Richard Stallman is a very famous man in certain computer circles, firstly as the creator of Emacs, and then as the founder of the Free Software Foundation and passionate advocate of free (as in "free speech", not as in "free beer") software.
While on a speaking tour of New Zealand, he gave a talk at the University of Canterbury on August 16th, 2008. This is my report of the talk.
Stallman talked for a solid two hours without a break, entirely off the cuff and with no notes, slides, or props of any kind (until right at the very end), and yet the auditorium was silent and still throughout - there wasn't a hint of the usual fidgeting and shuffling about that usually goes on in such talks. Despite this you wouldn't be tempted to call him a charismatic man: he has the slightly unsettling habit of playing with his hair - wrapping great hanks of long lanky hair around and around his hand - while talking, and when I spoke to him briefly after the talk, and in his way of dealing with questions, I found him decidedly brusque and unfriendly.
The session got off to a slightly chaotic start. Stallman's minder started off trying to introduce the man, but Stallman wouldn't keep still, moving about the place, setting up boxes of books and stickers, bobbing up and down in an odd awkward dance, and interrupting the introduction to correct the man on points of fact. In the end the minder basically gave up in mid-sentence, and ceded the floor to Stallman.
If I sound a little down on the guy, well, of course what's really important is the message. I don't agree with some of his positions, but his voice deserves to be heard much more widely than within a small group of computer enthusiasts. But I can't help thinking that cleaning his act up a little would go a long way towards helping him get his message out to the world.
Stallman is constantly battling with a confusion of terms: when he talks about "free software", he is not talking about software you don't pay for, but rather software that you are free to do with as you wish. The uphill battle he faces was brought home to me when, before starting his talk proper, he announced that spiral-bound printouts of his collected essays were available for sale for $30. This produced a ripple of laughter - people apparently thinking that being an advocate of free software (by his definition) was incompatible with charging for things, which of course it certainly isn't.
He started the talk proper by defining free software. Free software is software that offers its users the following four freedoms:
|Freedom Zero:||The freedom to run the software as and when you wish.|
|Freedom One:||The freedom to inspect the code of the software, and to make modifications as you see fit.|
|Freedom Two:||The freedom to help your neighbour by giving them a copy of the software.|
|Freedom Three:||The freedom to help your community by distributing improved versions of the software.|
Software that does not provide one or more of the four freedoms is non-free or proprietary software. He make frequent statements throughout the talk to the effect that free software is ethical software, while non-free software is unethical software. He considers non-free software unethical because it prevents sharing between people, and anything that prevents sharing of software is unethical (evil even).
He talked about the dilemma one is placed into if one owns a piece of proprietary software, and a friend sees it and says, "That program is nice, can I have a copy?" You now have only two choices, both of which are evil:
When faced with a choice of evils, one should always choose the lesser evil, which in this case (according to Stallman) is to say yes and give your friend the copy.
He claimed that there are only two ways to prevent this problem from ever arising:
He called on people to reject the propaganda terms that the makers of proprietary software use, in particular "piracy". He considers it ridiculous to equate helping your neighbour with attacking ships. When asked by media types what he thinks of piracy, he always replies, "I think attacking ships is very bad."
He called on people to stop ceding basic battles of what is right and wrong to the people who are against sharing.
Without Freedom One, you can't even tell what your software is doing to you. This leads to spyware, of which he claimed Windows XP to be an example. He claims that every time XP updates, it sends a list of all installed software back to Microsoft. He said that the only way to defend yourself against this spyware is to turn off automatic upgrades entirely. But Vista makes it impossible to do even this, so you are completely at Microsoft's mercy - they can download and upload whatever they like to and from your computer. ("But please don't think that Microsoft is uniquely evil in this respect.")
He likened DRM to digital handcuffs, its purpose being to take away your freedoms.
He asked people never to buy, rent or even accept as a gift any DRM product, unless you already have the means to circumvent the DRM.
He made frequent reference to the recently-passed Copyright Amendment Act in NZ, which he claims has eroded our freedoms in favour of those against sharing, although not to the same extent as in the US ("where many evils start"). He called on us to make the repeal of the Act an election issue.
He said that it was totally wrong for companies to be allowed, through software, to effectively implement their own copyright provisions.
He claimed that DRM schemes are always created by conspiracies of companies, and that the executives of these companies should be imprisoned. How does he know that these conspiracies exist? Because they're not even secret! Since the lawmakers always side with those opposed to sharing, the conspirators can do what they like without threat of censure.
He mentioned an anti-DRM site, http://www.defectivebydesign.org/.
Stallman is concerned about the advent of electronic books and readers (such as the Amazon Kindle, which he called the Amazon Swindle). He fears that 'they' want to set up a pay-as-you-read universe, where even the freedom to keep a book for as long as you wish and read it as often as you wish will be taken away.
When Stallman started getting interested in these issues in 1983, he realised that there were no free Operating Systems in existence. Since he was a programmer, he considered that he had been elected by circumstance to rectify this problem. He felt morally obliged to do it, in the same way that "a swimmer is morally obliged to rescue a drowning man who isn't Bush."
He needed a name for his new free OS. In 1976 he had invented Emacs, and many versions of this program had been created over the years, often with recursive acronyms for names, such as:
|FINE:||FINE Is Not Emacs|
|MINCE:||MINCE Is Not Completely Emacs|
|EINE:||EINE Is Not Emacs|
|ZWEI:||ZWEI Was Eine Initially|
So he searched around for a recursive acronym for his proposed free OS, and quickly came up with GNU - "GNU's Not Unix" - as "gnu" is the most humour charged word in the world.
By 1990, all the major components had been written except the kernel. The FSF commissioned a programmer to write the kernel according to Stallman's design, but it took years to write, and still to this day doesn't work properly. Stallman claims not to know why the GNU kernel project hasn't worked out.
The GNU kernel got overtaken by events when Linus Torvalds released the first linux kernel in 1991. Initially GNU couldn't use it as it wasn't free (it was restricted against commercial use), but in 1992 the linux kernel was released under the GNU Public License, and people began to release distributions of the linux kernel packaged with the GNU components.
Stallman is clearly very bitter that what the world now knows as "linux" is in fact predominately the GNU system with the linux kernel. ("The correct way to pronounce it is "G-NU", but people often mispronounce it "linux".) He asked people to start calling it "GNU/linux" rather than just "linux" (although I noticed him frequently fail to abide by his own convention!)
He claims that calling it GNU/linux is not just a matter of giving credit where it is due, but an important philosophical point. He claims that Torvalds himself is not a supporter of free (in Stallman's sense) software, calling Stallman's ideas "absurd". And so he wants linux users to know of their GNU ancestry, to help spread his notions of freedom.
He warned that, starting in 1994, proprietary software started getting added to linux distributions, in the form of device drivers. He claims that these "Binary Blobs" are present in the C source code, but only nominally - they take the form of huge tables of numbers that encode binary programs which are uploaded into devices. By the late 90s all distros had proprietary software, and as of now he only knows of three completely free distros - UTUTO, BLAG, and GNUsense - none of which I've even heard of.
Stallman dislikes the Open Source movement. He claims that this was a term invented to take the spotlight off the fact that companies were not producing free software.
In America at the moment it is possible to get software patents, a system he describes as crazy. So much stuff has been patented that anyone developing a major system is likely to be in violation of hundreds of patents and thus are exposing themselves to hundreds of potential lawsuits. The big companies who created this mess are immune to the mess, because they all cross-license each other's patents, so it's only the little guys not in the conspiracies that get sued.
He called for all schools to use free software exclusively, and to eschew the tempting offers of free (as in gratis) proprietary software from the big players, likening this to a drug dealer offering the first hit free.
He claimed that proprietary software in schools made people poorer programmers, as inquisitive students don't have the option to examine the code of the programs they are using.
Going in to the session, I was very interested to know whether Stallman argues that his four freedoms should be applied to other things, such as music and movies, and so I was pleased when he addressed this issue.
He divides "works" (a term that seems to encompass anything you could stick in a file) into three groups, which he treats differently from each other. However, he insists that people should be able to share non-commercial unaltered copies of all works of any kind. With this over-arching proviso in mind:
At the end of the session, an audience member asked a very good question about all this: he asserted that with the enormous cost of making movies, something like the Lord of the Rings would never have been made under Stallman's proposed 10 year copyright plus as much non-commercial sharing as you like. Stallman claimed that the cost of making movies was greatly exaggerated, and that his 10 year rule would leave plenty of time for a company to make back its investment.
Right at the end of the session, Stallman put on a robe and a halo made of an old disk-drive platter, and became Saint Ignucious of the Church of Emacs. He explained that the Church of Emacs does not require celibacy, but does require moral behaviour. When being inducted into the Church in a ceremony called the Foobar Mitzvah, the supplicant has to recite the confession of faith: "There is no system but GNU, and linux is one of its kernels."
When asked if use of the vi editor was a sin in the Church. He replied that while vivivi was the editor of the devil, the Church considered its use a penance, not a sin.