't have as much success as you will if you convince them that there is a
practical reason to use it. People observed that the GNU system with Linux was
powerful and reliable, and so they started saying: "You should use this system
because it is powerful and reliable, and you don't have to pay any licence fees for it
You convince more people that way — but you don't convince them as far. You get
lots of shallow support, but lose the chance to gain deeper support.
So you had a group of people who were saying this — and Linus Torvalds, who was
never particularly concerned with trying to achieve freedom for programmers and
software users, was one person who said this — and they convinced a lot of people.
So by the mid 1990s there were millions of users of the GNU/Linux system, but most
had never heard of the philosophy of GNU.
RP: I think you distinguish the different philosophies of the Free Software and Open
Source movements by saying that Open Source is a technical movement while the FSF
is a social and political movement?
RS: Yes, the philosophies — the basic philosophical values — are completely
different. They converge only at the practical level.
RP: And in common with the Open Source people you have no problem with people
making money out of Free Software?
RS: Not at all. But if anyone thinks that the most important thing about Free Software
is that you can make money from it, or that it is powerful and reliable, or anything
less fundamental than freedom, then he is not going to defend our freedom, and that is
a serious problem — a weakness in our community.
RP: So it is a matter of emphasis?
RS: For some people it is a matter of emphasis. Some people do believe in freedom as
a goal but they emphasise practical things because they think that that is the way that
people will listen to them. But they don't realise that by giving a message that people
listen to more, they are actually teaching a different thing. Open Source supporters
didn't realise that, although immediately successful, this message is weakening in the
long term. Many weren't looking to the long term.
RP: The distinction then is that between technical superiority versus freedom?
RS: Well, something could offer both things, but yes, they are not the same thing.
RP: So it is a matter of prioritising them?
RS: Exactly. All things being equal, we would rather have more powerful and reliable
software, but it is not the central point of our activities. The question is simple: do you
care about getting "the best" software, where that is interpreted only in a practical
sense, or do you care more about having the software that respects your freedom?
RP: From your perspective does the Open Source Movement have pluses and
minuses, or is it all bad?
RS: Open Source advocates do contribute to our community — not all of them, but
many of them. There are people who develop Free Software that were motivated by
the Open Source Movement rhetoric, for instance. These programs are good, so that is
a good thing. The bad aspect is that it is weak: it doesn't teach people to see a freedom
to defend, so they don't defend their freedom, and they won't defend our freedom.
RP: The Open Source Mc i nt Iso lays great stress on the development method
pioneered by Torvalds when he was working on Linux. Later described by Eric
Raymond as the Bazaar method, this involves organising a large army of
programmers over the Internet in a way that enables much faster development, and
far fewer bugs. Does the FSF also espouse this method?
RS: We have nothing against it, but the question is a secondary one for us. It may be
true that Free Software facilitates the use of the Bazaar method, and it may be true
that this provides benefits, but fundamentally it has nothing to do with Free Software
— the choice of development method is not what Free Software is about. So while it
may have some side bonus, for us it is not the goal or the crucial point.
RP: Do you feel that the agenda you mapped out when you established the Free
Software Movement has been subverted?
RS: It has been very badly subverted. In fact, it has been nearly lost. The distribution
I told you about in 1995 that had 28% of programs released by the GNU Project was
an entirely free distribution, and in those days it was not hard to find entirely free
distributions. Today it is hard to find distributions that are entirely free.
RP: How did this happen?
RS: Somebody had the idea of adding non-free programs to the GNU/Linux
distribution in order to tell users that they were getting a "bonus". Others then
concluded that they had to compete with that, and began to offer non-free "bonuses"
too. The result is that today we have tens of millions of people using a version of the
GNU system, and yet the goal of making a completely free operating system has been
not just forgotten but almost totally cancelled.
RP: Who was primarily responsible for this?
RS: It has been a general phenomenon in the community. However, one thing that
was harmful was when Linus gave permission to dynamically link to non-free drivers.
This has encouraged non-free programs to be included in GNU/Linux, including some
applications and some drivers. Linus' decision was part of the problem, although not
RP: Can you expand on the problem of non-free drivers?
RS: Many devices won't work with the usual version of Linux because they only
work with some non-free drivers, so if you use those non-free drivers then the system
is not free. This is a big problem for us: we don't want to tell people that they should
use those non-free drivers, but there is clearly a problem if the only way to make
Linux — which is an important part of the whole system — run on certain hardware is
to use a non-free driver.
RP: So what
RS: Please listen to me. If I am continuing to talk I wish you wouldn't jump in so fast.
RP: Ok, but I am not always sure when you have stopped answering a question;
maybe you could flag when you have finished?
RS: But you shouldn't interrupt; and you shouldn't guess at my answers. It is driving
me nuts [Stallman bangs the table].
Anyway, we can't stop people using these non-free drivers, but that doesn't mean we
should be involved in helping people get them. Just because we can't stop something
doesn't mean we should accept it. So we are recruiting people to maintain pages to
give information about which hardware runs with Free Software and which doesn't.
This helps people know what to buy, and helps us put pressure on the hardware
We also want to talk to these manufacturers. I have been to Taiwan, for example,
talking with the Taiwanese manufacturers — because a lot of them actually have
policies that cooperate with us.
RP: What is it you want them to do: write free drivers?
RS: Not necessarily. If they wrote free drivers it would be nice, but we don't need
them to do that. All we need is for them to give us the hardware specs so that we can
write the drivers ourselves.
RP: A free driver would be one for which the source code was freely available, and
which was licensed under copyleft?
RS: A free driver is a driver that's Free Software — users have the four freedoms. It
doesn't have to be copylefted.
RP: One area where I suspect you and the Open Source Movement can agree is on
RS: Right. I believe that all software should be free, and that is a controversial belief.
Opposing software patents is not radical: it is what most software developers believe.
RP: What is the problem with software patents?
RS: Software patents directly restrict how each computer user is allowed to use their
computer. So you are talking about directly restricting millions of users, which is
RP: This is because software now runs on so many devices?
RS: No, it is just that so many people have computers. We don't even have to talk
about embedded devices. You, for instance, have a computer; you probably don't want
to be threatened with lawsuits if you run your computer in a certain way. That is
exactly what software patents threaten.
RP: You are saying that even computer users can be sued if a program they are using
infringes a patent?
RS: Yes. Not just the developers and the distributors of programs, but the users of
programs can be sued.
RP: Patents are used in many areas, and have been used for hundreds of years. Is
there something different about software then?
RS: Absolutely. One important difference is the way that patents relate to products. If
you consider pharmaceutical products, for instance, you will find that even today the
number of patents covering one drug is not likely to be very large. A software
program, by contrast, will combine thousands of different techniques — which may
be algorithms or features — and many of these might now be patented.
If you are not a programmer, the way to understand what software patents do is to
think of an analogy with symphonies or novels. These can be quite large, and they
will implement many ideas together in a single work. If we allowed literary ideas to
be patented it would be dangerous for anyone writing a novel because their work
would probably contain thousands of ideas, and if these ideas could be patented it
would be hard to write a novel without being sued. 43
RP: Can you give me an example of how this might work with software?
RS: Sure. Consider, for instance, how many programs use a progress bar to show how
far the program has got in performing a task. No one sat down and said: "I am going
to create a program to display a progress bar." They were just writing various
programs to do different jobs and in the process made those programs display
progress bars as a way of being helpful to the user. According to the European Patent
Office, however, the progress bar is patented. That progress bar will be a tiny part of a
program, and yet a patent covers that tiny part. Moreover, the same program may be
covered by hundreds of other patents as well. And if any those patented techniques
can be seen in your program you can be sued.
The amazing thing is that the people who are in favour of software patents claim it is
a way to promote progress. They just don't look carefully at what it would mean, what
its real effects would be
RP: And software patents are a direct threat to Free Software?
RS: Absolutely. The clearest example of this is the Linux kernel itself. A lawyer in
the US has reported finding 283 different US software patents, each forbidding
something he found going on inside the many lines of Linux. And remember he was
talking just about the kernel. The whole GNU/Linux system is 400 times bigger
according to an estimate I read, so we could estimate 100,000 different patents each
prohibiting something done in the whole system.
Battle for freedom
RP: In justifying the need for software code to be free you made an analogy with
recipes. You also once said "I believe that all generally usefid information should be
free. By 'free' I am not referring to price, but rather to the freedom to copy the
information and adapt it to one 's own uses. " Software code aside, you see social
benefit in other types of information being free?
RS: I do. But the medium is not the issue. The crucial factor is the social use of the
work concerned. Software is an instance of a practical functional work. It does a
practical job by making a computer do something. There are various other kinds of
functional works, and I believe they should always be free in the same way as
software should be. For instance, I believe that encyclopaedias should be free, and it
Indeed, patent agent and inventor Andrew Knight has already filed a patent with the US Patent and
Trademark Office, claiming patent protection for a fictional storyline.
http://www >vie plotline patent/
is nice that we now have Wikipedia, which I would say was the extension to
encyclopaedias of the Free Software Movement.
However, for some works of authorship and art, the issues are different. Music, for
instance, is generally not a functional work, it is in the category of artistic and
entertainment works. As far as this category is concerned I believe people should
always have the freedom to non-commercially redistribute exact copies of the entire
work. That is the minimum freedom that everyone must have for those kinds of
RP: That too is a radical position, and no doubt explains why you have strong views
on digital rights management [DRMJ?
RS: You mean "digital restrictions management". Those who gain power from DRM
may refer to "rights" — but that's their form of doublespeak. For the public DRM
means restrictions. And DRM is evil and shouldn't be allowed.
RS: First of all it prevents Free Software from doing useful jobs, so it is unfair to Free
Software. However, that is a secondary thing: since DRM imposes unacceptable
restrictions on users it is simply evil.
RP: So this is both a Free Software issue, and a civil liberties issue?
RS: Yes. Take for instance corrupt discs (disks that have been "corrupted" by means
of DRM). Not only can they not be read and played with Free Software, but users
cannot copy them either. To cripple people's computers so that they can't copy is
wrong; to stop people from copying is wrong. Both things are unfair.
RP: Industry groups like the RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America 45 ] and
MPAA [The Motion Picture Association of America 46 ] argue that without technical
Wikipedia is a "free-content" encyclopaedia that anyone can edit. Since established in 2001 the
English version has seen over one million articles added. The footnotes in The Basement Interviews
owe a great debt of gratitude to Wikipedia, as the constant references will demonstrate.
45 The RIAA was formed in 1952. Its primary purpose at that time was to administer the RIAA
equalisation curve. This is a technical standard of frequency response applied to vinyl records during
manufacturing and playback. The RIAA has continued to participate in creating and administering
technical standards for later systems of music recording and reproduction, including magnetic tape,
cassette tapes, digital audio tapes, CDs and software -based digital technologies.
The RIAA also participates in the collection, administration and distribution of music licenses and
royalties. The RIAA has been at the heart of the file-sharing controversy, especially music files in the
popular MP3 format uploaded onto the Internet using peer-to-peer software. The RIAA has long
contended that sharing of copyrighted music was a form of piracy, applying the well-known computing
term to music.
46 The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), originally called the Motion Pictures
Producers and Distributors Association, is a non-profit trade association based in the United States
which was formed to advance the interests of movie studios. Its members consist of the "big seven"
major Hollywood studios. The organisation produces the well-known voluntary film rating system. The
motion-picture equivalent of the RIAA, the MPAA has also taken strong steps to reduce the number of
file-sharing sites online where copyrighted films are available for download.
protection measures like DRM their businesses could not survive in a digital
environment, since information can now be copied so easily. How would you reply to,
say, a movie industry executive who said: "We need to protect our business; what else
would you have us do?"
RS: I would reply that operating from purely selfish motives is no excuse for
mistreating people. There is this bizarre idea nowadays that all a person has to do to
excuse nasty treatment of others is to say: "I am just trying to make money." As if
making money were so admirable that it could justify absolutely anything. "Oh, I
punched him in the nose; but I am trying to make money, so let me do it."
There are, by the way, many other ways in which money can be made from things like
movies and music. So the decision to use DRM is not a question of whether or not
they can make money, but rather of how much money they can make.
RP: What connections do you see between Free Software and the various other free
and open movements? I'm thinking, for instance, of movements like Creative
Commons, Open Access, Open Spectrum, Open Journalism, and Open Politics?
RS: Open means a lot of things and most have little to do with Free Software, so I
don't use the term. However, there is clearly growing recognition that the Internet
facilitates sharing. As a result we see a lot of people who want to share things, and a
lot of other people who are trying to stop that sharing.
RP: This struggle is an inevitable by-product of the development of digital networks?
RS: That's right.
RP: I understand your discomfort with the word "open", but your thinking has
undoubtedly influenced many of those working in these other movements.
Interestingly, when I spoke to Lawrence Lessig I asked him why he had called his
book "Free Culture", 47 and not "Open Culture". He answered that it had been a
deliberate choice, and added: "Richard Stallman is right — this is not about business:
it is about culture. "
RS: Yes, it is. But I would have to say that the opinion he takes in that book does not
correspond to mine. It is a much weaker position, and I found it somewhat
disappointing. He is less ethically firm. For instance, he won't say that it is simply
wrong to stop people sharing. I may have influenced him some, but I have influenced
him only half as much I would have liked.
RP: But would you say he has played an important role in broadening the debate
beyond just software?
RS: I don't want to answer that question. I don't like being handed a quotation and
asked to utter it.
Free Culture: How Big Media Uses Technology and the Law to Lock Down Culture and Control
Creativity; Lawrence Lessig, Penguin, 2004
RP: Do you support the Creative Commons movement?
RS: The original Creative Commons licences all gave people the minimum freedom
of being able to distribute verbatim copies non-commercially, so I supported their use
— for art at least. But then they developed other licences that do not provide that
essential freedom, and that is a serious problem. I have asked them to look at going
back to the original policy.
RP: Do you have any hope that they might do that?
RS: I have a hope, but I don't know what they are going to do.
RP: What about the Open Access movement, 48 which wants to see all scholarly papers
made freely available on the Internet. Do you support that?
RS: Yes, and I am a signatory of the Budapest Initiative. 49 1 have, by the way, been
urging them to make the freedom to redistribute a central part of their demands. It is
not enough to have one site where everyone can download the information: people
must be free to set up mirror sites too. However, when it comes to scientific papers I
don't think people should have the freedom to publish modified versions; modified
versions of someone else's scientific article are not a contribution to society.
RP: I understand you may be reluctant to give unqualified support to some of these
other movements, but I am struck that in struggling with what you call the ethics of
Free Software you articulated issues that have come to exercise the minds of people in
a wide range of different areas. You talked about the way in which the Internet
encourages sharing, but essentially, we are witnessing a struggle between proprietary
andfi'ee infoi ■dels, are we not?
RS: Right. It is a struggle between systems that are essentially fascist — in that they
give businesses power over people — and systems that respect freedom.
RP: I'm wondering how you might see this playing out. In 1997, for instance, you
wrote a short story called The Right to Read. 50 This painted a gloomy picture of the
future, where copyright laws had become so draconian that people -were imprisoned if
they lent their books — or more accurately the computers on which their books were
Open access (OA) is the free online availability of digital content. It is best-known and most feasible
for peer-reviewed scientific and scholarly journal articles, which scholars publish without expectation
of pav merit. There are two roads to OA, with many variations. In open access publishing, also known
as the "golden" road to OA, journals make their articles openly accessible immediately on publication
(by means of the author — or more usually the author's research funder or institution — paying the
publication costs). One example of an open access publisher is the . In open
access self-archiving, also called the "green" road to OA, authors make copies of their own published
articles openly accessible, generally in a subject or institutional repository. One of the major
international statements on open access, which includes a definition, background information, and a list
of signatories, is the Budapest Open Access Initiative of 2002. A second major international initiative,
dating from 2003, is the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and
Humanities. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open access
49 Budapest Open Access Initiative, http://www.soros.org/openaccess
50 The Right to Read, Richard Stallman http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/right-to-read.html
stored — to anyone else. That was nine years ago. Do you feel more or less optimistic
about the likelihood of such a world arriving today?
RS: I tend to be a pessimist by nature, and I can't see the future — so to some extent I
am unable to answer that question. What I can say is that the part of that story that I
didn't think anyone would think of introducing is now being proposed with
RP: When yon say treacherous computing you are referring to "trusted computing" 51
— where the ability to enforce usage policies on computers would be built into the
hardware. This would allow third parties, for instance, to control how we use our
computers regardless of the user's -wishes?
RS: Yes. I saw an announcement recently that Intel has already put treacherous
computing into a couple of processor chips. That suggests that the threat is coming
RP: That's a depressing thought; but in the struggle between free and proprietary
models there will surely be gains and losses on both sides. The striking down of the
"broadcast flag" 52 sends a positive message for those who support a freer model for
instance. Similarly, while repressive new laws like the Induce Act 5 ' are frequently
proposed, new laws that support the freedoms you value are starting to gain support
— The Public Domain Enhancement Act 54 for instance. Presumably some freedoms
that are lost will be won back?
RS: It is possible. But Congress in the US is on the side of business, not the side of
the public. 55 In any case, I think it is a mistake to speculate on which side is going to
win. That is the wrong way to look at a fight for freedom.
RP: You are saying that we should not speculate on who might win the battle?
Trusted computing is a family of open specifications whose stated goal is to make personal
computers more secure through the use of dedicated hardware. Critics, including academics, security
experts, and users of free and open source software, contend, however, that the overall effect (and
perhaps intent) of trusted computing is to impose unreasonable restrictions on how people can use their
52 On 6 th May 2005 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit ruled that the Federal
Communications Commission did not have the authority to prohibit the manufacture of computer and
video hardware that doesn't have copy protection technology known as the "broadcast flag." The
regulations, which the FCC created in November 2003, had been intended to limit unauthorised
Internet redistribution of over-the-air TV broadcasts. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broadcast flag
53 The Inducing Infringement of Copyrights Act of 2004 proposed making technology companies liable
for manufacturing products that encourage people to infringe copyrights.
54 The Public Domain Enhancement Act would make it easier for older and endangered copyrighted
works to fall into the public domain. If passed, the bill would add a tax for copyrighted works to retain
their copyright status. The purpose of the bill is to make it easier to determine who holds a copy 1 1 ght
(by determining the identity of the person who paid the tax), and to allow copyrighted works which
have been abandoned by their owners to pass into the public domain. For current status see:
55 Indeed, on 2 nd March 2006 new federal legislation was announced designed to introduce a broadcast
flag for digital and satellite audio receivers. This would mean that digital radio receivers without
government-approved copy -prevention technology might become illegal, http ://news. com, com/2 1 00-
RS: I am. I agree there is a battle for freedom, but it is a mistake to try to pick a
winner. That very terminology implies you are a spectator. Journalists are trained to
think as spectators and they have practices that tend to lead the public to look at these
battles as spectators, or gamblers; and that is the wrong way. To try to cover any
democratic political struggle, or any fight for freedom, in terms of who might win, or
who seems likely to win, is a mistake; it tells people the outcome is decided, so don't
bother to participate. To imply that the outcome is determined is to tell the public that
they have no say, and so is anti-democratic.
RP: How should journalists cover it?
RS: They should show the public what the various possible outcomes would lead to
so that people can decide which side to be on. To tell the people what the various
sides are, and what they are fighting for, enables the public to join a side. That
RP: Journalists try to do this by quoting spokespeople from both points of view and
letting the public decide that way.
RS: That's a minor detail of the mistake of trying to predict who is going to win, and
that is why I am refusing to provide a quote.
RP: Point taken, but what do you see as the end game of the Free Software
RS: I don't see such things. I don't have a vision of future moves in a long-term game
plan. I am not very good at playing such games. For that reason I am not much good
at playing chess.
RP: I am wondering if perhaps for you the motivation is the struggle itself rather
than winning the fight.
RS: No, no. That is a misunderstanding. I am fighting for the result. You engage in a
fight for freedom because you want freedom. I am not saying you shouldn't think
about the goal. I am saying that we shouldn't speculate about whether we are going to
RP: It's about keeping the mind focused then?
RS: No, that's not it. I don't want to repeat myself. If you were paying attention you'd
know that's not so. I am getting rather disturbed about this because I say things and
you reinterpret them — and your reinterpretation is so different from what I said.
What I said was that to change the subject, from the issue at stake to the question of
who is going to win, discourages people from participating in the fight, because if
they think the outcome is determined they have no reason to participate. This isn't
narrowly a matter of how to "keep-your-mind-focused". It's much more basic: it
informs people of what issue there is to think about.
RP: OK. My assm, • i mid apply to those engaged in the
struggle: if they spend time speculating about who will win, and how things will turn
out, then they too might decide that participation is either unnecessary, or not
RS: We should be thinking of the end result that we seek and how to make progress
towards it, which is different from trying to predict the outcome.
RP: What we learn from this interchange, I guess, is that you are very, very keen that
total understanding is achieved?
RP: That is worth noting because most people are not like that.
RS: Well, the way I see it is that I am talking to the public through you. I have a
message for them and I want them to understand what it is we are fighting for. I want
them to join us in the fight.
RP: Right, and I would also like the public to know something about Richard
Stallman: the kind of person he is.
RS: I don't mind that.
RP: And what we are discovering perhaps is that Richard Stallman is a combative
RS: It might be true. [Stallman gets up and spends most of the rest of the interview
moving around, doing dance steps, picking at food]. Of course when it comes to
judging my personality I am biased and not competent to answer. I know some things
about myself, but at the same time I am not reliable in summing them up.
RP: Looking back on your life and the development of the Free Software Movement,
is there anything you would have done differently?
RS: I haven't asked myself that question, and I don't know if I really want to answer a
question like that. But there might have been certain details of things that happened
that I would do differently.
RP: Could you name some?
RS: I would rather not go that much into self-criticism. They were small details;
RP: I have noticed that you use the term "community" a lot. Open source people do
too. This is a strong concept for hackers, is it?
RS: Well they are not all hackers, some of them just use the software, but they are
part of a community where people often help each other. Proprietary software forbids
RP: What strikes me is that it is a community frequently at war with itself?
RS: Communities often have political disagreements. That's normal with
communities, and it's normal for human beings.
RP: The concept of community is certainly important to you personally isn't it?
RS: Yes. I want there to be people who help me when I need help; and I am willing to
help other people.
RP: Was losing your community at the AI Lab ?
RS: I lost my home.
RP: Yes; and you talked of Harvard in similar terms. My point is that community and
home are clearly powerful concepts for you. I an i ■ .. hat coming
from a broken home has made the idea of home and c more important to
you than for most people, and whether that has therefore been a strong motivating
force in your life.
RS: Probably. I never felt I had a home until I was at College; and then I lost my
home. Harvard was the first place I ever really felt was my home.
RS: It was a place where in general people were not angry with me; and that was just
so peaceful compared with the way things usually were. While I was growing up, I
was in the midst of so much anger. So I was very glad to be away from all that.
RP: Your parents were angry with each another?
RS: They were angry with me, and sometimes with other things.
RP: Why angry with you?
RS: I don't know. I don't want to go too much into that. My father had a generally
angry sort of personality , and so he would just tend to be angry at whatever.
RP: I'm also conscious that in homes in which there has been constant warring,
people often feel it is very important to make clear what they stand for, and what they
don't stand for. You have very firm views on right and wrong. Might this be a product
of your early life?
RS: It's true that everything about a person and what they do can be explained by
their history — and history here includes both their genes and previous events in their
life — but that still does not mean we can always find out why a person was
motivated to do a particular thing. You should also beware of the mistaken idea that
identifying explanations for someone's leanings devalues what was done by him. It is
good to have a clear idea of what you stand for, for instance.
RP: I am not thinking so much about the value that should be placed on actions, but
the explanation for them. In this case a connection between your childhood and your
powerful views on what is right and wrong?
RS: I wouldn't be surprised if there isn't a connection. It is also likely that my
childhood experience was part of the reason why I was so glad when I found a home,
and so sad I lost it. It is a commonplace idea that your childhood home changes into
something else and you cannot go home again; but that happened to me in 16 months
when I graduated from college — in 16 months my home had changed so much that
there was nothing about it any more that related to being my home. All the people I
was friends with had gone. That was really, really sad for me.
RP: Isn't that supposed to happen when you go to college: you spend some time there,
you graduate, and then you move on?
RS: I don't know about "supposed", but it did not make sense to me that my home
was supposed to disappear.
RP: Then you found the AI Lab ?
RS: And that died too. 56
RP: And the Free Software Movement: did that become a new home?
RS: Sort of. Certainly I had that in mind when I started it; but it is not the same kind
of thing, because it is a dispersed community rather than a geographical one. So it's
not as if I spend my time in one place as part of the Free Software community and feel
that I am at home. It is very different when it involves travelling all the time.
RP: So where is your home today?
RS: I don't know if I have one. Last time I felt I had a home was when I had a
sweetheart. Her house felt like home. That was a year and a half ago — somewhat
RP: So you are looking for a new home now ?
RS: It would be nice if some day I had a sweetheart again [Stallman's voice breaks a
little]. But I couldn't exactly say I am looking for one now.
56 Of course, as Stallman explained earlier, the AI Lab didn't die. Indeed, it carried on for many years
until, in 2003, it was merged with the Laboratory for Computer Science .
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/MIL AI Lab . What he means is that the community he had been working
with, and heavily identified with, dispersed.
Liberator of Cyberspace
RP: In 1990 you were awarded a MacArthur Fellowship. Is that how you fund
RS: Actually that ended in 1995.
RP: So how do you fund yourself today?
RS: I get paid for some of my speeches. In addition, when I am travelling in a lot of
places people don't let me pay for anything, so life is cheaper. This is sort of amusing
and makes me a little bit like a medieval king. Medieval kings had to keep travelling
all the time because if they stayed in one place they would burden the people there so
much that the people would eventually get mad!
RP: Is that an adequate way of funding yourself?
RS: Loads of people invite me to visit them, and if I am there for a few days they are
happy to do things like pay for my food, and they pay for me to go there, because
otherwise I would go somewhere else instead. And some of them also pay a fee.
RP: How would you like your contribution to the world to be seen in the future?
RS: My aim is to be the liberator of cyberspace. That is my public mission.
RP: Again, this is both about Free Software and about civil rights?
RS: Absolutely. It is about freedom and human rights.
RP: The kinds of issues the Electronic Frontier Foundation 57 (EFF) fights for?
RS: In general terms, but the EFF mainly fights to extend already established ideas of
human rights to activities done with computers, whereas I say there are new human
rights that apply specifically to, first of all, using software, but secondly to using types
of information when you have digital technology available. The EFF does not say that
software should be free. So I support the EFF in what it does, but I am doing
something that the EFF does not support.
RP: How does the political objective of freedom at the heart of your project fit into
the larger political landscape? For apolitical agenda it seems a very focused, dare I
say hermetic, mission?
RS: Well, it comes from my general political ideals but, yes, it is an issue about one
particular area of life.
57 The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a non-profit advocacy and legal organisation based in
the United States with the stated purpose of being dedicated to preserving free speech rights such as
those protected by the First Amendment to the United States Constitution in the context of today's
digital age. Its stated main goal is to educate the press, policymakers and the general public about civil
liberties issues related to technology; and to act as a defender of those liberties www.eff.org/
RP: So your position is that this is the one area in which you can fight, because you
know about it?
RS: Exactly. It was for me always an area where I could fight for freedom by writing
software, by doing what I was good at. I focus on this area because, you might say, it
is my responsibility because it's in my field of work.
RP: But how can you have a small isolated piece of freedom in a society in which
many other things are working against the freedom envisaged by free software?
RS: You can't. Fascism, remember, is the convergence of government and business
and disrespecting people's freedom. So what they do is prohibit Free Software, and
they impose software patents.
RP: Do you ever hope that your work with Free Software and copyleft might have a
broader relevance, and lead to wider social change?
RS: It has already extended beyond software to other kinds of functional work. But if
you wanted to generalise beyond that the only thought I have — and it is hardly an
idea original to me — is that the world should not be run according to the interests of
business. And there it fuses with other movements.
RP: You mentioned your genera! politics. Where do you stand politically?
RS: I stand for freedom and democracy.
RP: I guess the gun lobby might say the same thing?
RS: They would but I don't believe in that particular detail. That is, I don't agree with
their particular demands. In general I stand for human rights and democracy.
RP: And what do you see as the role of the state?
RS: The role of the state is to protect people and maintain the general well being,
which includes a welfare state and it includes preventing any private parties from
having so much power that they subvert democracy.
RP: A social democrat then?
RS: Very likely. If I lived in Europe I would probably vote Green. 58
RP: On your web site 59 you call for a boycott of Caterpillar 60 for selling the
bulldozers Israel uses to knock down Palestinian homes.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Worldwide green parties
60 Caterpillar Inc. describes itself as "the world's leading manufacturer of construction and mining
equipment, diesel and natural gas engines and industrial gas turbines." The company has been a target
for activists around the US for a few years now, for selling equipment to the Israeli military, including
bulldozers used to knock down Palestinian houses.
RS: That is just one of many things I mention. I list details of battles that I consider to
be important causes in order to educate others.
RP: The Caterpillar one is interesting because you are Jewish, aren't you?
RS: I am an atheist but of Jewish ancestry.
RP: And in the context of the Middle East your sympathies lie with the Palestinians 7
RS: I have relatives in Israel and I don't want them to be hurt, and I don't want Israel
to be destroyed, but that doesn't mean I am going to endorse vicious measures that
trample on the rights of others, and I would say the Israeli State is doing much more
evil than the Palestinians are doing. Essentially, living in the Left Bank under
occupation is like life in prison; and I am not one of those who would say that
absolutely anything is justified to protect us, to the point where questions of right and
wrong no longer apply.
RP: You have also published some short pieces on Iraq. How would you sum up your
view on the invasion?
RS: It is clear that Bush had some reason of his own to attack Iraq, which I suppose
has to do with grabbing the oil and enriching his cronies. So we had the fabricated
excuse of weapons of mass destruction and we had the fabricated excuse of Iraq
working with Al Qaeda, and we had the fabricated excuse of giving Iraq democracy,
as if Bush would give anybody democracy. Bush hardly knows what democracy is
after he has crushed it.
RP: So the invasion of Iraq was all bad?
RS: All bad. By the standards of Nuremberg, 61 Bush is guilty of war crimes. He
would have been executed at Nuremberg for this. I do not advocate executing Bush
because I am against the death penalty, but I believe he should be kept in prison for
the rest of his life.
RP: Do you ever get any hate email?
RS: I get occasional angry emails. I got one message a few weeks ago that was so
vituperative that I didn't answer it. Most of them I do answer however: there is not
that much and most seems to be fairly rational. Generally, they are just confused
about a particular point, so I talk to them a bit.
RP: Thank you for your time.
61 The Nuremberg Trials were the sets of trials of officials involved in World War II and the Holocaust
during the Nazi regime. The trials were held in the city of Nuremberg, Germany, from 1945 to 1949, at
the Nuremberg Palace of Justice.
© 2006 Richard Poynder
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