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GNU is Not Unix

Richard Stallman Answers Your Questions 527

A while ago you had the chance to ask founder of the GNU Project, and free software advocate, Richard Stallman, about GNU/Linux, free software, and anything else. You can read his answers to a wide range of questions below. As usual, RMS didn't pull any punches.
Capitalism and You
by eldavojohn

Your monkish lifestyle would leave most people who work in software screaming for a Lear Jet and you have stated "I've always lived cheaply ... like a student, basically. And I like that, because it means that money is not telling me what to do." Growing up in the United States, I have been served the koolaid of Capitalism several times and I have been taught that the inherent competition and struggle for money in all aspects of our lives make us the greatest country ever. I've read a lot of your comments on intellectual property reform and I can't help but feel that it just isn't compatible with capitalism. Have you ever had problems rectifying your stance on intellectual property with capitalism? Do you see any problems at all with no copyright or patent laws inside a capitalistic society?

RMS: First, I need to correct an apparent misunderstanding. I do not have a "stance on intellectual property", because that would mean using the term "intellectual property" in my thinking. I take pains never to do that, because that term is an obstacle to clear thinking. Every time it is used, it misrepresents the legal reality and spreads confusion.

I judge copyright law by its practical requirements and their practical effects. I judge patent law by its practical requirements and their practical effects -- totally different requirements and totally different effects. These two laws are different on every practical point; all they have in common is a very abstract idea which is of no practical significance.

I want to encourage clear thinking about copyright law. Separately, I want to encourage clear thinking about patent law. The first step in clear thinking about these laws is not to lump them together. In particular, never use the term "intellectual property", since it lumps them together.

I must not respond directly to a question that treats copyright law and patent law as a single issue. If I did, I'd be lumping them together and spreading the confusion I want to clear up.

However, I can split it into two separate questions.

First, copyright. Copyright is a legal restriction on certain kinds of use of works of authorship. The US has always had some sort of copyright law, but it has changed tremendously. The US has always practiced capitalism, but many sorts of works were, at some time in US history, not covered by copyright. Thus, we know it is possible to have capitalism without copyright.

However, I don't advocate simple elimination of copyright as a solution.

Works that are designed for use doing practical jobs must be free; however, simply eliminating copyright on those works would not have this result. In software, it would make things worse, because copyleft is based on copyright. Without copyright, programs could still be made nonfree using EULAs, tivoization, and nonrelease of source code, but we would no longer be able to prevent this using copyleft.

If we wanted to legislate to make all these works-for-use free, we would have to go further than just eliminating copyright on them. In an ideal world, we would do this, but I don't propose doing it now.

As for works of opinion and art, I don't think they must be free. I advocate some reforms of copyright for these works but I see no reason to abolish it.

Patent law is a totally different issue. A patent is an artificial monopoly on using a specified idea. There have been successful capitalist countries that didn't have a patent system. My expertise is in computing, so I campaign to eliminate patents from computing, where I know they are harmful. However, Boldrin and Levine present good arguments that patents do mostly harm in every field and that it would be better to eliminate patents entirely.

With any or all of these changes, we would still have capitalism; only some details would be different.

I feel like you have this admirable and altruistic quality where money isn't the ultimate driving force and when you speak to people who base their entire lives around money, there's a fundamental disconnect that is overlooked.

RMS: Arguments are always based on values. The free software movement is based on values of freedom and community -- that is where it differs from open source. People who don't share those values will simply not get it, no matter what I might say. Since that's inevitable, I don't worry about it. I do my best, and I persuade some, which is better than giving up and persuading none.

Re:Do you like being worshiped ?
by capt.Hij

This brings up a good point. Let me rephrase the question. Mr Stallman, you are regarded as a founding father of the free software movement, and your opinion on free software carries a lot of weight. Because of this you are put under a harsh spot light, and every little thing you do is magnified. For example, your comments about Steve Jobs immediately after his death were broadcast quite widely. To some people the timing showed a lack of taste and were seen as disrespectful.

RMS: Those people evidently were more concerned with forms of politeness that with substantive good and evil. Someone told me I should not criticize Jobs because he could not defend himself -- while thousands were lionizing him with the indirect support of Apple's PR machine. Compared to that, I was David against Goliath.

Because of your status in the free software movement your statement was used by some to smear the larger community. How do you feel about this kind of attention?

RMS: I stand by what I said about Jobs. Apple is your enemy, and if you don't recognize this and fight, you're being a chump.

If someone tried to spin my statement as something to be ashamed of, please fight back by arguing with his spin.

Have you given it much thought, and what kind of insight can you share about the situation you are in when your private and public mannerisms are misconstrued to be part of a larger group's views and outlooks?

RMS: I hope that a lot of the community shares my views of Jobs and Apple. I ask them to stand up and be counted.

Apple's favorable public image, including public admiration of Jobs for side issues, is a crucial asset in its war against our freedom. To tarnish its image, we need to speak loud and clear about Apple's wrongs. When Steve Jobs is praised for the elegant styling of the jails he designed, we must respond that it is wrong to put users in jail. Speak up and spread the word!

Role of the FSF
by ssam

It seems to me that in the early days of the FSF the main role was writing software. A huge chunk of that code is what makes up modern day free operating systems. A lot of it is class leading software (bash, gcc, emacs, etc). In the past few years it seems that the FSF is far more involved in campaigning than coding. Is this an accurate view of the situation? Is this intentional, and if so why? Should the FSF be trying to create a class leading web browser, for example.

RMS: In the first years of developing the GNU system, before Linux completed the system, not many people worked on free software. A few staff hired by the FSF made a big difference to our progress.

Once GNU/Linux caught on, lots more people got involved, so that the few people the FSF could hire were inevitably a tiny fraction of what the community did. Meanwhile, our other jobs became bigger and more important. For instance, once the DMCA made it illegal to release free software to handle common media formats, just writing free software was no longer enough, so we launched the campaign. A year ago we launched our campaign against Restricted Boot, which is the way Microsoft perverts Secure Boot into an anti-security feature.

"Success" is not our goal; we're not here to win a race, we are here to win freedom. I didn't write GCC with the idea of making a "better" C compiler. I wrote it so there would be a freedom-respecting C compiler, and while I was at it, I did the best job I knew how. We didn't develop GNU to have a "better" operating system than Unix; we developed it so we could have a freedom-respecting operating system. It's the same today.

Thus, if we could raise money to hire a few software developers, we would spend it on projects that are more than technical improvements. For instance, it would make no sense to try to develop a web browser that is "better" in a merely practical sense. There is no reason to think we could outdo the Firefox developers in what they are good at, and it would be wasteful duplication to try.

Instead we are trying to do something that Firefox does not aim to do: protect the user's privacy from surveillance by web sites, and protect the user's freedom from nonfree Javascript code. A volunteer is working on our variant of Firefox, called IceCat, with changes for these purposes. We don't have funds for this, so would you like volunteer to help?

GNU visibility and factioning
by Digana

GNU is supposed to be a free operating system as well as a group of people working towards building this OS. To a casual observer, however, GNU does not appear very active.

RMS: I've decided to post new package releases in a more visible place in

Development of GNU is done by volunteers, so the level of activity is up to you. If you wish GNU were more active, join in the work on some GNU package that interests you. For instance, it would be useful to have more developers for LibreJS, which detects and blocks nonfree Javascript, and for IceCat.

Some of the most prominent and supposedly GNU packages, such as Gimp, Gnome, GTK+, and R are mostly GNU in name only. The hackers working on these projects have very little interaction with other hackers working on GNU projects and they very frequently espouse views contrary to GNU's philosophical aims. Thus to an outside observer, GNU does not appear to be a cohesive group of people working towards a common goal.

RMS: The GNU project is not as cohesive as I wish it were. To some extent, this is a consequence of an approach that was necessary. The only way to develop something as large as the GNU system through the work mostly of volunteers was to divide it into projects that could be implemented mostly independently by different people. The design of Unix lent itself to this. The fact that the GNU system incorporated programs such as X and TeX, that were developed by other people or groups that regarded the GNU Project as just a user, pushed in the same direction.

There is always a centrifugal tendency when many groups work mostly independently. It is often hard to persuade the developers of one component to do what improves the system as a whole rather than what will make their own component more useful and successful.

By 1990, when we started the HURD kernel, I expected that in a couple of years it would be working and we would integrate the GNU system. However, the HURD didn't work at all until 1996, and in the mean time the community began using GNU with Linux as the kernel. By the time we started using it that way, others had integrated the GNU/Linux combination, making various GNU/Linux distros.

The initial goal of GNU, to have a free operating system, has been achieved; the initial sharp focus on completing a free Unix-like system is no longer applicable. This doesn't mean our work is over; most GNU/Linux distros today contain nonfree software, and there are more things that we expect a system to do. We still need people to seek out and do the development jobs that need doing in order to win freedom for the users of computing.

My first step to make the GNU Project more cohesive was in 1999. In the 1980s and 90s, when I appointed someone as the maintainer for a GNU package, I took for granted that he would understand that his job was to manage a part of a larger project, and what that implied. In 1999 I realized this could not be taken for granted, so I began explaining this relationship to new maintainers and asking new maintainers to agree to it. However, the relationship with a few packages had already become distant.

Many GNU mailing lists being private further the public perception that GNU is not even actively producing software anymore.

RMS: Our main packages have public discussion lists, but that's a choice for the package maintainer to make. Feel free to suggest changes to the maintainer.

What can be done to remedy this situation? How can we strengthen GNU, make it reach out again to the people it's supposed to be freeing?

RMS: For the most part, this is up to you. When you start working on a new free program, do you propose making it a GNU package? Would you like it to be part of a coherent GNU Project? If so, please write to me.

How to reverse the aggregation problem?
by concealment

A problem with software and operating systems is what I call the "aggregation problem," which is that what we have now is an aggregate of past solutions to problems that may no longer exist. The stuff piles up, increasing complexity and decreasing the uniformity and effectiveness of the interface. At what point do software projects call for a top-down redesign? How can free software do this where industry cannot?

RMS: I don't have any solution to offer for this particular problem, other than the slow methods we are using now. Partly that's because I don't think this is the most important issue -- I think our freedom is more important than technical improvement.

However, this is not the only area in which more uniformity is desirable. Around 1990, I designed a protocol for configuring and building packages from source: you type `./configure; make install'. It would be nice if all free software packages supported this uniform interface, but they don't.

To help implement that uniformity, a GNU volunteer recently made it very easy to use Autoconf in Python packages, so that they can build and install using our uniform commands. If you maintain a program in Python, how about adding this support? Every user that isn't a Python programmer will be glad he can install your program without learning a special Python build method.

What project is using the wrong license?
by gQuigs

What free software project is using a license that doesn't actually match with it's mission - or hinders free software in other ways? In other words, if you could *magically* switch the license of one project - which would you choose and why? Examples: Move Mesa to GPLv3, Move Linux from GPLv2 to v3, Make android GPLv3, GCC - from GPLv3 to Apache.

RMS: If I could magically change one program to GPLv3, it would be Linux. One of the improvements of GPLv3 is that it blocks tivoization, and Linux is very frequently tivoized. (Many Android devices contain a tivoized copy of Linux.)

While we're talking about magic, I'd change the license of LLVM also.

Another program that is important to convert is LibreCAD. This is more than a fantasy: the developers of LibreCAD are working on replacing the old GPLv2-only code that they included, so as to switch to GPLv3-or-later. Would you like to help?

What do you think of non-free, non-software works?
by Shlomi Fish

Dear Dr. Stallman, In this Slashdot feature"Stallman is quoted here saying that game engines should be free, but approves of the notion that graphics, music, and stories could all be separate and treated differently (i.e., "Non-Free.")." However, this feature does not give a citation from you for that. To add to the confusion in a post to the Creative Commons Community mailing list, Rob Myers said:

"RMS's views on culture are coherent and consistent with his views on software. But he's treating game assets as a matter of functionality (software) rather than speech (culture). There is an issue with the latter not being free.."

So I'm a little confused. Do you approve of people using non-free licenses for cultural works, including the CC-by-nc, CC-by-nc-sa, CC-by-nd, and CC-by-nc-nd licenses? If so, when?

This is especially important given the fact that in the process for formulating the latest version of the Creative Commons licenses (4.0), there has been some requests to deprecate the non-commercial (nc) and/or no-derivatives (nd) options (which I doubt will happen, but is nonetheless some thing some people feel strongly about).

RMS: After some 12 years of stating my position in all my speeches on Copyright vs Community, and publishing transcripts, I'd expect interested people to have found it. But here it is.

Those works that are made for doing practical jobs must be free. This includes software, educational works, reference works, text fonts, recipes, and 3d-printer models for objects for practical use, as well as some other things.

Works of testimony and opinion, and artistic works, don't have to be free as in the four freedoms, but their users should have more freedom than now. I think people should be free to share them (noncommercial redistribution of exact copies), and to remix them. Putting DRM or EULAs on them should be banned too. I think all the CC licenses do these things, more or less, and I use CC-ND for my statements of my views, including this one.

Two of the nonfree CC licenses, CC-NC and CC-NC-SA, have a peculiar problem: they lead to making works which are orphan before they are born.

I call this a "peculiar problem" because I don't think these licenses are bad in principle. The problem is purely a matter of practical consequences, and it seems they should be avoidable, yet I can't see a way to avoid them. I hope one is found; in the mean time, I urge not using these two licenses.

Favorite hack
by vlm

Give me your best hack. Specifically something YOU did personally not hire / grad student. Hardware, software only (yes yes the GPL is cool but I'm looking for code or schematic or at least a description of something made out of source or solder) I can't put words in your mouth but the ideal answer would be something like "I'm particularly proud of the O(n) memory garbage collection routine in emacs implemented around '89 and how it worked was very roughly ..." or "I really like my homemade fully automatic automotive relay based routing system for my OH scale model railroad sorting yard" or "I built my own legal limit ham radio amplifier" almost certainly a different topic of course, but something of this form of answer.

RMS: I can't remember all the hacks that I was proud of, so I can't pick the best. But here's something I remember fondly. The last piece of Gosmacs code that I replaced was the serial terminal scrolling optimizer, a few pages of Gosling's code which was proceeded by a comment with a skull and crossbones, meaning that it was so hard to understand that it was poison. I had to replace it, but worried that the job would be hard. I found a simpler algorithm and got it to work in a few hours, producing code that was shorter, faster, clearer, and more extensible. Then I made it use the terminal commands to insert or delete multiple lines as a single operation, which made screen updating far more efficient.

Why FDR and Churchill?
by eldavojohn

During a Q&A Session a while back you were asked about people and movements near and dear to your heart and you said "I admire Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, even though I criticize some of the things that they did." I love World War II history and I also find myself in a love-hate situation with Churchill. Could you go into further detail about what specifics lead you to single out these two over leaders like Lincoln, Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin or even historical figures who have enabled information itself like Turing, Shannon, etc?

RMS: I like math, and I respect good mathematicians, but I don't admire them as heroes. The people I admire are those who fight for freedom.

Why did I mention Roosevelt and Churchill in particular? I didn't make a list of all the leaders I admire and then choose the ones I admire most. That would be a big job, and my memory does not lend itself to that, so I didn't try. I mentioned the people that came to mind.

I was thinking of leaders that fought against evil tyranny. Of the five leaders you mentioned, Roosevelt and Churchill had the hardest fight against the greatest evil. King George trampled the colonists' rights, and the Confederacy fought for slavery, but Hitler's genocidal empire was much worse.

If I were judging peacetime political leadership, I would not choose Churchill; perhaps Jefferson.

Stolen bag / laptop in Argentina
by Cigarra

What ever happened with the stolen bag and laptop? Did you get something back? Did you LOSE data (that is, was something not backed up)? Are you mad with the organizers / country that hosted the event?

RMS: My friends never found any sign of what was stolen. I lost some files, those which were outside the directories that I regularly backed up, but nothing really important.

I don't blame the speech organizers or Argentina in general for this theft. The reason I will never go to Argentina again has nothing to do with the theft. I announced it before I arrived in Argentina: I object to the requirement for visitors to give their fingerprints. I refuse to go to any country which has that policy, and I hope you too will refuse to go to any country that would demand your fingerprints.

Revolution OS ...
by i.r.id10t

Interviews with you comprised a big percentage of the documentary Revolution OS. If it were to be remade today, and the financial aspects ignored, what do you think would be different? If you were producing such a documentary today, what would you focus on?

RMS: I didn't make that movie, so how to make it was not my decision, and how to make one today would not be my decision. But I see some things that would have to be different.

Much attention was paid to business leaders of the open source bubble, which popped after the interviews. The movie ended saying how some companies' stock had gone down. If the movie were made today, those people and their commercial claims would probably not be in it. Also, I would not be found at a "Linux" event; shortly after that time, I concluded it was self-defeating to legitimize events that call the GNU system "Linux".

Other advocates
by SirGarlon

Who, other than yourself and the FSF, do you consider to be effective advocates for software freedom? Please name individuals if you can.

RMS: Eben Moglen and SFLC, Bradley Kuhn and the Conservancy, Frederic Couchet and APRIL, Via Libre, Alexandre Oliva, Octavio Rossell, Quiliro Ordoñez, are the ones that occur to me. I have probably forgotten many.

Open Source and Ethics in research?
by tsquar3d

RMS, I am a PhD student in computing and I have run up against an interesting problem. I consider FOSS to be at the core of my personal philosophy.

RMS: I have to point out that there is no "FOSS" philosophy. The term "FOSS" is a way of referring to two different philosophies: free software is one, and open source is the other.

When you want to refer to both philosophies, I recommend "FLOSS" rather than "FOSS". "FLOSS", or "Free/Libre and Open Source Software", gives the two equal visibility, whereas with "FOSS", "Free and Open Source Software", "Open Source" is more prominent. But you can't possibly agree with both of these philosophies, because they disagree at the deepest level. Your views might be one, or the other, or a mixture, or something else, but it can't be both of them at once.

See here for more explanation of the difference between free software and open source. To me it is not just a pragmatic issue, but an ethical one.

RMS: It sounds like your philosophy may be closer to the free software movement. We consider this an ethical issue, whereas the usual open source philosophy presents it as a practical issue alone.

Therefore, in my research, I use all FOSS software. Now, the problem arises when trying to justify my use of FOSS to colleagues and supervisors.

RMS: Why do you need to try to justify your _own_ use of free software? I'd expect you to decide, and follow your own decision, with no need to justify it to anyone else. Is there something I have misunderstood?

The time you need to argue is to convince other teachers and researchers to move to free software.

I have tried to make the case that it is an ethical issue, and have argued the merits of freedom and academia, however, I invariably am told "that's not an academic argument".

RMS: I suggest you respond "I'm a citizen first, and an academic second, so I care about ethical arguments as well as academic arguments."

This is incredibly frustrating and annoying to me as, in academic research, we are constantly being restricted by "research ethics" (e.g. the ethical treatment of subjects, plagiarism, etc.) and I am more than willing to bet that if a researcher objected to a methodology based on "religious principles" they would be excused.

RMS: I don't understand -- "excused" from what? I am not sure now what issue the argument is about. Are they criticizing you for your decision? If so, you don't need to be "excused", you just need to stand firm and proud. Or are you asking them for permission? There, too, standing firm is best, but it is trickier.

Or are you asking them to change their practices? That is good to try, but there is no guaranteed recipe for persuading others. I suggest telling them about the malicious features commonly found in nonfree software, to bring home to them that this is an important issue. Also, raise the issue publicly so as to build consciousness of the issue and search for allies.
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Richard Stallman Answers Your Questions

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