Impressions of Richard Stallman

By   |  June 11, 2001

There is something of a revolution happening in the software industry and if Dr Richard Stallman has anything to do with it it will be called the “Gnu revolution”. Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation and widely regarded as one of the pre-eminent leaders of the hacker community, is currently visiting South Africa to promote his vision of “socially responsible” software development.

Originally an operating systems developer at the Artificial Intelligence unit of the Masachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Stallman recalls how 17 years ago he realised his computer community was under threat. “In the early 1980s I had my first contact with the non-disclosure agreement. Paradoxically,” he says, “it was good for me. It taught me an important lesson – the information we were producing was supposed to be for the advancement of humanity. I realised that by withholding information we were denying the mission of our fields.”

“I faced a moral dilemma. I could either accept that the world had changed or I could find another ethical way not to starve. If I accepted the first I would have to say “I have spent my life building walls to divide people”,” says Stallman. Instead, he decided to start a free operating system(OS), “or die trying,” he says without irony. Stallman left MIT in 1984, established the Free Software Foundation and began the slow and labour-intensive process of replacing the individual parts of the Unix OS with free alternatives. He said he chose to base his new OS on Unix because he knew it had to be portable (adaptable to a range of hardware). “I knew only one system that could do that and it was Unix. I had never actually used Unix at that point but I had read about it,” he says.

Along with the Free Software Foundation, he also established the Gnu General Public License (GPL) a license that entrenched the rights of users to alter, learn from and re-distribute software as they wished.

The new free OS Stallman envisioned would be known as Gnu, a word chosen by Stallman because of its recursive nature – Gnu stands for “Gnu is not Unix” – a longstanding naming tradition within the hacker community. “Gnu is also one of the funniest words in the english language,” he adds with a smile.

By the early 1990s the project was almost complete with the notable exception of the kernel — the core of the system that tied all of the applications together. Stallman says that he had already found a microkernel called Mach that he was considering using when he first heard of Linux. Linux, the creation of Helsinki University student Linus Torvalds, was also based on Unix and was freely available on the Internet and quickly became the default kernel of the Gnu project bringing Stallman”s vision to reality.

That was almost a decade ago and today Stallman”s life is very different. The spokesman of the free software movement, Stallman travels the world promoting his ideals and the software born out of it. “Free,” says Stallman, “has two meanings in the english language. One has a monetary value and the other relates to freedom.” It is the second that Stallman sees as his crusade. He describes “free” software as meeting four conditions: Users must be able to use the software where and however they please is the first. The second is

that users must be able to help themselves. This could take the form of changing the software to suit their own needs, fixing bugs or adding features they require. “For this to exist in a practical sense,” says Stallman, “you have to have access to the source code.” The third condition of freedom is that users must be able to re-distribute the software without restriction and thereby “help their neighbours”, and the fourth is the ability to build the community by contributing back to it.

At the heart of his philosophy is the requirement that all software allows users to view the source code – an option not available in proprietary software. “If people don”t have access to the source code they become prisoners of their software,” says Stallman. He goes so far as to suggest that being denied this right can cause social and psychological damage.

“Sharing information is a fundamental form of friendship,” he says and he complains that the world is being taught that the exact opposite is true. The United States, he says, is leading the way in turning the habit of sharing into a crime. He points to the ever increasing legislation against copying, the marketing campaigns urging citizens to report infringements and the “collective responsibility” principle that is making Internet Service Providers responsible for monitoring their users as just some of the ways

people are being turned against sharing. “Helping your neighbour is now considered the moral equivalent of attacking a ship,” he says of the anti-piracy campaigns.” “Society cannot survive the loss of humanity”s ability to share,” he cautions.

When it comes to Microsoft, Stallman is equally philosophical. “The enemy is bigger than Microsoft,” he says. “The enemy is any software that doesn”t respect your freedom. Any company, that wants to start respecting users freedom is welcome,” he says. Even Microsoft.

But while these may sound like the ravings of a fanatic to some, Stallman”s point of view is rapidly gaining momentum. The GNU/Linux system is quickly gaining ground on Microsoft”s Windows operating system and it already commands most of the ISP market, serving up the majority of the Internet”s web pages. And to his critics who argue that no-one will evelop software for free he points to the 100 000 developers already registered on Sourceforge.org, the “virtual” home of free software developers.

Why do they do it” “Political idealism is one of my main motivations” says Stallman. But the motives of fun, pride and professional reputation also drives free software developers on. “It feels good if half a million users use your program,” he says. “And it is also good for your reputation.”

However, this new found popularity also brings with it problems for Stallman. “It is no longer just the freedom that attracts people to our system but the quality of our product. But it means that we now have people using our system who have no understanding of our philosophy.”

The popularity of the Gnu/Linux system has also been the catalyst for a number of companies that trade in “boxed” versions of the system. Companies such as SuSE and Caldera, says Stallman, include in their packages applications that are proprietary software which undermines the FSF principles. Ironically, he says, “it is now hard to find a truly free system.

However, these high standards often bring him into conflict with other “free” software developers. Most notably he says of the Linux creator: “Linux is the apolitical philosophy of Linus Torvalds.” The disagreement arises from the fact that Torvalds does not wholly embrace the Free Software Movement philosophy, despite releasing his work under the GPL. The confusion around the naming of the system as Linux and not GNU/Linux, says Stallman, “has broken the connection between the software and the philosophy. Users should know that Gnu/Linux comes out of our philosophy and they must give Gnu a share of the credit. But above all we need this credit to spread our philosophy,” he says.

However there is an even more pressing problem, says Stallman. Software patents are a “plague” in his eyes and he sees it as the work of governments trying to curtail the work of oganisations such as the FSF.He says that the US has already gone to far down this road and he says: “it is vital for South Africa not to allow software patents. If you can keep your country free of this plague you”ll be better off than the United States,” he says.

Is their ever a reason to develop proprietary software? Never, says Stallman. “if you can”t write free software, then write no software,” he says. “Happy hacking.”

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