Stallman on the State of GNU/Linux

By Timothy R. Butler | Posted at 12:27 AM
The Free (as in freedom) Software movement has changed a lot in the past two decades. During that time, there has been one constant that has kept the organization created to promote Free Software on the straight and narrow: Richard M. Stallman. Known around the community as simply "RMS," Stallman is the founder of the movement and continues to argue the advantages of totally non-proprietary computing. RMS kindly agreed to be interviewed again by OFB's Timothy R. Butler on what he is up to, where the Foundation's popular GPL license is heading and his perspective concerning various changes in the GNU/Linux community since his last interview here.

OFB: What are you up to at the FSF presently?

RMS: The words "at the FSF" might be somewhat misleading, since I spend most of my time traveling, and what I do is give speeches about free software and related issues. At the beginning of March I was in Syria; since Syria is not a democracy and doesn't have freedom of speech, I gave special emphasis to comparing the freedoms of free software with freedom of speech. Now I'm in Colombia, where I had a meeting with people involved in negotiating the free trade treaty with the US. I advised them on various harmful and unjust laws that the US is likely to try to impose on Colombia.

OFB: There has been lots of talk about the upcoming General Public License (3.0) and how it will differ from the present version. What do you see as the key reasons people should adopt the new version?

RMS: Most programs will adopt it automatically, since they are released under "GPL version 2 or later"; however, the specific advantages that I think will appeal to many developers include: explicit compatibility with certain licenses that are not compatible with GPL v2, better handling of patents, addressing the issue of ASPs, and improving the requirements for credits.

OFB: It has been well over a decade since the last time the license was revised. Why now?

RMS: It is overdue. We were working on it several years ago but didn't get it finished then.

OFB: Some BSD license advocates try to assert that the GPL is hypocritical since it does not grant complete freedom, instead opting to place some restrictions on the code to insure that the freedom continues beyond the first developer. How do you respond to such a complaint?

RMS: It is absurd to speak of the "freedom to take away others' freedom". The absence of that absurdity is what they are complaining about.

OFB: What GNU/Linux distribution do you presently recommend if someone comes up to you and asks how to get started with Free Software? Is there one that meets the FSF's criteria completely?

RMS: Yes, there is. It is called UTUTO, and it is developed by committed free software activists in Argentina. The existence of this distribution is a big step forward for the free software movement. For many years there was literally no GNU/Linux distribution that I could ethically recommend to the general public. Most distributions contained non-free software; the few exceptions distributed non-free software from their sites.
Stallman: "It is absurd to speak of the 'freedom to take away others' freedom.'"

OFB: The "Linux Core Consortium" seems to be following in the footsteps of United Linux, but with a Free Software bent. What are your thoughts on this endeavor?

RMS: This is the first I had heard of it. I would guess that when they say "Linux" they mean the entire GNU/Linux system, and not just Linux, but that's just a guess. Does this group have a commitment to distributing free software only?

OFB:It sounds like they do. Gael Duval, of Mandrakesoft, tells me that he believes the LCC will follow Mandrakelinux's compliance to the FSF guidelines.

RMS: That is very good news. I wish they would acknowledge this as a version of the GNU system, instead of calling it "Linux", but the most important thing is that it recognizes the users' freedom.

OFB: Is there any chance the FSF might look to get involved in such an initiative in the future?

RMS: I doubt it. If it is working on Linux, the kernel, we have no particular reason for us to participate. We're not involved in Linux development. If, on the other hand, its work is maintaining a version of the GNU system and calling it "Linux", that's unfair to the GNU Project. We can't tell them what to say, but we are not going to legitimize their practice with our participation.

OFB: Since its purchase by Novell, the entity that was formerly known as Ximian seems to have become even more Free Software friendly and, Novell as a whole, has started to free up a lot of their code. Are you satisfied with the steps they are taking?

RMS: I can't be entirely happy with Novell as long as it distributes non-free software, and in particular, I can't entirely approve of SuSe as long as it distributes non-free software. However, Novell's changes go in the right direction. The Ximian and SuSe programs that were non-free are free now.

OFB: A Free BIOS is something that has been a long time coming. Do you see it becoming an easy to install alternative any time soon?

RMS: We have recently started a campaign in which we hope to pressure hardware developers to cooperate with free BIOS.

OFB: Is there any place where it might be reasonable to have proprietary firmware, or will the FSF also eventually aim at other firmware such as that on a sound card or video card as well?

RMS: If it is written in a ROM, then it may as well be circuits. However, once it is writable and users begin installing various versions, then it is visible as software for the user, and then it had better be free.

OFB: Since the ASPL became a Free Software license a few years back, in a manner of speaking, Apple has become the largest distributor of Free Software, in the form of the Darwin OS that is at the heart of Mac OS X. What are your thoughts on the state of Apple; are they a good neighbor to the community?

RMS: Not very. The programs Apple liberated were those that did the jobs we already had good free software to do--in other words, those that did not make a significant contribution to the community. Meanwhile, the programs that would have been a real contribution, they did not contribute. However, the worst thing about Apple is that it has used patents to prevent free software from handling font hints properly.

OFB: How is HURD progressing? Is this still a priority for the GNU Project despite the availability of an increasingly mature Linux kernel?

RMS: The Hurd is not a high priority nowadays, precisely for the reason you suggest. People are still interested in it for technical reasons, and it is making slow progress.

OFB: Are there one or two "big things" you see happening in the community this year?

RMS: I can't foretell the future. My crystal ball is cloudy today ;-).

OFB: Erring away from cloudy crystal balls, what do you think it would take to finally get Free Software to the place with the average, non-technical user will find it not only philosophically preferable but also easily usable? Have we reached that stage or is there something in particular that you see as a hurdle that must be overcome first?

RMS: From what I've heard, we are basically there already. The first Sao Paulo telecenters were set up two years ago, to give people in poor neighborhoods a chance to use computers and the internet. They run GNU/Linux, and people with no experience find them easy to use. Recently I learned, to my great disappointment, that these computers are using non-free software for displaying Flash and running Java programs. Developing the free software for these two jobs is clearly very important. I'm told that the free Flash players more or less work for displaying; what they don't handle is interaction with the user. The GNU Project is working on development of free Java libraries, and a lot of work is being done. But there's a lot more to do, so we really want volunteers. Write to if you want to help.

OFB: Do you see the use of Free Software such as Firefox on Windows as a good step, or does it diminish the value of a totally Free system?

RMS: I had better correct a common confusion. The Firefox binaries distributed by the Mozilla developers, like all their binaries, are not free. To use Firefox as free software, you have to build it yourself from the source code. We're talking with the Mozilla project about cooperating to change this, but in the mean time, we're looking for people who would like to build and release free binaries that we can recommend. Returning to your question, I think that running free software on top of a non-free system such as Microsoft Windows can be a good first step towards freedom. However, it's only a first step if the user goes ahead and takes the remaining steps to get all the way to freedom. The question is, will users do this, or will they think that some free software on top of Windows is sufficient? That depends on whether they come to value the freedom that free software provides. Teaching people to appreciate freedom is the main work of the Free Software Movement today.

OFB: Where do you see the FSF in five years? Will a completely Free Software-based computer with fully functioning hardware (including the video card, BIOS, etc.) be realizable by then, do you think?

RMS: There are some kinds of machine that work now with free BIOS and free drivers, but they don't (for instance) include any laptops. That's the area where we are going to be pushing.

OFB: Thank-you, RMS, for your time.