posted by Linux Review on Tue 20th Mar 2012 17:07 UTC
IconIt's been a while since we caught up with Stallman. But a couple months ago we took a look around at what's happening with law, politics and technology and realized that he maybe perhaps his extremism and paranoia were warranted all along. So when we were contacted by an Iranian Linux publication and asked if we would like to publish an English translation of a recent interview they had done with Stallman, I thought that it was a particularly rich opportunity.

Iran is a particularly interesting case when it comes to the adoption of free software. Like many nations outside of Europe and North America, there is no ethos of paying for software, and in fact Iran is not a signatory of the WTO copyright treaty, which implicitly and de facto means that foreign software may be freely distributed within Iran without paying licenses. So Windows and other western commercial software is widely and inexpensively available. Nevertheless, Linux and other Free Software has a foothold among the computing community similar to its popularity elsewhere.

So without further ado, here's the interview:

LR: Before we begin, let me mention that in countries like Iran, people are not forced by the law to comply with copyright to use computer software. Almost every piece of software can be obtained for a very small amount of money or even for free.

Since I am committed to distinguishing "free as in free speech" from "free as in free beer", I've adopted the practice of always saying "gratis" and never "free" when I mean "zero price". That way, when I say "free", it always means "azadi".

LR: Therefore, those who choose to use and advocate free software do so for pure philosophical reasons and due to real love for freedom, and they have great respect for you and what you've done.

RMS: Since others may also read this text, I include here the definition of free (azadi) software.

Free software means, software that respects the users' freedom and community. For any program, either the users control the program or the program controls the users.

In order for the users to control the program, they need these four essential freedoms.

0. To run the program as you wish.
1. To study the program's source code, and change it, so it does your computing as you wish.
2. To make exact copies and redistribute them to others when you wish.
3. To make copies of your modified versions and redistribute them to others when you wish.

We call that "free software".

If the users don't control the program, then the program controls the users, and the developer controls the program. This is nonfree software. It's an injustice, and our goal is to get rid of the injustice.

I launched the free software movment in 1983. In 1984 I started developing a free software operating system called GNU. In 1992, GNU was nearly complete, missing one essential component. In that year, Torvalds liberated Linux, which filled the last gap in GNU. The operating system that millions use is basically GNU, with Linux added.

LR: When you started the GNU Project, you stepped down from your job at the university. Considering the fact that the project needed investment, did you receive any financial support? Did you have a major sponsor?

RMS: The term "investment" is not applicable here, because that implies spending money on a business to obtain a larger subsequent profit. I set out to do a large job, but it wasn't a business and the purpose was something more important than profit.

I quit my job at MIT when I started writing code for the GNU operating system because I wanted to make sure MIT would not be able to claim copyright on the code I wrote for GNU.

Evidently, financial support was not crucial at the beginning, because I made progress on my own, which drew others to help.

LR: Does the GNU Project produce any revenues to cover it's own costs?

RMS: That question presumes a centralized project which is not how it works. The GNU system is composed of many components, and each component has its own developers. Some of those groups obtain funding in various ways, but they do it separately and independently. Some groups are composed solely of volunteers.

LR: Could you please update our readers on the current status of HURD? Do you agree that HURD is now even more important than before due to the rejection of GPL v3 by the Linux Foundation?

RMS: The Hurd needs lots of work to be competitive in practice with Linux, but I don't keep track of the details.

The problem caused by having Linux under GPL v2 is that it can be tivoized -- used in "tyrant" products that don't allow the user to replace the operating system with her own version.

Let's assume the Hurd were practically as complete as Linux. The Hurd does not allow tivoization, so it can't be used in tyrant products. But that would not stop them from making tyrant products -- they would use Linux instead.

Thus, in order to put a stop to tyrant products, the Hurd would need to be not just equal to Linux, but far superior. That does not seem to be a likely prospect. As a result, I don't know any way we can technically put an end to tyrant products that use free software.

What we can do, at least, is to stop them from using our code. Releasing our code under GNU GPL v3-or-later achieves that.

LR: Mr. Torvalds has provided almost no sensible and acceptable reason for refusing to update the license. In his opinion that's not necessary and the version 2 is enough. What do you think about his decision? Will linux lose support from corporations' side if he agrees to use GPL v3?

RMS: He told me that he appreciates many of the improvements in GPL v3 but objects to one of them: the requirement for manufacturers to tell users how to install modified software in the products they buy.

Many of today's computers are designed so the manufacturer can upgrade the software but the user can't change it. Under those circumstances, the executable is not free software even though its source code may be free. We call this "tivoization" or "lockdown", and we call the device a "tyrant". Many Android phones are tyrants: they contain executables of Linux compiled from free source code, but the executables are nonfree since users are blocked from running theirmodified versions.

GPL version 3 prevents this abuse by requiring the manufacturer to tell you whatever key is needed to sign your own version of the program so it can run in the device. That is what Torvalds objects to. He wants to permit tivoization of Linux, and according to what he told me, that is his reason for rejecting GPL version 3.

LR: Does GPL v3 impose limits on installation of multimedia codecs and proprietary applications?

RMS: I can't see why it would do that, but the question is vague, so I have trouble answering it. If you specify a more precise scenario, I would be able to give a sure answer.

LR: Right now there are many non-free binary blobs inside the linux kernel. Don't you think that linux is moving off from freedom towards being a proprietary software?

RMS: Linux moved off the path of freedom when the binary blobs were included in it. Whether it is now moving even further from that path, I don't know. Either way, freedom calls for rejecting the blobs. That is why we maintain Linux-libre, our own 100% free software modified version of Linux.

LR: Right now, what's the main focus of FSF and what exactly the output is?

RMS: The FSF has four main activities: infrastructure, campaigns, GPL enforcement, and education/fundraising.

Infrastructure means the servers such as and that GNU uses.

Campaigns means efforts at education and political instigation, such as and

GPL enforcement means writing to companies that violate the GPL (with software copyrighted by the FSF) and informing them that that is copyright infringement and they must stop.

Educating the public about free software and fundraising are combined because the same activities usually achieve both results.

LR: There's been a lot of debate on what is the proper title for GNU/Linux. However many users still have a lot of questions in this regard. Most references offer  definitions for an operating system that are more or less like this: "A system software that connects the software with the hardware." What that definition in mind, why shouldn't we call an operating system simply "linux" or "HURD"?

RMS: The right name depends on what collection of software you're talking about.

With the definition cited above, you're talking about the kernel and drivers -- only. Linux is a kernel, so perhaps you might be talking about Linux.

However, if you're talking about a distro such as Trisquel or Debian, that's a lot more than "software that connects the software with the hardware". Those distros are complete, usable systems -- basically the GNU system, with Linux added. So you should call them "GNU/Linux".

I define "operating system" as "the collection of software that implement the usual activities and provide a base for implementing other activities." GNU is an operating system in this sense, as was Unix, and so are these distros.

By the way, "software" has no plural. It is like "literature" or "petrol". Any number of programs are "software".

LR: Recently Digitizer published statistics (based on an analysis on the number of lines of codes for all software inside Ubuntu 11.04 main repositories. They announced that only about 8 percent of the code belonged to the GNU Project. What do you think about that?

RMS: I don't know how they reached that figure. How did they claim to determine which code belonged to the GNU Project? There is no simple way to determine that from the code in any simple way. Perhaps they omitted some GNU packages and undercounted.

However, it will probably be true in a few years that GNU packages are only 8%. When that happens, Linux will probably be 0.8%. These numbers both decrease, and the reason is that more different projects contribute to the system. The decrease reflects our success at attracting more free software developers.

This has no effect on the relationship between GNU, Linux, and Ubuntu. Ubuntu is a development of the GNU/Linux system, which started in 1992 as the GNU system plus Linux.

LR: You announced that in gNewSense, GNU's share was %15 while Linux only had a %1.5 share.

RMS: I don't remember the precise figures, but that looks about right. What this shows is that the system is more GNU than Linux.

LR: Therefore, if we choose the amount of code as the criterion, each distribution would probably have a different name, as many projects other than Linux and GNU are involved in distros, and the ratios are constantly changing.

RMS: If the question is whether to call the system "GNU/Linux" or "Linux", those things have no effect on that. However the rest of the system may change, GNU remains a much bigger contribution to the system than Linux is. See

LR: Do you think that the amount of code is a proper index for naming a distro?

RMS: No, I don't think that is the sole basis. I mention it because it is an objective and verifiable fact about the system today.

However, I think the fact that the GNU Project started the development of this system, and gave it the name GNU, is a stronger reason to consider the system as a development from GNU.


LR: Aside from GCC, which part of GNU could be regarded  part of the  operating system core? What actually justifies calling GNU the base of GNU/Linux?

RMS: Binutils, Coreutils, Bash and GNU libc are just as central and necessary as GCC and Linux. However, this concept of "core" seems to be an artificial distinction. From the beginning, we aimed to make GNU a complete Unix-like system, not merely a "core".

LR: Then could we still call a GNU-free operating system (which uses EKOPath instead of GCC and zsh instead of bas etc) GNU/Linux?

RMS: If you replace all of GNU, the result would not be GNU/Linux. But why seek to do such a thing?

LR: The number of distributions is increasing rapidly. Although this helps free software to cater to  tastes and needs of more people, some people say it is a waste of time and energy that could have otherwise been spent on upstream projects. Do you agree with them? What's your idea about a unified,  standard distro?

RMS: People and organizations often think that the first thing to do when they join the free software community is to make a distro. If their goal is to develop their skills, perhaps this is a useful way to do it, but I think most of these distros don't serve much other purpose.

Thus, I urge people to concentrate their efforts on helping the existing free distros, rather than making new distros.

See for information about the free GNU/Linux distros.

LR: Contrary to the original ambitions of the Free Software movement, many distros are shipping non-free programs. What harm could this do to the movement? What can be done about this issue?

RMS: The direct effect of the use of nonfree distros such as Ubuntu GNU/Linux is that some people install GNU/Linux but they don't get all the way to freedom.

If that were the worst consequence of nonfree distros. it would be unfortunate but would not put the movement's goal at risk. Even if these users have not got all the way to freedom, they have taken a big step towards freedom. However, the nonfree distros have another effect that does much deeper damage: it gives people the wrong idea of what our work is intended for.

The developers of Ubuntu don't say, "We're sorry that this distro does not fully deliver the freedom that only free software respects." They don't mention "free software" at all. Instead they talk about "open source", and they say that their goal is to deliver the "best possible user experience".

So what is our goal? Is it to win freedom, or to have an appealing user experience? It is for you to decide what your goal is. However, newcomers to the free software community are more likely to get their ideas from Ubuntu than from the free software movement. Thus, most of the people who come into our community learn to seek the "best possible user experience" rather than their freedom.

To prevent this from washing away the free software movement is a constant effort, and that's why I am so strongly concerned about the problem of nonfree distros.

LR: Our readers are really eager to know what distribution and desktop environment you personally use.

RMS: I use gNewSense, which until recently was the only 100% free software GNU/Linux distro that ran on my computer. This computer, a Lemote Yeeloong, has a Chinese processor which is more or less a MIPS.

There is now one other distro that runs on the Yeeloong, Parabola, and I hope to try it soon.

I do most of my work in a text terminal, because that is more efficient for me, but I also have GNOME running.

LR: A number of institutes committed to the spread of free software like Sourceforge and Google Code ban IP addresses from Iran and other companies under US sanctions and restrict their services to those countries. In addition, a few months ago Redhat prevented active Iranian contributors from entering its managerial board. What"s your opinion? Which one is more more important, abiding by US laws or helping all users have access to and a say in free software?

RMS: You're comparing a purely legal question with an ethical question, and there is no comparison between them.

US organizations can't get away with disobeying US export control law. They would be stopped. The FSF obeys US export control law too, and would not sell products to Iran. Whether this law is just or not, I can't blame US organizations for complying with it.

But does US export control law require repositories to block connections from Iran? The FSF's lawyer told us that we are not required to block connections, so we don't block connections. Why the staff of Sourceforge and Google think this is required, I don't know. It would be interesting to ask them, but I think they would give vacuous answers.

Turning from the legal question to the ethical question, it is wrong and absurd for US to apply trade sanctions to free software. That doesn't stop business or the state in Iran from getting and using free software, it only inconveniences individual Iranians, while hampering them from contributing to the world's shared knowledge.

LR: As we assume that many software developers don"t actually care about those sanctions, many Iranian users bypass the censorship and download the code. Do you think they"re doing something bad, both morally and legally?

RMS: Legally speaking, they are safe: the US cannot prosecute people in Iran for doing this. Morally speaking, it is wrong for trade sanctions to apply to free software.

LR: How can a software developer make a living out of free software? Apart from donations and paid support, are there any revenue models for free software?

RMS: Most paid software development consists of writing custom software. That business could exist almost unchanged in a world in which all software is free: the same clients would pay for the same work, and get similar software, but they would receive it as free software. There are numerous small companies which already do this.

This is not the only model, but it is a common one.

LR: As you"ve admitted before, the open-source model has won more fans compared to the free software model.

RMS: There is a misunderstanding here: these are not two "models". Free (azadi) software is not a "model". It is a philosophy, a campaign for certain specific freedoms for software users on ethical grounds. (See

Open source is also a philosophy, but it's a very different one, which is not about ethics; its values are values of practical convenience.

Open source seems to have more supporters. I don't know why, but I have guesses. First, the media usually adopt the open source philosophy's assumptions and mention only that name. Thus, more people encounter the open source philosophy than ours. Second, open source disagrees less with the establishment than we do, and that makes its ideas less controversial.

LR: Some people believe that the free software movement and its philosophy is n ot limited to computers and could be generalized to other branches of science. Do you agree with them? Do you believe that something called "free science" or "free knowledgeâ could be pursued? How, the way you see it, is it possible to trigger similar movements in other fields of knowledge?

RMS: The free software movement applies to software. What is software?

A program is a work of authorship which is used to tell a computer how to do a job. In other words, it's a work used to do practical jobs. Users deserve to have control of the jobs they do, so they need to have control over the work. That requires the four freedoms.

The same argument applies to other works that are designed to do practical jobs. For instance, recipes for cooking, textbooks for learning or studying, and reference works for looking things up. All these should be free.

"Knowledge" is a very different kind of thing from software. Works can relate to knowledge: a program can embody specific knowledge, and a textbook can teach specific knowledge, but knowledge is not a work like a program or a textbook. Thus, I don't think we can talk about "free knowledge" in this particular sense of free. Knowledge raises different ethical issues. Likewise science.

LR: What"s your idea about adding a new term to free licenses that bans the use of free software for military purposes? As you know free software is being widely used by governments for military purposed and sometimes for oppressing people. Can anything be done about that?

RMS: Freedom 0 is the freedom to run the program as you wish. If a license restricts how you can run the program, the program is not free software.

This criterion is crucial. We cannot accept programs in the GNU system which have limits on what they can be used for. If we did, different programs would come with different limits. One program, perhaps written by Muslims, might ban use by restaurants that serve alcohol; another program, perhaps written by the Munich Oktoberfest committee, might ban use by restaurants that do not serve alcohol. Continuing along these lines, we might end up with a system that nobody would be allowed to use.

The idea that we could stop governments from launching wars of aggression, or from torture, by conditions in software licenses is absurd anyway. Who enforces these licenses? Governments do. If we sued a government for using our software in those activities, the government would say, "We were compelled to go to war to protect the country, and that wasn't torture, merely 'enhanced interrogation'." Or it would simply legislate an exception for itself.

LR: What do you know about free software community in Iran? if you"re invited to events related to free software will you accept it?

RMS: I know very little about the free software community in Iran. Even in some countries which I visit often, and in which I know some of the local issues and activists, I would find it hard to answer such a general question.

I would not take the risk of visiting Iran under its current government. I make statements that criticize that government, and I fear I might be imprisoned or worse if I went there.

LR: Looking at the past, what do you think have been your best and worst decisions?

RMS: Sorry, I don't like confessing my biggest mistakes to strangers.

LR: What should be the next step in helping the society to care about and protect its freedom?

RMS: I have trouble responding because the question is not really meaningful. This doesn't work by "steps". Rather, there are many different areas where we are pushing, and many areas where our adversaries are pushing, and it all happens in parallel.

However, it is clearly crucial to make a tablet and a mobile phone that can be run without nonfree software.

LR: Your comments about Steve Job's death created a lot of debate among Apple fans and Free Software advocates. A number of Free Software and Open-source figures like Eric Raymond criticized your tone and blamed you for what they called being too harsh and insulting Apple users.

RMS: Actually, Eric Raymond said I was right about this. He seemed to uncomfortable agreeing with me, and added gratuitous insults so the tone would not seem friendly. But he said I was right on every point of this issue.

Others seemed to have a knee-jerk condemnation of criticizing someone who has died. One person told me it was unfair for me to criticize Jobs when he could not defend himself -- never mind that the entire PR staff of Apple was busy telling us how much the world had lost.

Frankly, I don't care about Jobs very much either way. I am concerned about the people whose freedom is harmed by his products, and by other products that follow the same avenue.

LR: What's the best way to advocate Free Software? Some Free Software users engage in technical debates with Microsoft and Apple fans, trying to convince them GNU/Linux is more powerful. Another group focus on philosophical and cultural aspects of Free Software and try to make people care about their freedom. Which of the two mentioned approaches are more effective?

RMS: They are both "effective" but they lead to different results.

If you convince people that some free software is technically superior, they might run some free software, but they will remain ready to use nonfree software in the areas where that is technically superior. They will continue to judge an important question based on superficial issues. This is just a partial success.

However, if you convince people that they deserve freedom, they will start rejecting nonfree software whether it is technically inferior or technically superior, because they will see that free software is ethically superior. They will understand the important question and judge it right. This is a full, deep success.

Another weakness of technical arguments is that nontechnical people probably won't care about them at all. But they can understand ethical arguments. Ethical arguments are the only way we can convince nontechnical people to become free software supporters.

I figure that users can judge for themselves whether program A is more convenient than program B. So I don't try to convince them about that sort of question, except when someone has preconceptions about free software and has not tried it. I focus on talking about freedom.

Original Persian language article here.
This article is published under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

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