Stallman: Free software is matter of good vs. evil

Students at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County got a lecture today about morals, ethics and politics from radical software developer Richard M. Stallman, a founder of the free-software movement.

Free software is not about the price of software or even about the quality or practicality of it, according to Stallman. It is much more important than that. 'This is about ethics,' he said. 'That is, good and evil.'

Just so you understand which side Stallman comes down on, proprietary software and restrictive licensing agreements are evil. 'Free software respects the user's freedom,' he said. His goal: Use exclusively free software.

Free software is free not necessarily in the sense of price, but in the sense that it comes with no restrictions or strings attached for the user. 'Think free speech rather than free beer,' he says.

Stallman's roots go back to the 1970s to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, when coding was called hacking and software development was a calling rather than a business. He remains true to those roots, and most of his efforts today are devoted to the Free Software Foundation he founded in the 1980s as a vehicle for developing a free software operating system.

Free software supports four essential freedoms:
  • The freedom to run the software any way the user wants, or the baseline freedom
  • The freedom to study and change the software
  • The freedom to distribute the software and
  • The freedom to distribute any contributions or modifications the user has made to the software.

Don't confuse free software with the open software movement, Stallman pleads. The open source movement is a development of the 1990s to supplant the ethical concerns embodied in the free software movement. The primary concern of open source is practical development of software, rather than ethical development and use.

To date, the free software movement has met with mixed success. Stallman began the GNU Project to create a Unix-like operating system in 1984. The name GNU was a hackers inside joke, Stallman said. It is a recursive acronym that stands for GNU is Not Unix. To make the acronym work he needed a first letter to go in front of NU. He settled on G because, 'Gnu is the most humor-laden word in the English language,' he said.

Although the dictionary instructs you to not sound the 'g' in gnu, Stallman pronounces GNU in two syllables, with a hard G: Gu-NU.

By 1990 the contributors in the Free Software Foundation had completed most of the components of its operating system. All that was lacking was a kernel that allocates OS resources to applications. This was supplied in 1991 by Linus Torvalds, who applied his kernel to the GNU OS to create what has popularly become known as Linux.

Despite the success of Linux, the development bothers Stallman for two reasons. The first is the name: Linux is mostly GNU, he says, and should be known as GNU/Linux, which he pronounces 'GNU-slash-Linux' or 'GNU plus Linux.'

'We're the main contributors and we started all of this,' he said of the GNU Project. 'Give us a share of the credit.'

More importantly is the fact that Linux has not remained free software. It is open source, but distributions of it now are sold with restrictive licenses that break the covenants of the General Public License (GOL) Stallman helped to develop. The GPL ensures that all the rights to a piece of software are passed along with it to the user, rather than staying with a developer or vendor.

'The middleman is not allowed to strip off a freedom and pass along the code without it,' he said.

The GNU Project continues work on its own Hurd kernel, but progress has been slow. 'It doesn't work well enough that we could recommend general use of it,' Stallman said.

Despite this weakness, Stallman is an evangelist for the free software movement and promotes membership in his foundation. He encourages an understanding of the distinctions between free and open source and calls on society to reject proprietary software under any name and embrace free software exclusively.

Speaking in front of a projection screen with a Microsoft Windows logo screen saver bouncing around, this seemed a somewhat quixotic mission. But Stallman, who is content to live spartanly without a car or a fixed home, is unfazed by the challenge. Free software can create as much economic opportunity as the proprietary model he wants to replace, he said.

'I'm neither for nor against selling copies of software,' he said. 'The question of money is secondary. There is no conflict between free software and capitalism.'

And free software promotes democracy, too.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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