What's Gnu: RMS on UnitedLinux, Free Software

By Staff Staff | Posted at 10:35 AM

Richard M. Stallman is the founder of the Free Software movement that created the basis of the GNU/Linux operating system. Since founding the project back in 1984, Stallman, known by the community as RMS, has spent his time programming and promoting free software in the hopes of eliminating the need for non-free software completely.

RMS graciously agreed to be interviewed by OfB's Timothy Butler. You can find the interview, in full, below.

Open for Business: Would you give our readers a brief summary of what Free Software is and
how it relates to Open Source Software?

Richard M. Stallman: Free software is the name of a category of software; it is also the
name of a movement.

The “free” in “free software” refers to freedom, not price. A program
is free software if users have certain basic freedoms in using it.
You should have the freedom to run it as you wish, the freedom to
study the source code and modify it to suit your needs, the freedom to
redistribute copies to others, and the freedom to publish an improved
version. The freedom to sell copies is also included. If the program
allows users these freedoms, it is free software.

In the Free Software Movement, since 1984, we aim to give computer
users these freedoms. We criticize non-free software as unethical for
trampling users' freedom, and we aim to replace the anti-social social
system of non-free software with the social system of free software.
We developed a free operating system, GNU, to make it possible to use
a computer without accepting non-free software. Now we aim to develop
a full range of free application software to use with GNU.

Stallman: “Free refers to freedom, not price.”
The Open Source Movement was formed in 1998 by people who liked our
free software but did not agree with our views. They try to convince
business[es] to allow users the same crucial freedoms, more or less, but
do not present this as an ethical imperative. We work with them some
of the time but we think they have the wrong basic values.

Their criteria which define open source software are quite similar to
our definition of free software, but not identical. If you know that
a program is open source, odds are very high that it is free software
also, but it is not a certainty.

OfB: Some have suggested that both Open Source and Free Software are confusing
terms in their exact meaning, and a more specific term such as “Software
Libre” is preferable. Has the Free Software Foundation (FSF) ever considered
moving to a term that has less chance of a double meaning?

We've considered it, but all the available alternatives in English
have problems of their own and none of them would be a good
replacement. In other languages, when there is a word that
unambiguously means free as in freedom, of course we use that word.

OfB: What are some of the advantages of Free Software for businesses?

RMS: Free software means you control what your computer does. Non-free
software means someone else controls that, and to some extent controls
you. Non-free software keeps users divided and individually helpless;
free software empowers the users. All these reasons apply just as well
to business users as to individuals.

For a business, there is the added advantage that support for a free
program comes from a free market. Support for a proprietary program
is usually a monopoly, since only the company that owns the program
can change it either to fix a bug or add a feature. If you are
willing to pay for support, you will usually get better support for
your money when you use free software.

OfB: The Open Source Initiative receives more publicity related to Open Source
and Free Software promotion in the enterprise than does the FSF. Do you see
the FSF taking a more visible role in promoting Free Software at the
enterprise level in the future?

RMS: The Open Source Movement gets more attention from the press because
our work is often labeled with their slogan; that has the effect of
giving them the credit for our work. In 1999, many people believed
that the Open Source Movement had absorbed or replaced the Free
Software Movement; nowadays they often think that we were working for
the Open Source Movement all along. Last February, New Scientist even
said I founded it. I hope this interview will help correct such

The Open Source Movement focuses its attention on enterprises. In the
Free Software Movement, we intentionally focus on individuals. One
reason is that it seems more urgent to liberate individuals than
businesses; individuals really are persons, while corporations are
only treated as persons. Another is that we think individuals are
more likely to join us in defending freedom as a matter of principal.
However, businesses should have the same freedoms when using software
as individuals should. Every business that uses GNU/Linux is
benefiting from the freedoms that we have worked to give them.

OfB: Speaking of enterprise computing, in a written statement last week, you
compared the licensing of the new UnitedLinux group to that of Windows in
that it restricts a user's freedom. Would you like to expand a bit more on

RMS: We developed the GNU operating system, a compatible replacement for
Unix, so users could be free to share and change it. Unix was not
free software; it was available under restrictive licenses. It was
not unusual for it to be licensed per computer, or even according to
the number of users who could log in.

In 1991, the last gap in GNU was the kernel; Linus Torvalds then wrote
a free kernel, Linux, and released it under the GNU General Public
License. Adding Linux to GNU produced a free operating system, the
GNU/Linux system. (Many users believe that the whole system is Linux,
and the companies that package the system spread this mistake.)

As GNU/Linux became popular, it developed a reputation as a powerful,
reliable system. Thousands and then millions of users adopted it,
often for its practical benefits alone, without paying any mind to the
freedom it also gave them. Companies began to package and
redistribute GNU/Linux, which was good; but they also began to add
non-free software to the system, which defeats its purpose. Today all
the commercial packagers of GNU/Linux add non-free software. Several
of them—with the notable exception of Red Hat and Mandrake—develop
non-free software to add to GNU/Linux. Caldera has been one of the
worst offenders. It is still possible to obtain a completely free
version of GNU/Linux, but you need to know where to look and you need
to think about what you're doing.

“UnitedLinux” carries this regression one step further with its “per
seat” licensing. Users of that GNU/Linux distribution will be as
restricted as if they were using Unix, or Windows.

In fact, Caldera cannot apply that restrictive license to the whole
system. Most of the programs are licensed under the GNU General
Public License, which protects the freedom of every user and makes it
illegal to add any restrictions. I trust that Caldera knows better
than to try to impose a “per seat license” on these programs.
However, some parts of the system, although normally available as free
software, have lax licenses that allow middlemen to impose their own
restrictions. Caldera may use those points of vulnerability. It can
also add non-free programs to the system. Even though much of the
system will remain free software in a legal sense, practically
speaking the users are likely to believe it is not.

Many people call the whole system “Linux” because they don't know it
is a mistake; they are following others who are misinformed. In the
case of Caldera, I suspect this error is intentional. Users who know
that the system which is offered to them with a “per seat license” is
really a version of GNU, and that we developed it so they could have
freedom, might question whether Caldera is really treating them
properly. They might start to value their own freedom and reject the
perverse system which is neither united nor Linux. Caldera probably
finds it safer [to] teach users that the system is Linux and that it was
developed by an apolitical college student “just for fun”.

OfB: Is the FSF doing anything to lobby this group into switching to a Free
Software licensing scheme?

RMS: I see no use in trying to convince them; they surely know what path
they have taken, and I expect they figured in advance what we would
say about it.

We will continue teaching the public about the importance of freedom
to share and change software, and we will cite them as an example of
the wrong path. Users who understand what they have done and value
freedom will choose some other version of GNU/Linux.

OfB: With the recent release of KDE 3.0, and also the impending release of
GNOME 2.0, what are your thoughts about how ready the KGX (Kde/Gnu/linuX) and
GNOME/GNU/Linux desktops are for regular business usage? Do you see them
becoming a viable desktop competitor to Windows in the near future?

RMS: I can't foretell the future. I can only say that we invite your
contributions, both of money and of labor, so that GNOME, the GNU
desktop, can make faster progress.

OfB: Now that it has been almost two decades since your original
GNU announcement, is
GNU where you thought it would be?

Very much not. At the outset I vaguely expected that the GNU system
would be running in five years. I did not expect GNU would attain
great popularity among people who were not interested in freedom, nor
that they would think it was something other than GNU and developed by
someone else.

I also did not expect that a rival movement which rejects the users'
freedom as an ethical imperative and caters primarily to business
would try to co-opt our work—but in retrospect I think that is
something a more politically savvy person might have predicted.

OfB: Where do you see GNU going in the next twenty years? Do you see the Linux kernel remaining a critical part of the GNU system?

RMS: I cannot say what will happen in the future, because it depends on
choices you will make. The users' freedom can triumph if you decide
to fight for it.