GNU Questions: RMS on SCO, Distributions, DRM

By Staff Staff | Posted at 10:51 PM
In September of 1983, a computer programmer working in the Massachusetts Institute for Technology AI Lab announced a plan that was the antithesis of the proprietary software concept that had come to dominate the industry. The plan detailed the creation of a UNIX replacement that would be entirely free, not as in the cost of the product, but as in freedom. That announcement would eventually catapult its author, Richard M. Stallman, into someone known and respected around the world and, perhaps more amazingly, a person that companies such as Apple and Netscape would alter their plans because of. Stallman is not your average advocate of a particular cause. Nearly two decades after the announcement of his GNU System, he has stayed firm on his positions and has founded and guided the Free Software Foundation into an organization capable of promoting and managing the GNU System, a set of components that form more of what is often mistakenly known simply as "Linux" than the Linux kernel itself does. That might be somewhat unusual in today's society where causes popular today quickly become forgotten in tomorrow's priorities, but there is something even more unusual about Stallman. He is always open and available to those who drop him an e-mail, and not just the media, but also the the individual user or developer. This is not because he has nothing to do -- Stallman is a busy globetrotter constantly doing whatever it takes to promote the philosophy of free software. In his characteristic form, he was kind enough to agree to an encore interview with Open for Business' Timothy R. Butler.

Timothy R. Butler: IBM announced this week that part of its countersuit against SCO is based on SCO's violation of the GPL (by distributing the GPL'ed Linux kernel while demanding licensing fees for it). What are your thoughts on this?

Richard M. Stallman: I have not thought about it very specifically because I have not seen the details of their claims. My general feeling is that I'm glad IBM has found a way to counterattack SCO.

TRB: Does the fact that, as is often pointed out, the GPL has not yet been tested in court concern you?

RMS: No wise person looks forward to a major battle, even if he expects to win it. Rather than being concerned that we have not yet tested the GPL in court, I'm encouraged by the fact that we have been successful for years in enforcing the GPL without needing to go to court. Many companies have looked at the odds and decided not to gamble on overturning the GPL. That's not the same as proof, but it is reassuring.

TRB: In an article you wrote for ZDNet about the SCO lawsuit and related matters, you said, "Linux itself is no longer essential: the GNU system became popular in conjunction with Linux, but today it also runs with two BSD kernels and the GNU kernel." Does this mean that you see Linux as unimportant to the future of GNU, or simply something that the Free Software community can live without if need be?

Stallman: "Freedom to redistribute and change software is a human right that must be protected."
RMS: The kernel Linux is still important for using the GNU system, and we should hardly abandon it without a fight. At the same time, it is good to have alternatives.

TRB: Bruce Perens has proposed the idea of incorporating a mutual defense clause into Free Software licenses. He suggests that if you attempt to sue a Free Software developer, that the litigator would have their license to use any software with the defense clause automatically terminate. Is this a good idea?

RMS: Some kind of mutual defense clause might be a good idea, but designing what it should say is a difficult problem. It needs to be strong enough to protect the community from a serious threat, but not so intimidating as to cause those who don't like it to fork all our important software. The problem is complicated by the fact that most users have not yet ceased to consider Windows a viable alternative. We run the risk of chasing some users away.

TRB: Another interesting current issue is the concept of what might be seen as "hybrid licensing." For example, MandrakeSoft's Multi-Network Firewall is based on entirely Free Software, however the Mandrake branding itself is placed under a more restrictive license (you can't redistribute it for a fee). This give the user or consultant two choices -- use the software under the more restrictive licensing or remove the Mandrake artwork. What are your thoughts on this type or approach?

RMS: I think it is legitimate. Freedom to redistribute and change software is a human right that must be protected, but the commercial use of a logo is a very different matter. Provided that removing the logo from the software is easy to do in practice, the requirement to pay for use of the logo does not stain the free status of the software itself.

TRB: On a similar note, what about a software package that comes under both a proprietary and Free Software license; take TrollTech's Qt or Sun's StarOffice/OpenOffice. Do you see this as an acceptable model of Free Software support?

RMS: The cases of Qt and OpenOffice are not the same. With Qt, as I understand it, the same code is available under the GNU GPL to the public, and under a more permissive license to those who pay. So all the software is free.

This is an acceptable model, and I've suggested it occasionally to various developers, including (I believe) TrollTech. However, I would not do this myself. Copyleft gives the developer a certain amount of leverage which she can use in various ways. Qt uses this leverage to get money. The FSF uses this leverage to get others to make free improvements--which serves the goal we are working for more than the money would.

The case of OpenOffice is fundamentally different, because StarOffice has features not in OpenOffice. Not all the code is free. OpenOffice is an important contribution to our community, but its developers are not cooperating fully with our community.

TRB: A few years ago, when Microsoft first really started to publically criticize the Free Software and Open Source communities through Craig Mundie, you signed on to a letter along with Bruce Perens, Eric Raymond and Linus Torvalds, among others, defending Free Software and Open Source. It seems this kind of unity among the luminaries of the community is somewhat rare.

RMS: The Free Software Movement and the Open Source Movement are part of a single community but we disagree on the fundamental issues. In the Free Software Movement, our goal is to be free to live an ethical life where we can cooperate with other people. We appeal to these ethical and political values as well as to practical benefits.

Raymond and Torvalds support the Open Source Movement. They denounce the Free Software Movement's ideals and values. Torvalds calls himself "apolitical" and doesn't really advocate much. Raymond cites only practical professional values, such as developing powerful, reliable software, as the reasons for what he advocates. Those are the same goals that Microsoft claims it is going to achieve; the Open Source movement disagrees with Microsoft only in regard to how to best achieve the goals. At this basic level, we in the Free Software Movement disagrees with both of them.

The practical work of Open Source developers overlaps with ours, so we can and do work with them on practical projects. Taking a joint stand with them is sometimes a useful thing to do, but the difficulty is in the precise wording. If the statement refers to freedom as a value in itself, Open Source supporters might reject it. If it doesn't, then the Free Software Movement's philosophy is absent, and that could lead readers others to think we share the views of the Open Source Movement's, so we might reject it. Walking the line between these two problems is tricky.

TRB: Ximian, which has always been very influential concerning the GNU Project's GNOME desktop, has recently been acquired by Novell. Do you have any thoughts on how this will impact the GNOME desktop?

RMS: It could be beneficial or harmful--only time will tell. Ximian was once a good example of a successful free software company, but that changed in 2002 when Ximian introduced a non-free product. (I won't say what it does, because I don't want to promote a non-free program.) I hope that Novell will continue to cooperate with developing GNOME as a part of the free software GNU operating system.

TRB: While the KDE Project and the Free Software Foundation have sometimes had a rocky relationship, it seems some of the developers have been reaching out toward the FSF -- for instance, by including GNU in the term some have adopted to refer to the KDE-based GNU/Linux desktop: KGX (KDE/GNU/linuX). Do you think there might be room for more cooperation between the two projects in the future?

RMS: Certainly. We regarded KDE as a threat in 1997 because it depended on Qt, which at the time was non-free. But now Qt is free software, and we have nothing against Qt or KDE. We still recommend GNOME first of all because it's part of the GNU Project, but that's without prejudice to any other free software developers. The more they want to cooperate with us, the more we can cooperate.

TRB: Microsoft and many industry leading companies, outside of the GNU/Linux sector, are gearing up for the so-called Trusted Computing Initiative (one form of which is Palladium). Do you see this as a significant threat to the GNU community at the moment?

RMS: The name "Trusted Computing" (I think they've changed it since) is a deceptive half-truth. The idea of this change in computer hardware is that application developers will be able to trust your computer to obey them instead of obeying you. To describe it more honestly, we call it "Treacherous Computing".

This is a major threat, and our community needs to organize in large numbers to fight it. And while companies such as IBM do some things that help us, we cannot regard them as truly our friends while they support this threat. The danger of treacherous computing may be worth the effort of drawing up a joint statement for Free Software and Open Source leaders to sign.

TRB: Awhile back Linus Torvalds said he wasn't really opposed to DRM technology being integrated into GNU/Linux and suggested that the GPL didn't forbid such.

RMS: The GNU GPL does not forbid DRM features as such, and it clearly has no effect on DRM in application programs that run on GNU/Linux, because application programs are not legally required to be GPL'd or even to be free software. But the GPL may put some limits on some of the changes in Linux (the kernel) that would be needed to include DRM support in Linux itself.

TRB: What does the FSF think about DRM -- especially for data such as e-books, articles, music, and so forth?

RMS: DRM is, in itself, an offense against the users' freedom. Secondarily it poses a danger to free software--the danger that free software will be entirely forbidden for important jobs such as reading a DVD or an e-book. So we are firmly against it on principle.

TRB: Let's say I came to you and I'm an end-user that has never used anything other than Windows. I have no command line experience, just point-and-click abilities. How would you configure a system for me -- what distribution (assuming you would choose GNU/Linux as the OS), software, and so forth, would you give me?

RMS: When I recommend a GNU/Linux distribution, I choose based on ethical considerations. Today I would recommend GNU/LinEx (Update from RMS: GNU/LinEx is non-free), the distribution prepared by the government of Extremadura, because that's the only installable distribution that consists entirely of free software. If I knew of more than one such distribution, I would choose between them based on practical considerations.

TRB: What about Debian GNU/Linux, which by default does not install any non-free software?

RMS: Non-free programs are not officially considered "part of Debian", but Debian does distribute them. The Debian web site describes non-free programs, and their ftp server distributes them. That's why we don't have links to their site on

GNU/LinEx is better because it does not distribute or recommend those programs.

TRB: How about distributions, such as Mandrake or Red Hat, that keep non-free software out of their downloadable versions all together?

RMS: I would not rely on that, because I know they have not been very careful in checking whether packages really are free.

TRB: Does your desktop run GNU/Linux, and if so, do you run "GNU/LinEx" or some other distribution?

RMS: I travel most of the time, so I don't have a desktop machine, only a laptop. It runs Debian GNU/Linux, which was the best distribution in terms of respecting freedom as of the time we set up the machine. (The availability of GNU/LinEx is a recent development.)

TRB: Has the Free Software Foundation ever considered publishing a complete GNU/Linux distribution?

RMS: We sponsored the development of Debian GNU/Linux back in 1994.

TRB: Especially with the selection of truly free distributions being somewhat lacking, why did the Foundation get out of the distribution development "business"?

RMS: My thinking was that if we made our own modified version of Debian it would not get much usage, and that developing an entirely new distribution would be a lot of work and only worth doing with the Hurd.

TRB: One difficult thing for end users is proprietary codecs and plugins. Two examples that seem especially prevalent are Macromedia Flash and Real Networks' RealMedia files. Without these technologies, a lot of interesting content becomes unavailable. What do you think the short-term solution for this problem is?

RMS: I think we should modify browsers to encourage and help users to send messages of complaint to those sites, to pressure them to change.

TRB: Would you say that easing into Free Software slowly (as opposed to jumping from completely proprietary to completely Free Software environments) by using software such as WINE is acceptable ever?

RMS: Taking a step towards freedom is a good thing--better than nothing. The risk is that people who have taken one step will think that the place they have arrived is the ultimate destination and will stay there, not taking further steps. Much of our community focuses on practical benefits exclusively, and that doesn't show other users a reason to keep moving till they reach freedom. Users can remain in our community for years without encountering the idea. As a result, I think that we should focus our efforts not on encouraging more people to take the first step, but rather on encouraging and helping those who have already taken the first step to take more steps.

TRB: Do you have any closing thoughts you would like to share with Open for Business readers?

RMS: A non-free program is a predatory social system that keeps people in a state of domination and division, and uses the spoils to dominate more. It may seem like a profitable option to become one of the emperor's lieutenants, but ultimately the ethical thing to do is to resist the system and put an end to it.
  • Richard Stallman's previous interview with Open for Business is available here.

1 RMS provided us with this update on GNU/LinEx: The developers told me that GNU/LinEx included only free software, but after this interview was published, people from GNU Spain and others have checked it and found non-free programs in it. I therefore cannot recommend GNU/LinEx at present. I hope that this problem will be corrected. Meanwhile, once again there is no installable GNU/Linux distribution that we can endorse; all of them include or recommend non-free software.