Stallman Clarifies Free Software Movement

Following this week's unveiling of the proposed GNU General Public License Version 3 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Free Software Foundation President and Founder Richard Stallman discussed his work on GPLv3 and other free software issues with CRN Senior Writer Paula Rooney.

CRN: License compatibility is one major change proposed in the GPLv3. What does it mean for software developers and partners?

Stallman: You can copy in code under a broader range of other licenses. With GPLv2, you can't. You can't insert a file you get under an Apache license. But it is compatible with GPLv3. It is compatible with this draft so if you have a program available under GPLv3, you can take another program under Apache and merge it in. By extending the range of licenses [supported by the GPL], we can make it possible to [merge code] in a broader range of cases.

CRN: So the GPLv3 can support a broad array of open source licenses. What does it mean for open source?

Stallman: We don't do open source. It's free software. I'm not in favor of open source. I have never, never … open source is the name of a group, and we don't support that.

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CRN: I guess the link comes from the fact that Linux uses the GPL.

Stallman: It's GNU Linux. Linux is a kernel. Our operating system is GNU Linux, and it is a free operating system. I also wrote a license to release the operating system under, and that is the GNU General Public License.

CRN: Why do you call it GNU Linux?

Stallman: The GNU operating system was [developed] but it had a missing piece, and someone else wrote a program that fit into that gap. That program is Linux. But the GNU Linux operating system is what it is, and it's mostly GNU. It's a substantial piece. They started claiming the whole thing was Linux, which was unfair to us. Please distinguish clearly between the GNU Linux operating system and the [Linux] kernel.

CRN: How did that happen?

Stallman: I don't know. It's just an error that keeps being repeated. [Some] thought I was trying to claim credit for Linus Torvalds work, but I wasn't. I founded the free software movement that led to GNU. I wrote some important pieces in the 80&'s and the GNU Project developed many of the pieces we needed. Torvalds wrote the last remaining piece—the kernel.

CRN: Can you explain the genesis of the GPL?

The GNU project began in 1984, and I founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985. When I started distributing the GNU Emacs [Unix editor], I developed a ‘copyleft&' license called GNU Emacs GPL. And then as I developed other pieces of GNU, we released each one with one general public license. The Emacs GPL and GCC GPL were not identical to each other and each one referred to itself by name, so it meant you could not copy code from Emacs to GCC. They were equivalent but not the same license, and it was not a good state of affairs. The in 1989, I worked it out to have one license … a license that applies to whichever program you want to put in so there would be the exact same license text for Emacs and GCC. GPL 1 came out in 1991. In version 2 there were some small changes and then we had a long period of time without revising it. Now we are.

CRN: When did work on GPLv3 begin?

Stallman: I began work on version 3 on and off for many years. We had a series of meetings in 2001 and didn&'t come up with something usable then, so early in 2005 we decided to get this done.

CRN: Did you discuss the GPLv3 with IBM or other commercial firms?

Stallman: Only to the extent we thought it was interesting to talk to them. You've heard of humanism. I'm a humanist, not a corporatist. I don't care. They didn't contact us much because I think they realized it would have been pointless. We don't hate our business users. We'd rather our software be easier for businesses to use, but their convenience won't take priority over human beings' freedom.

CRN: So you don't have a problem with commercial enterprise?

Stallman: No, and we never did. We don't have a problem with people making money. [Critics of FSF] are responding to a distorted version of free, and what freedom means. Freedom [is] to run a program as you wish, do what you want with it, make copies and distribute it where you wish, and freedom [is] to publish a modified version if you wish.

CRN: Have you seen violations of that?

Stallman: The worst thing we know of was Tivo. Initially, there was no problem. Version 1.0 was okay but it had non-free software in it too. But then they designed a scheme where it had digital restrictions [so developers] could not run modified versions. Every version had to be authorized to run in Tivo, and that's what we're trying to prevent. This is where we disagree with folks who are using one of the [early] BSD licenses.

CRN: What are your concerns about other popular licenses used in the community?

Stallman: A large faction of users are using non-free modified versions. This happened with the X Windows system and it's happening now with Apache. You&'ve seen 70 percent of Web servers sold with Apache, but they don't tell you that a large faction of those are modified non-free versions of Apache so users aren't getting freedom. They're running a modified version for which they don't have source code.

CRN: Do you think it will go through substantial revision before being adopted?

Stallman: I don't expect it will be revised in major ways but I'm sure we'll change the wording in various [parts of the document].

CRN: What is the point of GPLv3?

Stallman: It's to keep people from changing free software. It's related to issues related to patents and the digital restrictions movement. DRM is fundamentally unjust.

CRN: What was the most challenging aspect of writing GPLv3?

Stallman: The most challenging issue is a narrow detail about how to deal with patent licenses. We put in an explicit patent license [retaliation clause]. There is gray area and it's hard to draw a line. We drew a line as right as it can be. Section 11 says if you knowingly rely on a patent license in order to distribute GPL code, [you must] shield downstream users from being sued under the patent license that protects you. The precise criterion for having to do that is subtle.

CRN: Who participated in GPLv3?

Stallman: I and [FSF Board member and Columbia University Law Professor] Eben Moglen, and a couple of other people at the Free Software Law Center.

CRN: Did you get input from Linus Torvalds? IBM? HP? Other commercial groups?

Stallman: No.

CRN: How is free software different from open source software?

Stallman: I've never been in favor of open source. I don't support them. I don&'t care. I don&'t want to do an interview that uses that term. It's a campaign that doesn't reflect our values. It's a question about freedom. They never said they wanted to campaign for freedom so who knows what they&'ll do. I'm an advocate for free software and it's not the same philosophy as open source. They adopted a variant of our criteria for free software; we didn't design the GPL to be an open source license. I've never been in favor of open source because of the way people avoid talking about ethical and human aspects rights of software. People who don't want to think about those issues might do things that don't campaign for freedom.

CRN: Have you ever discussed the GPL with Microsoft? What do you think of its shared source program?

Stallman: No. Shared source is free-wash. Shared source is another name for old fashioned [non-disclosure] source licenses, in the best case.

CRN: Why is the free software movement important?

Stallman: It's a social movement for human rights for computer users. We don't want our concerns about liberty to be forgotten.

CRN: What do you think about the OpenDocument vs. Office debate going on in the state of Massachusetts and the recent shift in direction?

Stallman: They were attempting to ensure the state supported a document format that ensured [users freedom and access]. It's the only right thing to do and absurd not to do it. But when you look at so many states and countries not doing it, and Microsoft sponsoring the opposition [to OpenDocument], you can see the power that Microsoft has over society. That power, of course, is incompatible with democracy. It's the standard problem that people with money have a lot of power to stir up [opposition] against whomever they want.

CRN: So what are your major concerns about software freedom?

Stallman: The development of a program is in control of [a powerful entity] that may abuse that power. But even if they don&'t commit specific abuses, it's wrong for them to have that power. There is surveillance stuff going on and software plays into the hands of Big Brother. We have a government that is desperately trying to turn itself into Big Brother. In the past, Microsoft put a back door [in its software] for the NSA [National Security Agency].

CRN: What is the state of free software today?

Stallman: There's a lot of progress in free software. It's a lot better now than 10 years ago, and a lot more people are using it. It can do a lot more things and various governments have made commitments to it.