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September 2002 • Vol.2 Issue 9
Page(s) 103-104 in print issue
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Technically Speaking
An Interview With Richard Stallman, Inventor Of The GNU OS

When we asked Richard Stallman—founder of the free software movement and the man behind the GNU operating system—for his official title, he replied, "I'm an untitled work in progress." No comment could better sum up this unconventional programmer who defies every preconception and stereotype in the software industry. Bushy-haired and frugal, Stallman spent much of his youth frowning on hippies. He was a brilliant, yet antisocial, discipline case in his early school days, learning calculus by age eight and hopping between public and private schools.

Today, Stallman has tamed his disdain and chooses to devote his life to helping people in some of the broadest ways possible. His Web site ( is a sprawling list of political warnings and calls to action, and his decades-long work with software is devoted to freeing people from the shackles of corporate agendas. Stallman enunciates his thoughts with slow, clear determination. In speaking with him, we often interpreted his long pauses as waiting for our next question. In fact, he was thinking through all of the last question's ramifications. There are few true idealists in the world, especially in the fields of technology, but Stallman left us feeling we'd finally found the genuine article.

by William Van Winkle

CPU: We know the acronym GNU is recursive and stands for "GNU's not Unix," but is there some other inspiration behind the word "GNU?"

Stallman: No, nothing other than the system it's the name of. Why did I choose GNU instead of BNU or LNU? Because GNU is the funniest word in the English language, and the others are not words.

CPU: Why is GNU the funniest word?

Stallman: Because of all the wordplay it's used in. Ever hear the song "I'm a Gnu" by Flanders & Swan? You should look for it.

CPU: You've strongly noted that the term "Linux" shouldn't be mixed up with GNU. Why not?

Stallman: GNU is an operating system that we began developing in 1984, the goal being to have an operating system that was entirely free software so that users would be able to have freedom while using it. Linux is the name for a kernel started in 1991 by Linus Torvalds. At that time, the GNU system was almost finished. The main thing that it lacked was a kernel. So once Linux was running, other people put it into the gap in GNU, combining Linux with the almost-completed GNU system to make a complete system.

We didn't make that combination for a number of reasons. One was that we had already started a kernel, and we thought it would be ready in just a couple of years. Second, I asked somebody to take a look and tell me what he thought of Linux. He told me that it was not portable at all and that it was taking after the AT&T variety of Unix, whereas we thought the Berkeley variety was better. And thinking that our kernel would be done soon, I decided we would stick with our kernel and not choose Linux as our kernel. But other people created the GNU/Linux system. As it happens, our kernel took many years to get right. It's working now, and you can, in fact, get it in a system based on the GNU kernel, but back then the version of GNU based on the Linux kernel was the only one that actually worked. After another couple of years went by, we saw this and realized we better start working on improving the Linux-based version of GNU if we wanted to have one that would run.

CPU: Is there any inherent advantage to running a GNU kernel instead of Linux?

Stallman: Well, we can hope there is. It's a more advanced design based on a micro-kernel and a collection of servers that communicate by message passing, which gives you the ability to do things like write your own file system, install it, and connect it to a file name in your directory. Then anybody who opens that name talks to your file system. There are some other nice things that you can do. A beginning user wouldn't notice any difference, but programmers can take advantage of these features.

CPU: The goal of the GNU project was to create a Unix-like system, but what was the fundamental problem with just using Unix?

Stallman: Unix was not free software. You normally couldn't get a copy of the source code, so you couldn't study how the program works. First of all, I should explain that free software means you have the freedom to study what the program does, change it to suit your needs, and redistribute either modified or unmodified copies. Free refers to freedom. It's not about price at all. Unix might have been fine if it was free software, but it wasn't. In fact, there was no free operating system at the time, and that was the cause of the problem that we set out to solve. There was no way you could use a computer in freedom at that time. Only having a free operating system would change that, so we had to write one. I made the decision to follow the design of Unix because it seemed like a reasonably good design to follow for technical reasons.

CPU: You've been working on GNU since 1984. What have you done to support yourself in that time?

Stallman: Various things. During the mid- to late-'80s, I made a living by doing custom improvements to programs I had written and teaching classes. In fact, I made considerably more than what I had been making when I worked at MIT earlier. And I would sometimes not take jobs because I had done enough paid work that year. I calculated that I could support myself in seven weeks a year of paid work.

CPU: So you're not the type to buy expensive cars and homes with fat mortgages.

Stallman: That's right. And that's very important because you don't want to be the puppet of money. You have to resist those things. It's so sad to see people who get all sorts of expensive things and then they have to spend all their time getting the money to pay for them, and they can't even enjoy the things.

CPU: What about the 1990s?

Stallman: In 1990, I got a MacArthur Fellowship, so for five years I was getting an income that was even larger, so I didn't need to try to make any money. I was able to put aside and invest a substantial amount of that. For the second half of the '90s, I was making a living from speeches. More recently, I got a big prize last year. If I'm giving a speech for an idealistic organization or community or an event in the community, then I don't expect to get paid a fee, but if I'm speaking for a university, I expect a university-sized fee. If I'm speaking for a company, I expect a larger fee.

CPU: The free software movement often gets mixed up with the open source movement. Why is this inaccurate?

Stallman: The free software movement spreads a certain collection of ideas about what is right, and that applies to the operating system and applications, as well. This is what you could compare with the open source movement, which is a later derivative of free software, sort of a branch off of it. In the 1990s, as free software became powerful and attractive, we ultimately had millions of people who used it but may never have even heard of the principles behind it. The ideals that motivated us to work so many years to develop a free operating system were unknown to these people. What they knew was that the system was reputed to be powerful and reliable and that you could get a copy cheap. And for these solely practical, nonprincipled reasons, many users took up the system. There started to be a lot of people in the free software community who didn't particularly hold with or had never even heard of the ideals of a free software movement. Some of these people developed substantial amounts of free software for other reasons.

Anyway, in 1998 those people started using the term "open source." For a couple of years before that, though, people had been pointing out that there were two political parties in the community, and it was not clear what names to use for them. But it was clear what they were, and I was trying to think of names for them. The Bandwagon Party was what I thought of calling people who just wanted to make a certain system popular. And then there was the Freedom Party, which was the people concerned about their freedom as computer users and was determined to have free software to that end. The irony was that the system that the people in the Bandwagon Party wanted to make popular was, in fact, a version of the GNU system. Thus, they were missing the whole point of our work.

So while people were thinking about how to describe these two parties, the people in the other one started using the term "open source." We suddenly had names for the two parties. However, I must say that the open source movement has not been entirely scrupulous in informing people that the community was built by a group with different ideas and a different name.

CPU: Does all commercial software inherently restrict freedom?

Stallman: Not at all. Some commercial software is free software. For instance, there is Mozilla, OpenOffice, various IBM programs, and some programs from HP. There are many programs by Red Hat and others. These are examples of free commercial programs, and there's nothing wrong with this because they respect your freedom. The fact that they're maintained by a business and a business makes money through them somehow is, as far as I'm concerned, entirely good given that the program treats our freedom properly. However, I don't believe in kowtowing to business. Business should exist, but it shouldn't have power.

CPU: Windows and Mac OS are relatively easy for novices to master and globally popular. This might indicate to some that company-controlled software is inherently superior to free software developed by a community of hackers. How do you refute this?

Stallman: It's totally silly. There's no reason to believe that. In 1984, we set out to develop a Unix-like operating system, and in the '90s that's what we got. Now, Unix was not at all graphical. We did at the time have X Windows, which provided a graphical layer, but it turned out that X Windows was not a complete graphical subsystem. It provided the facilities with which programs could display windows and put things in them, but the actual graphical user interface had to be developed on top of that. And, in fact, we're working very hard on that. The result is GNOME.

However, I should point out that, to a large extent, the popularity of Windows does not result from the fact that anyone likes it. It's simply their response to the popularity of Windows. People use it because they know other people use it and because they assume other people expect them to use it. One of the harmful behavior patterns that push people to use Windows, whether they like it or not, is the practice of sending Word documents or asking people to send Word documents. People should refuse to send or read Word documents. You're becoming a buttress of the Microsoft monopoly if you send documents in Word format.

CPU: A year or two ago, I installed Corel Linux and was immediately frustrated with it, both because of hardware incompatibilities and the immediate need to drop into a text interface, despite the GUI on top of it. What hope is there for Windows users to break out and adopt free software?

Stallman: You either do the easy thing, which gets you more and more under the power of proprietary software owners, or you make an effort to get out of their grip. I made a tremendous effort to get out of their grip, and thousands of people joined in. The result is that it doesn't take a tremendous effort now because you don't have to write an operating system. You just have to use the one that we've written. It's so much easier now; it's a shame not to take advantage of that. Don't let such a small obstacle stop you. Learning a different system is some work—if that's enough reason to convince you to stay in subjugation, that's a shame.

CPU: If you had your druthers, would you want GNU to be as popular as Windows?

Stallman: All else being equal, yes, because the goal is that free software should replace proprietary software. The goal is that all the users of computers should have freedom. If you're using a nonfree program, it means that somebody else controls what your computer does.

CPU: What would it take to make GNU that popular?

Stallman: I don't know. Basically, no one knows. But I should point out that when people focus on the popularity of a system, say GNU/Linux, as the ultimate goal, it may occur to them that they can make the system more popular by cooperating with someone who develops proprietary software. They may say this proprietary software is helping us because it makes the system, which is actually a version of GNU, more popular. And yet for us in the GNU project, that's missing the point. The popularity of our system is not an end in itself; it's a means to spread freedom. If you taint it with nonfree software, it might be popular, but it isn't spreading freedom anymore.

CPU: If you were the judge in the case against Microsoft, what remedy would you enforce?

Stallman: Actually, a few years ago I proposed a remedy, one part of which is the same idea as the Justice Department's remedy, except that they weakened all the details such that it really became ineffective. The remedy I proposed was that Microsoft should have to publish all the interface specs between the components of the system, and by the system I don't just mean what they label as Windows, but Office, as well, and any other major pieces of software that they have. The interfaces between them must be published and, second, they be limited to using patents only for self-defense or mutual defense with others, but not for aggression. This is necessary because it does no good to publish the interface if they have a patent so they can prohibit us from implementing that interface.

The Justice Department's remedy purports to do the first part and not the second. Microsoft doesn't have to publish these details, only make them available to an organization that can prove it's a viable business competitor, which means amateurs developing free software are ruled out. Also, when they make it available, they can do it under nondisclosure agreement, which means that you're not allowed to release any free software, only proprietary software. And if they can argue that there are any security implications—which they can always argue, right?—then they can use that as an excuse not to do even the little that the settlement requires them supposedly to do.

If I were the judge, I would get rid of all those loopholes and excuses.

CPU: Ten years into the future, how do you envision GNU being at that time?

Stallman: I can't foretell the future. There are many different things that could happen. Microsoft could succeed in clamping down, could buy off the world's governments, pass treaties that prohibit what we do. Disney could clamp down and buy the world's governments and pass treaties that prohibit what we do; they're trying. But it's also possible that we could succeed, and we could have a world in which the stuff that is published is free and that people are free to use it as they wish.

CPU: What's likely?

Stallman: I don't know. We're in the middle of a battle for freedom and to some extent, what will happen depends on what people think is likely. The proprietary software companies will surely try to discourage people from reaching out to grasp freedom by telling them that it can't possibly succeed, and if people believe that, they won't try hard enough and they won't succeed. It makes no sense. The question that people should be thinking of is not will freedom win, but should freedom win? With any public issue, the question is not which side is going to win, but which side is right? What should I support? What should I try to get the government to do? What's the right thing for the government to do? What's the right thing for citizens to do? People should be asking themselves what is right, not who's going to win? Look at the environmental movement. Would it have made sense for people to stop dumping poison into their rivers? Would it have made sense to ask themselves, "Can we really win? Who's going to win?" They didn't ask themselves, "Who's going to win?" They said, "What can we do to have the best chance of winning? What's the most effective thing we can do?" And, "We'll try it, and maybe we'll win and maybe we won't, but at least we'll have tried." And as it happens, often they won. We're in exactly the same kind of situation. This is a lot like the environmental movement because we're fighting a kind of pollution. It's not a pollution of physical resources, such as air and water. It's pollution of a psychosocial resource, which is the spirit of voluntary cooperation, the spirit of helping your neighbor, which is the most important resource for any society.

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