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Feature BeOpen Interview with Richard Stallman of Free Software Foundation
By Sam Williams
May 18, 2000
 

Part I: Business and Freedom

BeOpen: My first question is about DeCSS. This is forcing a lot of the people to confront the issues you've been bringing up for quite some time now, namely the issue of freedom in the context of software use. With DeCSS, the controversy doesn't stem so much from source code access as from the issue of whether users have the freedom to do with their software as they see fit. How does it feel to have people come around to your point of view?

Stallman: I don't know how many people are coming around to my point of view. I hope some do, but thus far it's those who hope to own the information who have won all the battles. They've obtained the laws to increase the power. So far, how much power they've obtained is not quite certain, but I don't see much in the way of a movement that could take it back from them.

BeOpen: Do you have concerns about the populist appeal, especially the corporate appeal that GNU/Linux is starting to show.

Stallman: Well, I have concerns in that certain things could happen, which we must avoid. Having companies interested is, not in itself, a bad thing. There's a potential for them to contribute. There's also a potential for them to exploit the community and lead it in the wrong direction. Which one will happen will be determined ultimately by the values of the users.

You see, companies could engage in kinds of business that respect our freedom and promote our freedom. And they could also engage in kinds of business that take away our freedom. It's the people who might be their customers who control which direction the companies actually choose. This means it's all the more important for the software users, in their millions, to be thinking about issues of freedom and not just of short term convenience.

BeOpen: DeCSS-- it's kind of a smack in the face for a lot of people.

Stallman: I don't see the direct connection between the two things. The question of what our values are and how we influence companies that we do business with. I don't see how that's very closely connected with DVDs in particular.

I think our freedom is directly threatened by the restrictions. If the movie companies win their lawsuits, they will have succeeded in lopping off an important area of freedom. But I don't think that directly relates to the other issue that you brought up about how companies can either help or hurt the free software community. The movie companies are not in the free software community and not concerned with the free software community, except to the extent they would like to surpress us. So those aren't the companies I was thinking of.

When you talk about companies getting involved in GNU/Linux, those are mainly software companies. And they can get involved either in helpful ways such as by distributing and supporting free software, or in harmful ways by distributing non-free software and non-free documentation to the people in our community.

The main reason that's harmful is that encourages people to settle for non-free software and documentation.

BeOpen: In the high-end space, companies like SGI, HP, IBM. They've really abandoned their Unices almost to adopt GNU/Linux.

Stallman: I don't know if that's true. For example, has HP abandoned HPUX? I don't know exactly what HP is doing with GNU/Linux at the moment. I'm glad if they use it, but I don't know how much they're doing so.

BeOpen: The one thing that appeals to them is the GPL, the fact that, at the very least, they know it isn't going to be owned by a competitor.

Stallman: Again, I don't know whether that's what they think about it. I'm the wrong person to ask. You'd have to ask them. I know that HP has released major software under the GPL. I believe that SGI used a different license. IBM has its own license. If they appreciate the GPL, it would make sense for them to release software under it as well. But I would hestitate to accuse them of inconsistency, because I don't know if they would say that they appreciate or they think that the GPL is important.

BeOpen: From a business perspective the GPL is preferable in some instances where you don't have time to wait for a standard to evolve and find out that some company actually owns that standard. You can say we'll work with a GPL project, because at the very least we can say Sun doesn't own it.

Stallman: I don't know whether that's really the case. If you've heard people saying that, then I believe you, but I haven't heard people saying that myself.

BeOpen: Two areas where I've heard it are high-end Unix systems. Companies are backing away from their own in-house versions of Unix. They're just saying we're going to go with Linux. We like the momentum it's showing.

Stallman: Of course, I wish they'd say we're going to go with GNU/Linux. They should be giving us our share of the credit, but I'm happy if they use the system, whatever they call it.

But I don't know how many companies are actually doing that. I don't know if companies like IBM are abandoning AIX, but they certainly are pushing GNU/Linux to a significant extent.

BeOpen: The other area where you hear about Linux a lot is the embedded space, because it's so wide open.

Stallman: I'm less concerned with what happens with embedded systems than I am with real computers. The real reason for this is the moral issues about software freedom are much more significant for computers that users see as a computer. And so I'm not really concerned with what's running inside my microwave oven.

Again, I'm happy if people find GNU/Linux useful for that. If some companies finds it useful in a microwave oven I'll say, "That's nice." But I don't think that's where the social and political issues arise. Those arise where the computers are visible to the user as computers. We can load software into them. We have thus the possibility of sharing and changing software. And then it becomes a significant question whether we are allowed to do so or whether we are blocked from doing so.

This is an example of how the thinking of people who look at this politically is very different from that of people who look at it just in terms of business. I've encountered lots of people whose thinking is driven by business, who are excited about embedded systems just because there is a lot of business there. Well, there is a lot of business there and I suppose there will be a lot of useful embedded systems developed, but I'm more concerned with the area where there's a political battle to be fought.

Introduction: Interview with Richard Stallman
Part I: Business and Freedom
Part II: Politics
Part II: Politics (Continued)
Part III: Project Management
Part IV: Getting There from here

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