Curated by: Luigi Canali De Rossi

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

What Is Free Software? A Reply From The Source: Richard Stallman Video Interview

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A few days ago I had the honour of hosting in my Rome apartment, freedom activist and hacker Richard Stallman, a near-like mythological figure in the world of computing, hacking and a pioneer figure in supporting free software as a political weapon.

Photo credit:

Wikipedia, which devotes ten pages to cover Richard Stallman history and accomplishments, reports among other things:

"While Stallman did not participate in the counterculture of the 60s, he found its rejection of the pursuit of wealth as the main goal of life to be inspiring, and this may have influenced his actions at this time. However, he was the last of his generation of hackers at the lab. He rejected a future where he would have to sign non-disclosure agreements where he would have to agree not to share source code or technical information with other software developers, and perform other actions he considered betrayals of his principles.

He chose instead to share his work with others in what he regarded as a classical spirit of collaboration.

Stallman argues that software users should have the freedom to "share with their neighbor" and to be able to study and make changes to the software that they use. He has repeatedly said that attempts by proprietary software vendors to prohibit these acts are "antisocial" and "unethical".

The phrase "software wants to be free" is often incorrectly attributed to him, and Stallman argues that this is a misstatement of his philosophy. He argues that freedom is vital for the sake of users and society as a moral value, and not merely for pragmatic reasons e.g., because it may lead to improved software.

In January 1984, he quit his job at MIT to work full time on the GNU project, which he had announced in September 1983. He did not complete a Ph.D. but has been awarded four honorary degrees."

If until today you have been thinking that "free software" is just about anything you can download from the Internet and which doesn't require a payment for its use, you better think again: freeware has nothing to do with free software and the characteristics that make free software so important may be considered to be central to the evolution democracy in any society that makes wide use of software.

"Free software, as defined by the Free Software Foundation, is software which can be used, copied, studied, modified and redistributed without restriction.

Freedom from such restrictions is central to the concept, with the opposite of free software being proprietary software (a distinction unrelated to whether a fee is charged).

The usual way for software to be distributed as free software is for the software to be licensed to the recipient with a free software license (or be in the public domain), and the source code of the software to be made available (for a compiled language)."
(Source: Wikipedia)

Is that what YouTube, Flickr, Google and the latest Web 2.0 applications offer you?


Richard Stallman, which I was meeting for the first time, was kind enough to allow me a short video interview. In it I have asked him directly what "free software" is all about and why it is important to understand the key differences that separate it from commercial software.

If you believe that software may indeed play a very critical role in the life and democracies that we will be able to build in the near future, understanding how such software is directly responsible in determining the degree of freedom we will be able to enjoy is something that you and I may need to become a bit more erudite about.

What is Free Software? A Video Interview with Richard Stallman

Robin Good: What is free software from your point of view?

Ogg file (non-proprietary) download

Richard Stallman: Free software means software that respects the user's freedom. There are four essential freedoms that the user of software should always have:

  • Freedom Zero is the freedom to run the program however you wish.
  • Freedom One is the freedom to study the source code of the program and to change it to make the program do what you wish.
  • Freedom Two is the freedom to distribute copies of the program to others, when you wish. Now this includes republication of the program.
  • And Freedom Three is the freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others when you wish, and this also includes publication if that's how far you wish to go.

If you have all four of these essential freedoms then the program is Free Software. Which means that the social system of the distribution of this program is an ethical system that respects the freedom and community of the users.
If one of these freedoms is missing, then the program is proprietary software, meaning that it keeps the users divided and helpless and gives the developer power over the users. This is an injustice.
Proprietary software should not exist and should not be used. If you want to have freedom while using computers, the only you way you can have it is by rejecting proprietary software. And that's the aim of the Free Software Movement.

We want to replace proprietary software, with its unjust social system with Free Software and its ethical social system. And so we develop free replacements for proprietary software, and other free programs whenever we get an idea, so that the world can live in freedom. The part that uses computers, at least, in that one area of life. Because winning and maintaining freedom in general is a much bigger, much broader and harder activity, but this is one part of it.

RG: What are the key negative consequences of using proprietary software versus free software?

Ogg file (non-proprietary) download

Richard Stallman: Well, I've pretty much said already why proprietary software is bad because the developer has power over the users, the users are subjugated. And these developers use their power in various different ways, some hurt the user more than others, but they never should have this power in the first place.

So, with proprietary software the developer decides what it will do, and the users are stuck with that. The only way they can avoid whatever the developer decided is to stop using the program, to escape.

Whereas with free software the users are in control, the users decide what the program will do. And so Free Software develops in a democratic manner. Under the control of the users, the changes that are made and accepted are the changes users want to make and then accept.

RG: What are some of the key examples of Free Software that you suggest people to use or consider using?

Ogg file (non-proprietary) download

Richard Stallman: The fundamental instance of Free Software is the GNU operating system, which is the only operating system that was ever developed for ethical reasons, instead of for commercial or technical reasons, which is why most systems were developed.

I launched the development of the GNU operating system in January 1984 with the specific goal of making it possible to use a computer and live in freedom. In 1992 the last major gap in the GNU operating system was filled by the kernel Linux. So the result was the combination of GNU and Linux, which was the first complete free operating system. And because of this, there is at least the possibility of using a computer in freedom.

Before the existence of GNU/Linux, it was simply impossible. No one who used a computer could have freedom.

Long enough in the past, it was different, you know in the nineteen-seventies there were some other free operating systems, but they disappeared, and by the eighties there were none. There were none that could run on a modern computer back then. And so it was the existence of GNU/Linux that made freedom a possibility.

RG: Is GNU/Linux a system that now individuals, professionals and organizations can start to use for their daily operations?

Ogg file (non-proprietary) download

Richard Stallman: They do. Lots of organizations, lots of companies, lots of public agencies and lots of individuals already use GNU/Linux. It's not particularly hard to use- it's just different.

So, you have to make a certain effort to move to freedom. But its not a big sacrifice, so we're lucky, because there are times and places where people had to make very big sacrifices for freedom, and we're very lucky that they were willing to do so.

RG: To support those, who like me, favor change over the control exercised by large corporations and media, what are the type of actions that individuals can take?

Ogg file (non-proprietary) download

Richard Stallman: I wish I knew.

This is the greatest political question of our time.

How can we put an end to the empire of the mega-corporations and restore democracy? If I knew I would be the savior of the world.

What I think I can tell is that the media are crucial.

The power of the corporate media enables truth to be suppressed and lies to be passed as truth.

You've probably heard that a half truth can be worse than a lie. A lot of the things that our government's and media say are one-tenth truths, nine-tenths lies. And it doesn't take many of them together to create a completely fictional worldview, like the one that Bush says - presents - when he talks.

So I recommend that people stop listening to the mainstream media. Don't watch television news, don't listen to news on the radio, don't read news on ordinary newspapers. Get [your news] from a variety of web sites, which are not operated under the power of business money, and you have better chance of not being fooled by the systematic lies that they all tell, because they're all being paid by the same people to tell the same lies. Or nine-tenths lies.

End of interview.

Interview notes

As I was closing my camcorder at the end of the interview, Richard said casually:
"...and do not post it to YouTube, as it doesn't use free software!"

Update Nov. 13th 06: Richard Stallman wrote to correct me about this. Though I jotted down his sentence on my notepad right after he pronounced it, Richard says to have said something different. Here it is: "...and do not post it to YouTube, as it doesn't work with free software!"

Though I wasn't able to find an alternative online resource that utilized free software and allowed me to direct stream the above video clips, I thought only fair to mention here Richard's own recommendation.

On the human side, Richard showed to be a very unique person, with special feelings and emotions that not everyone who has met him has been able to appreciate.

In particular, I was touched by Richard ability to tune in into the beauty and love that surrounds us in a matter of seconds. As he stayed over my house, a wonderful and silent friendship developed between him and my little parrot, who would spend hours sitting on Richard's shoulder while playing with his long hair.

Here is Richard, touching reply to my closing question:

RG: What is the most beautiful memory you've had about staying here in Rome?

Ogg file (non-proprietary) download

Richard Stallman: Well I guess it probably was Funny on my shoulder.

RG: Who's Funny?

Richard Stallman: Funny is a cockatiel parrot... That likes to lick my hair.

RG: And why did you feel so good when he was there?

Richard Stallman: I guess I just felt loved.

RG: Do you feel loved normally by people like me who interview you, or...

Richard Stallman That's totally different. Totally different. Sometime I feel admired, but that's different from being loved.

RG: Thank you.

N.B.: Check out Funny, my unique parrot as he raps to the music (the girl holding him is my daughter Chiara).

I have in fact recorded a bit more of Richard Stallman's thoughts, but I will leave those for another upcoming article, cum video, dedicated to the issue of DRM.


One special thank you goes to Rufo Guerreschi of Partecs, who first introduced me to Richard Stallman and who gently hosted the dinner which gave way to this video interview.

Robin Good -
Readers' Comments    
2012-01-11 15:27:16


Great stuff. Thanks

2009-05-11 19:19:54

Sam Jones

Stallman is a socialist nut!

2008-10-16 04:48:25

Robin Good

All working again now.
Thanks again for reporting it.

2008-10-16 04:04:51

Robin Good

thanks for reporting this issue. I am looking into it and will fix it shortly.

2008-10-10 08:11:13


Great interview!

But the links for download the videos in .ogg format don' work

2008-02-23 12:58:28


Harry Kane said, "According to this logic, I should be able to get a free college education. Professors should teach for free!"

This article says nothing about payments for software nor does it suggest that you should work on software without compensation.

The term "Free Software" is about political, social, and individual freedom, not money. The article is about our freedoms related to software. I work on and with Free software and I get paid for it.

A better analogy would compare proprietary software to education. If education was like proprietary software, you wouldn't be able to teach anyone else anything you learned unless you paid your original teacher a royalty every time.

Software, like education, is made of ideas. For us to progress as a species, ideas should be free, though not necessarily the labor and effort to develop and transmit them.

So, NO, the logic of this article does NOT support the idea that "Professors should teach for free."

2007-10-11 20:33:16


Hey nice article, bless Richard Stallman and make him a nice cup of tea.

2006-10-31 16:58:07

Harry Kane

According to this logic, I should be able to get a free college education. Professors should teach for free!

posted by Michael Pick on Tuesday, October 24 2006, updated on Tuesday, May 5 2015

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