4 October 2009
Approximately 9:30 am New Zealand time

Interview between Ken Hess (presenter) and Richard Stallman

Transcript by Brenda Chawner (brenda.chawner@vuw.ac.nz) with permission from Ken Hess.

Please attribute this work by reference to the original participants, Richard Stallman and Ken Hess/Frugal Tech Show.


[BC] Hello, Brenda speaking.

[KH] Hi, Brenda, this is Ken Hess. I’m calling for Richard Stallman.

[BC] Oh, right. Just a minute. He’s right here.

[KH] Oh, great.

[BC] It’s for you.

[RMS] Hello, who is this?

[KH] Hi, Richard. This is Ken Hess.

[RMS] Hi. I sent you mail with the answers to all the questions you had mailed me.

[KH] Yes, I did get that. Do you have just a few minutes, though? I’d like to get just a couple more things.

[RMS] Yes, OK.

[KH] One of the questions that I have for you is do you use some sort of an internet browser?

[RMS] Rarely, because basically, for reasons that are personal, I don’t do browsing from my own machine. So I’ll do it from some other machine if it’s available, and I’ll let other people do it on my machine. There are browsers on my machine. For instance, there is, I think it’s Epiphany, and I do use it to talk to sites that are run for me or for the free software movement, which I think of as in some loose sense mine.

[KH] Do you ever use Lynx for browsing?

[RMS] You mean L Y N X?

[KH] Right.

[RMS] I don’t use that for browsing, but I use that for looking at HTML that comes in the mail. Actually, the usual way I get to see a web page is I send mail for it to be mailed to me. And then I look at it in Lynx, usually, and if it doesn’t make sense in Lynx—there’s some sort of bug having to do with non-ASCII characters, I’m afraid, that I haven’t been able to get around.

Then it will look OK in Epiphany. I’ll be able to read it. This typically happens with things written in Spanish.

[KH] I know some of these may be repetitive. Do you only use software that’s under the GPL, or do you have other licenses?

[RMS] No, absolutely not. That is a strange idea that people have gotten from nowhere. The ethical criterion for software is that it be free, and there are other free software licenses too. To use [that] software and distribute that software is ethical. It would be impossible, first of all, to run a system without free software that is not under the GPL, and there’s no reason why you need to try.

[KH] For example, you use gNewSense instead of Debian or Ubuntu. Is that because just it’s all built with free software?

[RMS] Right. Now you can make an installation of Debian and install only free software.

[KH] Right.

[RMS] And then your computer is just as free as if you had installed gNewSense. However, people often ask me what distribution I use, and I know that people are likely to follow what I’m doing. So I want to make sure that my influence on that point goes in a good direction. I know that not everyone will insist on rejecting any non-free software. And not only that, in the current release of Debian [Gnu/Linux], there is software inside Linux [the kernel] which is not free. They decided not to remove it for the current release. I think they may be removing it now for the future. So the point is it’s not actually so easy with Debian to reliably make sure you get only free software. And therefore it is really important to use a completely free distribution.

[KH] What do you think of the 64 different open source licenses that are listed, not just GPL and LGPL and others, but what do you think of all those different licenses?

[RMS] Well, some of them are free software licenses, and some are not. I’m not a supporter of open source.

[KH] Right.

[RMS] Their criteria are different, but more important, their values are different. They are not aiming to win freedom for themselves or for you. So I think that they miss the most important point. That’s why I don’t promote or work for open source.

[KH] Right. Why do you think they mixed the free and non-free licenses like they do?

[RMS] Because they have different criteria that are written differently. And then they were judged by different people, so they came out drawing the line in a different place.

[KH] What do you think of the GPL version 3? I know Linus has somewhat rejected it.

[RMS] I wrote GPL version 3. I wrote version 3 because there were various ways I could make it better. Now I don’t want to go into a long list because I posted an article, which I believe you can find in gnu.org/licenses. And its name is something like rms-why-gplv3.html, which explains all the main improvements. And there’s something like a dozen. And then there are a lot of minor improvements too. Now the thing that Torvalds disapproves of—actually, he’s told me that he likes most of the changes, but one of the changes which I think is extremely important and he doesn’t like—is to defend users from Tivoization, which is a newer method of taking away the user’s freedom.

Tivoization is named after the Tivo, which is the first product I know of which did it. It consists of building the product such that if the user installs a modified version of the program it won’t run. (Or it might run but it wouldn’t be able to do its job. That’s something similar that was done in the Treacherous Computing proposal.) So the point is if you can’t change the program and really run it—really use your changed version—you don’t really have control over your computing. So I concluded that Tivoization makes a program non-free, and that therefore, to make sure that the user has freedom, we have to prevent Tivoization. So GPL version 3 says that the seller or distributor must provide the user with the information necessary to install her modified version, such that it is allowed actually to run and do the job.

[KH] So at some point, will the Free Software Foundation sponsor a 100% free distribution?

[RMS] We decided there’s no reason for us to sponsor one, because what we’re doing instead is we’re promoting them all. Our criteria can be found in gnu.org/distros, along with a list of the free distros that we endorse. And so anyone that has a free distro can get it added to that list by meeting these criteria.

[KH] Which is mostly to only include free software, right?

[RMS] Well, not just about what it includes, but also what it steers you towards. If it only includes free software, but if it tells you to go over there and install this non-free program, that doesn’t qualify. The point is to act in a way that’s consistent with the basic idea that non-free software is unethical. It shouldn’t exist. And you’re contradicting yourself if you say “such and such is unethical, and if you want it, go over there. There’s where to find it.”

[KH] You said in your email response that you do use PDF and image viewers?

[RMS] Yes. Free software of course. I wouldn’t have non-free software installed on my machine—I do that with free software.

[KH] Oh, OK. Is there a PDF viewer that’s free?

[RMS] There are several of them.

[KH] Is it Xpdf?

[RMS] There is Xpdf, there is Evince, there is GV, and we have a project to implement 100% support for pdf in free software called GNU PDF. Now these programs will let you view PDFs, and in general they work, though there may be some wrinkles that you rarely encounter in actual PDF files that they might not handle. But what we want to do is set up full support, including for editing PDFs, so people are first working on various levels of library to do the whole job 100%.

[KH] Another thing about the GPL 3, I’m sorry to skip around like this, but I just wanted to get all these questions in and make sure I get everything while I have you on the phone. What kind of adoption has there been for GPL 3 so far?

[RMS] I know that there are more than a thousand projects using it, but I don’t have any up-to-date information on that. I’m not keeping track. But if you call the Free Software Foundation tomorrow—well, actually, I don’t know which day it is for you

[KH] Saturday

[RMS] But in any case, on Monday if you call the Free Software Foundation. I don’t actually know.

[KH] Do you expect OpenSolaris or any other operating systems to adopt GPL version 3?

[RMS] I don’t know. But OpenSolaris is not really an operating system, it’s a kernel, as far as I know. I’d like to clarify a point about the GPL versus other free software licenses. If you get a program that’s under any free software license, and you have a computer that will let you install whatever software you like, and you install that program, it’s respecting your freedom—there’s no problem for you. The reason why the GPL is better—the thing which it does better—is make sure that it will come with freedom for all of the users. That’s the aim of copyleft. Most other free software licenses are not copyleft licenses, so someone could distribute them in various ways denying the user freedom. But if you get it as source code under that free software license, you have the freedom that you should have.

[KH] Do you think it would be practical or possible to create a fully 100% GPL operating system? Kernel and operating system?

[RMS] It’s not possible at the moment, and I just don’t see any reason to rewrite big pieces of free software like X just for the sake of this.

[KH] Here’s a question that has nothing to do with software. Do you live in the United States?

[RMS] Yes.

[KH] OK.

[RMS] Well, theoretically, because I’m usually elsewhere.

[KH] For some reason I thought you lived in England. I don’t know why.

[RMS] There are strange rumours going around about where I live. The usual false rumour is that I live in California, which just has never been true.

[KH] You went to university at MIT, right?

[RMS] No, I went to Harvard and I worked—well actually, I was a grad student at MIT for one year and then dropped out. I worked for many years at MIT, both before and after I graduated from Harvard. So I had a long association with MIT, but not as a student.

[KH] So is there a particular country that’s more favourable towards free software than others?

[RMS] Yes, there are big differences. In a lot of South American countries you see a strong free software movement, and some governments have official policies to move to free software.

[KH] I know some cities in Germany have moved to Linux, at least as much as they can to free software.

[RMS] I was just pointing out that these cities in Germany have switched to the GNU+Linux operating system.

[KH] I believe that some of them have switched to the SUSE distribution, because that was very popular. I think it started in Germany.

[RMS] Yes, it did; SUSE was a German company. The sad thing about that distribution is that it has a lot of non-free things in it.

[KH] Right.

[RMS] SUSE was bought by Novell, and Novell is famous for having signed a pact with Microsoft. And it does various things that serve the interests of Microsoft.

[KH] Let me phrase it this way. Do you have a favourite distribution? I guess it would probably be Debian, or at least the Debian

[RMS] No. Certainly not, because Debian is not entirely free software, and therefore I don’t encourage people to install it, unless they’re wizards that are strongly committed to the free software cause. And then I know that they will make sure that they get rid of the non-free parts.

[KH] Right.

[RMS] But I don’t really want to pick a favourite among the distributions that we endorse, because I’ll make the others jealous.

[KH] Sure. What do you think of companies like Red Hat that call themselves open source companies, and they’ve turned extremely commercial?

[RMS] First of all, these are different things. I’m not against being commercial, because I’m not against business as such. The free software movement is not a campaign to eliminate business. So the fact that they’re commercial, I don’t criticise. But the issue is, do they distribute non-free software?

And I’m sad to say that Red Hat does. Fedora comes pretty close to being entirely free, but there is still some non-free software in there. So that’s how I judge.

In terms of the fact that they say open source, that’s a matter of expressing their opinions, and what ideas they want to promote. I disagree with their choice, but that doesn’t mean that their actions are bad. So you have to judge their actions in terms of what they are. But they are related in the sense that somebody who says “I campaign for free software” is likely to see a contradiction between that and promoting non-free software, so he’s likely not to do it. Whereas somebody who says he’s for open source wouldn’t see a contradiction, so he’s more likely to do it. That’s why your ideas make a difference, because your ideas will help you decide your actions. You base your decisions on your ideas.

[KH] Do you think it would be possible for a commercial company like Red Hat to adopt or use and distribute a totally free version of their operating system?

[RMS] We’re hoping that Fedora will be entirely free. Of course, Red Hat has another system—another version of Gnu/Linux—which I don’t think they’re likely to make entirely free, but at least they have different names. So if they make Fedora entirely free, we’ll be able to say Fedora is good.

[KH] CentOS is derived from Red Hat’s source. Is it considered to be entirely free?

[RMS] I don’t think so. I don’t know for certain, but it’s not in our list, so probably that means it wouldn’t qualify. I expect they probably would have arranged to be in our list if it were possible.

[KH] Just out of curiousity, what kind of computer do you have?

[RMS] I have a Lemote computer, which is the only commercial laptop I know of where you don’t need to have a proprietary BIOS.

[KH] What’s it called again, I’m sorry?

[RMS] Lemote. L E M O T E.

[KH] I’ll look that up—that’s good. What do they use for their BIOS? Do they have their own?

[RMS] I think it comes with pmon.

[KH] Is that a mobile unit, or is it a desktop?

[RMS] It’s a laptop. There are other desktops that you can run a free BIOS on, but I don’t have a desktop computer. I don’t need one.

[KH] You just use the laptop exclusively?

[RMS] Yes. I’m home such a small fraction of the time there’d be no point having a computer that was there.

[KH] That’s about it. I really appreciate your time. I didn’t mean to inconvenience you there this morning in New Zealand.

[RMS] You didn’t—don’t worry. Stop apologizing; you didn’t do anything wrong. It’s OK.

[KH] Thank you. I appreciate that. I appreciate you very much in taking time to do this interview.

[RMS] Thank you.

[KH] I’ll adhere to your requests for terminology and so forth in the article.

[RMS] Thank you.

[KH] Great. Thank you.

[RMS] Happy hacking.

[KH] You too. Have a good day.

Saint IGNUcius | Transcripts | Afterword: About Richard Stallman

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