Richard Stallman is the founder of the GNU project, launched in 1984 to develop the free operating system GNU (an acronym for “GNU’s Not Unix”), and thereby give computer users the freedom that most of them have lost. GNU is free software: everyone is free to copy it and redistribute it, as well as to make changes either large or small. Today, Linux-based variants of the GNU system, based on the kernel Linux developed by Linus Torvalds, are in widespread use. There are estimated to be over 10 million users of GNU/Linux systems today. Richard Stallman is the principal author of the GNU C Compiler, a portable optimizing compiler which was designed to support diverse architectures and multiple languages. The compiler now supports over 30 different architectures and 7 programming languages. Stallman also wrote the GNU symbolic debugger (GDB), GNU Emacs, and various other GNU programs. Stallman received the Grace Hopper Award from the Association for Computing Machinery for 1991 for his development of the first Emacs editor in the 1970s. In 1990 he was awarded a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, and in 1996 an honorary doctorate from the Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden. In 1998, he received the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer award along with Linus Torvalds.
This interview took place between November 1999 and January 2000.
Resonance: Could you please explain the philosophical foundations of the Free Software movement?
Stallman: The “free” in “free software” refers to freedom-freedom for the people who use software. Freedom to change the software to suit your own needs; freedom to redistribute copies (in other words, share with your friends); freedom to publish your improvements, so that you and others can work together to make better software. In other words, it is the freedom to cooperate, the freedom to have a community. You can find the full explanation in https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html. Non-free software prohibits cooperation and community: the owner of the software dominates the users and divides them. I think this is wrong, so I reject non-free software as a social system. See https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/why-free.html.
Resonance: Is there a larger philosophical framework within which the Free Software movement resides, for example, the Libertarian view?
Stallman: I am a Liberal, not a Libertarian. I launched the Free Software movement because I had experienced a community and I wanted to have a community again. For me, free software is part of a general view that people should work together for the general good. A social system where software owners can dominate and divide users is a bad system. A social system where a few people become very rich while the others have a hard life is a bad system. The details of the issues are very different, but the spirit is the same. Property rights are a useful system, and I wouldn’t want to abolish them. But when employed too strictly, they cause suffering, so we mustn’t do that either. Property is a useful tool for promoting human happiness. But we need other tools as well, such as the welfare state. Libertarians elevate one of these tools above human happiness, and human happiness suffers as a result. Since the US abandoned Liberal policies, life has become harder for most Americans, especially the poorest-even though production has increased.
These are my personal views only. The Free Software movement has nothing to say about these things, it’s concerned with one specific issue: freedom and community for software users. Libertarians are welcome in the Free Software movement, if they support its goals. We don’t ask contributors to GNU about their political views; whomever wants to help can help.
Resonance: Software is a purely intellectual activity in a similar sense as a novel or a poem. Other intellectual activities are less “pure” in that they result in a physical product, such as a microchip or a car. Do the ideas that support the Free Software movement have counterparts in other fields of intellectual endeavor? Is there a way to produce a “free” car as you produce free software?
Stallman: Free software means you are free to modify it and redistribute copies. This freedom is important because *we have the ability to exercise it*. If you have the source code of a program, you can usefully change it, if you choose to learn how. And if you have a computer, you can make copies and redistribute them. Your computer is an automatic software copier. So, what about cars? Free cars would mean you are free to modify them and redistribute copies. Well, as for the modification, you are free to do that-lots of people modify and customize their cars. But when it comes to redistributing copies, the fact is we don’t have the technology to do it. There is no automatic car copier. Cars, today, are like books before the Xerox machine-the only feasible way to make copies was with a special factory. Copying your car is so hard that it makes little practical difference whether you are allowed to do this. Perhaps someday, through nanotechnology perhaps, a car copier will be developed. Then a Free Car Movement will be necessary. But today it isn’t. Aside from software and other things that can be represented as bits, there is just one kind of material object that people can copy and modify: living things. Billions of people copy plants each year by planting their seeds, and modify the strains slowly by breeding them. Not surprisingly, companies are trying to take away the freedom to do this, and people around the world are fighting back.
Resonance: With the expansion of the Internet and very open communication, are you hopeful that as people find out more about the FSF that resistance will grow? Is it possible to do everything one wants to do on a PC that contains only “free software”?
Stallman: It is not possible today; there are still major gaps. The target we set in 1984, a complete free Unix-like operating system, has been reached, but now there are other things we expect a computer to do. For example, there is no reasonable all-purpose free graphical web browser. Part of the reason is that Netscape announced almost two years ago an effort to develop one; they have not yet produced something usable, but the expectation that they would do so tended to make other projects wither.
Resonance: What are some of your skills that permitted you to succeed as a software developer?
Resonance: How did you come to the point in your life where you decided that Free Software made sense to you? Was there a defining moment?
Resonance: How are art and science intertwined?
Stallman: They are entirely separate ways of thinking, and have nothing to do with each other.
Science is a systematic way of knowing how the world works. I can’t give a good definition of art (has anyone ever?), but it is not primarily about knowing anything. It is about being absorbed. When I appreciate music, for example, what I get is not knowledge; the music doesn’t have a message, just a fascination. You can see and smell a flower at the same time; nonetheless, vision and olfaction are completely unlike each other, and the two sensations have nothing in common as sensations even though you may have them together from one cause. In the same way, a flower can be both beautiful and biologically interesting at the same time, but these two ways of appreciating the flower have nothing in common, even though you might experience them both at once.
Resonance: Speaking to a young person of about 13-14 years old, just entering High School, what advice would you offer? What does a person of this age need to begin to think about?
Stallman: Don’t choose heroes who did nothing more than make money. That is a very limited ambition; you can aim higher.
Resonance: What are you currently reading?
Stallman: Today I am rereading Masked Gods, by Frank Waters. It’s not the greatest book about the Pueblo Indians, but I came across it on the window ledge and decided to go through it again before shelving it. This morning, I finished Imajica, by Clive Barker. In the past week I also read Kinds of Minds, by Daniel Dennett, and A Million Open Doors, by Steve Barnes.
Resonance: Would you recommend certain readings or activities in order to encourage young people to think for themselves and not to be sucked into an extremely consumerist existence?
Stallman: Reading about history and science generally ought to help. The more you know about other aspects of the world, the less you are limited in though to shallow consumption. Specifically I recommend Lies My Teacher Told Me, by James Loewen, and The Blind Watchmaker, by Richard Dawkins.
Resonance: Are there societal problems that you see as serious but that no one is addressing?
Stallman: We all know about them: poverty, homelessness, global overpopulation, bigotry, the list is endless, and they are not being seriously addressed-yet.
Resonance: What projects are you currently working on?
Stallman: If you mean technical projects, I no longer have time to do that. The nontechnical things I feel I must do are using up all of my time, so the only programming I can do is a little occasional work on Emacs.
My latest project is the boycott of Amazon, because they are using a software patent to commit aggression. See https://www.gnu.org/philosophy/amazon.html for more information.