In 1984, Richard Stallman quit his job at MIT and set to work to
develop a free UNIX-like operating system. Along the way, he
founded the Free Software Foundation,
developed the GNU General Public License (GPL) and wrote gcc and
Richard Stallman is an extremely active advocate for the free
Linux Today's Dwight Johnson caught up with Richard in San Jose
at the LinuxWorld Conference and Expo August 12, 1999 for this
Richard, what are the main issues facing the free software
Richard Stallman: In general, they have to do
with protecting our freedom in the areas where we have achieved
freedom and extending that freedom into other areas where we
haven't achieved it yet.
What are those areas?
Richard Stallman: The areas where our freedom
is threatened? There are several. One of them is in regard to
device drivers for new hardware because often the specs for new
hardware are kept secret and that makes it hard to develop any free
software to run the new hardware.
What's the threat?
Richard Stallman: The threat is that people
will settle for non-free device drivers, Linus having made the
decision to permit dynamically linking non-free drivers into the
kernal Linux. That means that these non-free drivers can be made
Is that compatible with the GPL?
Richard Stallman: It's not compatible with my
interpretation of the GPL. But Linus, being in charge of Linux, if
he says it's permitted, really nobody has the power to disagree
with him. So the result is that for each new piece of hardware, a
manufacturer may or may not publish the specifications. If a
manufacturer does not publish the specifications, then we are
confronted with a temptation to let some of our freedom go by
installing the non-free driver that might be available for that
piece of hardware.
What we have to do to resist this challenge is to refuse to buy
the hardware that requires non-free drivers. That's something all
of us can do. And some of us have to figure out how to operate the
hardware and write a free driver which is a big job. But
fortunately, that's not something we all have to be doing. We only
need a few people to be willing to do that big job.
Now, these are both things that we can do better. The more we're
aware that free software is an issue of freedom, the more likely we
are to go to the effort to do these things -- most of us to reject
those pieces of hardware, and a few of us to do the large job of
reverse engineering to figure out how they work.
Without considering the fact that we might reject this
hardware, are there any natural advantages to the manufacturer of
hardware to make a free driver?
Richard Stallman: I can't say that I'm sure
there are any advantages to them. The people who talk about
open-source rather than free software tend to claim that we can't
lose because it's automatically better for everybody if users are
allowed to have freedom. I'm not convinced that it's automatically
better for everybody. I think there are some people who are in a
position, assuming that they're amoral, to benefit by having power
over others. I can't be confident that this power will go away
unless we work together to throw it off.
I think that we need to make an effort to defend our freedom.
History shows that if people don't make an effort to defend their
freedom, then they're likely to lose it. There are plenty of people
who will offer you the opportunity to trade some of your freedom
for convenience or security. And Americans don't seem to have a
great track record of rejecting those offers. So, I don't have
faith that things will come out well automatically and we just
don't have to worry. I think we'd better pay attention to defending
our freedom. The issue of non-free device drivers is one of several
Aren't there currently some threats even to our freedom to
reverse engineer device drivers?
Richard Stallman: Yes. Absolutely. That's one
of the dangers in the proposed law UCITA which also takes away what
freedom remains today for the users of proprietary software -- it's
going to take away a substantial chunk of their remaining
This is one law that we need to fight. But I haven't yet
finished responding to your first question. You asked in what areas
are we in danger of losing the freedom we already have and I just
brought up one of them.
What are the others?
Richard Stallman: Another has to do with when
every so often somebody writes a library which is not free but has
a license that's lax enough to make it possible to use it with free
software. When that happens, free software developers may get
tempted to start using it.
You mean like the QT library was?
Richard Stallman: QT is one example of this.
Motif was an example before that and there are others. XFORMS I
believe is an example. If we aren't thinking about it, we might
accept a non-free program and then we might come to feel it's
acceptable or even that one can't do without it. If a large
fraction of our community starts accepting it on the grounds that
they think they can't do without it, then it's very hard for us to
do anything about it.
The problem that happened with KDE wouldn't have happened if its
developers had been aware of what kind of problem it was to be
using a non-free library. They wanted to develop free software. And
they did make their own code free software. They just didn't
realize that the use of a non-free QT library would make their
programs impossible to use in a fully free operating system.
In most of these issues, spreading awareness that there is an
issue, that there is a pitfall that we might stumble into if we
don't keep our eyes open, is a big part of starting to address
Another issue is what about the areas where we don't have
freedom yet? We need to try to extend our freedom into those
We set out fifteen years ago to make a free operating system
because the operating system is the first thing you need in order
to use your computer. Now we have a free operating system, the
Linux-based version of the GNU system. There are other free
operating systems as well. So that job, that step, has been
But, in addition to the operating system, users want
applications. We now need to make a whole spectrum of free
applications to run on free operating systems.
I know that many of the companies that make proprietary
applications are now starting to release versions of them that run
on GNU/Linux. It's a step forward. Running a proprietary
application on GNU/Linux, or some other free operating system, is a
step forward from running it on Windows. But it's only the first
step. It's not the same as fully having freedom. To fully have
freedom you've got to be using a free application instead of a
proprietary one. So, we need to develop large numbers of free
Another important thing is the development of good and clean and
thorough emulators for the proprietary operating systems that are
popular so that people will be able to run those various
applications they want to run but have been written, whether they
are free applications or proprietary applications. If they've been
written for say, Windows, it would be useful if people could run
them on GNU/Linux without having to wait until somebody ports them,
because some of them are being ported but some of them aren't.
One other issue is, if we talk about a proprietary application
ported to GNU/Linux as if we're shouting triumph that that's now
available, implicitly, we're saying that a proprietary application
is a good thing. With an emulator, we can make it possible for
people to run all of those applications without having to say that
those applications are a good thing. So we can achieve the same
practical aim that enables the free operating system to become more
popular without having to become less steadfast in saying that
software should be free.
So a project like WINE has more of your thorough support
than a project like Corel Office Suite?
Richard Stallman: Absolutely, because WINE is
free software. WINE is a contribution to our community. And indeed
I don't think it's really a good thing if people are running a
proprietary office application on top of GNU/Linux.
It may be necessary.
If we're going to be doing that, it's better if we are telling
them about WINE, since WINE is free software, than if we're telling
them about a proprietary office suite. They might use WINE and get
some proprietary office suite that everybody's heard about because
it runs on Windows. But at least we don't seem to be endorsing it.
And that's a step forward, because we can give a clearer message,
and yet either way the people who are determined to use the
proprietary office suite, have a way to use our free operating
system underneath it.
Do you see any inherent difficulty in developing these free
software applications? We have, for example, AbiSource, which seems
to have the right license and it's coming along. As a project, it
seems to be pretty well organized and to be reaching its
milestones. Is there any reason intrinsic to applications itself
that should make them harder to do than the
Richard Stallman: No. Not at all. However, one
obstacle that will affect us in all areas, of course, when it will
affect us is unpredictible, but it's a danger in all areas, and
that is software patents. The problem with software patents is that
they don't cover particular pieces of software. They cover ideas,
such as algorithms and features. If people were patenting
individual programs, that wouldn't be a problem because we write
our own programs. We can do that. But because people are patenting
ideas, like algorithms and features, you can't reinvent all the
software, the whole field for yourself. In order to write any
program, you've got to be using ideas that other people had
What free software projects have already been impeded by
Richard Stallman: There was no free software
for public encryption in the U.S. for many years because of the
patents covering public encryption. Only after 1997, when the
broadest patent expired, did that start to be possible.
Another area where this has been a problem is compression. The
compression program that was at one point the main tool used to
compress a file on Unix-like systems was released as free software.
And then it had to be essentially withdrawn because the algorithm
that it used was patented.
Now, at the time the author wrote it, he didn't know it was
patented. In fact, it wasn't patented yet. The patent was only
issued in the following year. And at that point, anybody who was
distributing or using it was in danger of getting sued.
So the GNU project responded to this by finding someone with
another algorithm to use for compression. But we actually had to do
that twice. The first time we found somebody and we were about to
release the program. And one week before, I just happened to look
at the New York Times and see its patents column. And I noticed a
statement that somebody had invented a new way of compressing data
and I had a bad feeling about it so I got a copy of that patent and
it turns out that he had patented the same algorithm we were about
Luckily, we then found somebody else to figure out a method that
fortunately didn't get patented. But it can be very hard. And
today, when you look at compressing audio and video, it's a very
difficult area. We can't implement mp3. And it's ironic because mp3
is the format people are using to start to make recorded music --
to share recorded music with each other. And we can't have free
software to generate it or to play it. So we're going to have to
look for an alternate format -- if we can find one.
If we can find some way of compressing audio that isn't covered
by some of the broad patents that are out there, then we'll have
some free software for audio compression.
The WWW is frequently getting hit with patents that cover some
important thing that they have to do. It seems to be a couple of
times a year that they find out about some broad patent which could
kill off some important part of the Web.
And then there are other areas where people have allowed
something to be a defacto standard even though it is patented. For
example, Realaudio. Everybody just assumes that they are going to
use Realaudio, but Realaudio is not free software and some of the
algorithms it uses are patented.
So there's somebody looking at writing a free replacement for
Realaudio, but it won't be able to handle all of the kinds of
formats that can be used. And then I'm told about the Gimp, the GNU
Image Manipulation Program, that there are some features it doesn't
have because they are patented.
Besides developing alternate algorithms, is there any other
way to attack this threat?
Richard Stallman: In some cases you can
invalidate an existing patent by finding prior art. In other words,
somebody who was using the idea in question early enough that it
means the patent is not valid legally. But it's chance whether that
exists. There may or may not have been somebody else using that
same idea or a similar enough idea and if there was, there may or
may not be any evidence of it that is available to us today. So
what we really need is law that exempts software from patents.
So in your view, the patent system itself is fundamentally
Richard Stallman: I'm not enough of an expert
on the other fields that I would want to say that we should get rid
of patents from all fields. Maybe they are a good system in some
fields. I'm mainly concerned with software. And in the field of
software, I feel I know enough to say that patents only get in the
way. We'd be better off if there had never been patents in
software. Almost every software developer would be better off if
there were no patents in software and so the right solution is to
get patents out of software. And I propose that we should do this
with a law that says that distributing or running a program that
uses general purpose computer hardware to do a job is never patent
Haven't the Europeans already had the benefit of this
Richard Stallman: Yes and no. The situation in
Europe is complex. First of all, not all Europe has the same patent
law. Some of the countries of Europe have different patent systems,
such as the UK. However, there is something called the European
Patent Office, which is used by a number of European countries. And
the rules of the European Patent Office say that software, as such,
does not infringe patents but software combined with hardware to do
a job could infringe a patent.
There are patents there doing certain jobs with software running
on a computer. However, currently, the rules don't allow patenting
of purely software techniques and that has to some extent
restrained the number of patents and put some doubt over the
validity of other patents.
The patents get issued but the owners hesitate to enforce them
because the courts might just say these don't follow our rules.
This kind of patent mustn't exist.
There is a political battle now in Europe about whether to have
software patents, in the full generality as they exist in the US.
And there is a Web site organizing a resistence to this change.
It's called www.freepatents.org. If you live
in Europe, you should read that Web site and then participate in
The decision was supposed to be made last June, but there was
enough opposition from the public that they put it off for one
year. It can be defeated if we get more opposition going,
especially if businesses that use software realize that this would
permit patents on business practices.
If anything done in software can get patented, then business
practices would get patented in Europe the way they are now in the
US. And that means that businesses would no longer be free to
decide how they're going to organize their work. So every business
that uses a computer in Europe should be concerned about this
issue. Don't let them just hear from the big software companies
that think they're going to profit from owning these patents.
Is there any country currently in the world that has the
right perspective on software patents?
Richard Stallman: I don't know. I don't know of
any that I could name for certain. I'm not an expert on the laws of
all these countries, unfortunately.
How would you propose to move ahead to to get this
legislation that we need about patents actually
Richard Stallman: Obviously, we need a lot more
members of the public demanding it to have any chance of convincing
Congress to pass a law. But in addition to numbers, we need to be
organized. The number of people using the GNU/Linux system is
increasing, but they mostly aren't aware that there are political
issues associated with their community. The word is not being
spread very well. We need to both increase our numbers and make
people aware. Once they start using the system, we have to then
tell them about the issues that affect our freedom in the future so
that they can have a chance of deciding they agree and helping out.
We need to have an organization that they can participate in to
help fight this.
You mean like a Ralph Nader organization?
Richard Stallman: Yes. A lot like that. Now a
number of organizations, including your magazine, are interested in
getting something going on this. To fight, first of all, UCITA,
which would make it easy for Microsoft to prohibit reverse
engineering. And then maybe some of these other areas in which our
freedom is being threatened or where it's already been taken away.
And with an organization like that, and with enough outreach to the
people, starting to come into the GNU/Linux community, we will have
a fighting chance, I think.
How imminent is this threat? Is it something that might
affect us some day like a comet striking the earth or is it
something to get right on to?
Richard Stallman: Software patents, as I've
said, are already affecting us from time to time. Working on
software in a system which has software patents is like living in a
country where there was a civil war and a lot of land mines were
laid. Any given day, you're probably not going to step on a land
mine. But from time to time, there are projects that are stepping
on a land mine and getting blown up. And you see it happening from
time to time. And mostly people go about their life as usual
because what else do they think they can do? They don't see an
alternative. But we ought to get organized on getting those land
mines taken out of the ground.
We seem to be getting a lot more land mines being put in the
ground because there is a great acceleration in the number of these
software patents being issued -- especially affecting the
Richard Stallman: That's right. At the moment
that is what's happening. So the point is this is a real problem
today. It's the kind of problem that strikes a few areas -- certain
areas of certain projects fairly often. But each of us is most
likely not to be affected by it in our own work on any given day.
So it's easy for people to ignore it until the day they step on a
But that won't do. We've all got to start being concerned and
doing something about the problem and not wait until the day our
own project gets blown up. Now UCITA was just approved by the
Commission on Uniform State Laws. Which means that over the next
probably few months, legislators will be introducing it in 50 state
legislatures and, therefore, nothing's going to happen this month.
But there's no time to lose in starting to organize to be able to
block it when it does come up for a vote. And it's going to have to
be done state by state.
Richard, thank you for talking to Linux Today about these
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