January 23, 2004
RMS' answers to questions put forward by Samuel Abraham of `The Week'.
These questions were mailed to RMS and he patiently answered them in great detail. He was asked these questions after his talk at the CUSAT campus in Kochi, January 23.
- What is your philosophy in life? What shaped it? Any single event,person, book? Or was it evolutionary?
I can't describe my philosophy of life in a nutshell because I do not follow any particular system or leader. We should be on guard against thinking that "the answer" is to be found in any one place. So I am not a follower of any single person, or any single school of thought. I have been influenced by many people, and many books.
The philosophy of freedom that the United States is based on has been a major influence for me. I love what my country used to stand for, so it breaks my heart to see what Bush has done to it. Science is also an important influence. Other campaigns for freedom, including the French and Russian revolutions, are also inspiring despite the ways they went astray.
When we learn about the facts of the world, we should do it scientifically, which means that we should continually cross-check our views for errors. Science fiction is also an important influence for me-from it I learned to imagine worlds different from our own. The movement that opposed the Vietnam War was also important; from that, I learned how to see my own government as a possible oppressor. At the same time, I learned from seeing the errors of the antiwar movement, such as when some Americans foolishly supposed that if the US side in the war was wrong, its enemy (North Vietnam) must be right.
Overall, I think that the goals worth striving for are truth, beauty and justice. Goals such as success and fun are not bad, but they are not everything. To adopt them as one's primary goals, as many people do, is a fundamental error: it is to aim too low, to have too small an ambition in life. One you have taken care of your needs for survival and some basic comforts, it's time to try to put some of your effort into making the world a better place. The better off you are personally, the more you should focus effort on helping others, instead of enriching yourself.
- I heard someone mention you as the Gandhi of the software world and you taking objection to it. Do you consider your movement similar to what he did to gain freedom from colonisers? What is your impression of Gandhi?
Our movement has much in common with Gandhi's; both are movements for freedom and to end a form of oppression. Gandhi sought to end the rule of the British over India, and we seek to end the rule of the software developers over cyberspace.
However, I feel uncomfortable when people compare me with Gandhi, because I have not earned such praise. I have not had to face the hardships that Gandhi had to face. And where Gandhi and his movement succeeded in ending British colonialism, we have not yet succeeded in freeing computer users from the domination of non-free software. We have only made a beginning.
I hope that by the time my life is over I will deserve such a comparison.
- Any other person or movement you consider is close to your movement or you hold dear to your heart?
Along with Gandhi, I admire others who have fought for justice, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Aung San Suu Kyi. And I admire Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, even though I criticize some of the things that they did. Today I support the movement against business-dominated globalization, which is also the movement for democracy, since corporate power reduces democracy to a fiction. I also support the rationalist movement, which fights for clear thinking against superstition. I support the movements that oppose various forms of bigotry (based on race, religion, caste, gender, sexual orientation, or whatever), and I support the movement for sexual freedom, birth control and abortion rights.
- Traditional knowledge in countries like India have been patented in the US. Is it not akin to restricting knowledge as in cyberspace?
Patents raise different issues in different fields. The old Indian patent law was wisely designed to encourage progress in fields that would be useful in India. However, foreign countries have forced India to adopt a new patent law that is not good for progress in India at all.
This requirement was imposed through a part of the World Trade Organization, called "TRIPS", but I think that TRIPES (Trade-Restricting Impediments to Production, Education and Science) is a more appropriate name for it. The World Trade Organization's overall aims are to drive wages down world-wide, and to make democratic governments powerless against global corporations. Every country should try to escape from the WTO.
- Should not intellectual property rights be protected?
It is a mistake to use that term at all. The term "intellectual property rights" is fundamentally misleading, because it lumps together disparate laws, such as copyright law and patent law, which have little in common.
This blurred picture leads many people to imagine that copyright law and patent law are instances of one general principle, and that they exist as natural rights. The fact is, copyright law and patent law developed independently. Copyright and patent apply to different entities, have different rules, and have different effects, so they raise different public policy issues. Far from being natural rights, they are artificial restrictions, imposed for the sake of indirect benefits that it is hoped will result for the public.
But do copyrights really benefit the public? And do patents really benefit the public? Those two questions are important, and they are separate. Each one may have different questions in different areas.
To think about these various issues intelligently, the first step is to avoid blurring them together. I have no opinion about "intellectual property", and I hope you will also decline to have one. Let's inquire which copyright policies are good for society, and separately, let's ask which patent policies are good for society.
- Do you think your movement will be successful in taking the fight of the non-free software movement?
It is a mistake to ask me this because the outcome depends on you. If you join in and help, we will win. So instead of asking me whether we will win, you should be asking yourself, "Will I do my share in the fight?"
- You were at the World Social Forum. Some critics say it was a Babel of ideas. Your comments.
Activists from many different social movements were present there, but I was focused on my work, which was to inform them about free software. With my speeches and the FSF India's booth, and especially because the WSF's web site and media center were run entirely on free software, we showed other social justice activists the ethical importance and practical readiness of free software. Professor Nagarjuna of the Homi Bhabha Institute, one of the FSF India leaders, said that many activists who are trying to spread IT to the poor now understand why it is necessary to do this with free software.
I also enjoyed eating pudla, which is a Gujarati pancake made from gram, flavored with tomato, onion, and spices.
- Could you give us some personal details, your childhood, family, early education, etc.
I was the only child of two parents who divorced when I was 3 years old. My childhood was filled with emotional pain, so I don't have many memories of it; I took refuge in studying math and science.
- I heard you speak of the consumption pattern in the US and you mentioned about how you developed inexpensive habits. That included children. Why?
Which does more good: spreading freedom for millions of computer users, or raising a few extra children in a world that is already suffering from an excess of them? The question answers itself. Why in the world would I do the latter, when I have the chance to do the former?
Human overpopulation is the often-disregarded factor behind many social and environmental problems, including global warming and habitat destruction, which together threaten extinction of a quarter or more of the species of life on Earth in this century. Population growth also makes it harder to end human poverty. In such a situation, social pressure to have children is insane. I encourage everyone who has doubts about wanting children to make the decision to have none.