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Richard Stallman: GNU/Linux and a free society
by Takver Sunday October 10, 2004 at 08:06 AM

Richard Stallman is the originator of the GNU/Linux free operating system. He emphasises it is free as in free speech rather than in free beer. The philosophy of freedom for software users is very important. "Choosing between proprietary software is choosing between monopolies. It is not freedom to choose a master. That's not freedom." And so he articulated 4 essential freedoms for free software. And to defend this freedom he developed Copyleft and wrote the GNU General Public Licence. "Copyleft enabled the same freedoms to be passed on to each user. No one is allowed to stand in the middle and strip freedom from users. One such licence is the GNU General Public Licence. Around 70% of all Free software use GNU GPL. There is copyleft and non-copyleft free software. Copyleft acts to actively defend your freedom."

Richard Stallman: GN...
stallman20041008.jpg, image/jpeg, 500x335

Back to the beginning. On Thursday afternoon I rocked up to the Australian Computer Society forum ( Richard Stallman was the guest speaker. Who is Richard Stallman? ( Stallman is the iniator of the Free Software Foundation, the progenitor of the Gnu/Linux system (, a free operating system that is slowly taking on the might of Microsoft and other proprietary operating systems, applications and programs.

To ensure the freedom of free software, Stallman came up with the idea of Copyleft. This uses copyright law to ensure material can be freely used, copied, examined, adapted and built upon, and ensuring those freedoms also apply to subsequent users. The GNU General Public Licence has played a vital role in the philosophy and development of free software.

The theatrette was about half full: a curious mixture of suits and jeans and t-shirts. Richard Stallman's biography was briefly described, with some humorous interjection from Richard.

Then Richard took up the role as public speaker, and advocate for free software. It was an interesting speech, with diversions, that held the audience. The concepts weren't technical, they were philosophical, social, ethical and political. The speech was pretty much a stock one with minor differences and diversions to match the location and audience. I had listened to a similar recording only the previous week. Here are my notes. At the end I have also included links to recordings and transcripts of speeches, and other resources on the philosophy of free software and the Gnu/Linux system.

The words are mostly Richard's, any mistakes in the commentary notes are entirely mine.

The Free Software Movement and the GNU/Linux Operating System


Free software is an Ethical, political, social, issue.

Stallman was lucky in initially working in a community of software programmers that had an ethic of sharing, and cooperating in developing software at the MIT computer labs. In adding to the sum of human knowledge.

But "then came the first shock of someone who refused to share. Someone who had signed a non-disclosure agreement. A barrier erected between people. Non-disclosure agreements have victims."

"No one should have to sign one of these agreements", and in particular Stallman decided not to do it on ethical grounds.

"I did not want to spend my life designing walls to divide people." He could not stomach that. "Once people signed non-disclosure agreements, their lives become puppets to money."

One of the reasons Stallman has been able to resist the corruption of money is he lives cheaply. He resists expensive habits. "You can decide what you want to do with your life."

"I could be a waiter, except in McDonalds."
[some puns and satirical info on the fast food culture of McDonalds]

"Better to waste a skill than misuse it. What could I do as an Operating System developer to make the world a better place?"

"To work on proprietary Operating Systems required an act of betrayal."


"I was elected by circumstances to do the job. So I had to do it! I would develop a free Operating System."

A major obstacle was there was a lot of work to do. There were technical design decisions to be made:
* "needed to be portable like Unix"; to "follow the design of Unix";
* "users did not like incompatible changes. "
* "Build a community of people living in freedom."
* "Upwardly compatible with Unix"

But what range of target machines? Unix is designed for 16 bit architecture. Aim for 32 bit computers.

In Sept 1983 he announced his intention to build a free operating system. In January 1984 he quit his job at MIT, to prevent MIT claiming his work under their copyright. But he had a sympathetic manager who "offered use of a Unix machine at the lab". "I am not a Unix wizard" claimed Stallman.

Initially Stallman worked on Gnu emacs until it was ready for a first release in September 1984. But how to distribute copies? One option was to place a copy on the ftp server, but in 1985 most people were not on the net. "So I also sold a tape of emacs for $150. This started generating income at the rate of 8-10 orders per month."

"What I'm on about is Free speech not freer beer."
"All users, whether they bought a copy or downloaded a copy had certain essential freedoms:"

0. Freedom to run the program as you wish
1. help yourself. Access to sourcecode to fix or adapt the program
2. help your neighbours - make copies & distribute them
3. help build your community

"If you have all 4 freedoms it is free software."

"Proprietary software trys to destroy social solidarity. You have to decide whether to help your neighbour through copying software or destroy the social solidarity, it is a choice of which is the lesser of two evils which is not very good." And it distributes more copies of proprietary programs, which does not help you.

"We need to avoid having to choose between 2 evils by not going down that path."

"The most important resource is the spirit of goodwill. Helping your neighbour."


"Helping your neighbour is not piracy. Piracy is attacking ships" Putting it like that you see the ludicrous nature that claims of software piracy are based upon.

In two countries, Germany and Argentina, people have been threatened with rape in prison for the act of copying proprietary software.

There are other reasons to avoid proprietary software:

* "There are hidden features in proprietary software. Spyware is fairly common. In an OS such as Windows XP microsoft uses spyware. Not only the OS, but also in programs like windows Media Player and Real Player.

* Also Digital Restrictions management

* Backdoors, eg Windows XP

"All software developers are human and make mistakes." "The difference with free software is anyone can examine the source code and change the software if its free."

With point 3, "you have the freedom to publish any modifications. Free software implys a free market. Proprietary software is monopoly based. With free software, if one person fails you can always get someone else which you can't do with proprietary software."

"Choosing between proprietary software is choosing between monopolies. It is not freedom to choose a master. That's not freedom."

"If a program offers all four freedoms it is free software."


"Sometimes software can be free for some but not for others." eg X-windows. "The developers of X-windows were not interested in liberating cyberspace." And so you have some versions of X-windows which are free, and other versions which have proprietary modifications which means they are not free. The purpose of the GNU General Public Licence (GPL) is to prevent this. "I looked for a way to prevent this and developed copyleft."

"Copyleft enabled the same freedoms to be passed on to each user. No one is allowed to stand in the middle and strip freedom from users. One such licence is the GNU General Public Licence. Around 70% of all Free software use GNU GPL. There is copyleft and non-copyleft free software. Copyleft acts to actively defend your freedom."


The job of developing a free operating system was so big that shortcuts were looked for. As long as the software was free, it could be incorporated in the Gnu system.

"By the early 1990s most of the essential work was done. Only the kernel was missing." In 1991 Linus Torvalds within about a year developed a kernel. "In 1992 the kernel was released under GPL, which meant it could then be used in the GNU system. It was an important contribution."

"The software spreads the philosophy, the philosophy spreads the software."

"Linus wants technically good software. He wasn't interested in the philosophy."


* I get told this is idealistic, it has to be impractical.
* Some people say the philosophy gets in the way
* People confuse popularity with success.

Our job is the liberation of cyberspace and our job is just beginning.


Today free Operating systems are used on tens of millions of PCs, but there is still a lot of work to do. We now have enemies. They are the lords of cyberspace.

There are also dangers:
* Hardware device secret specifications
* We need to apply market pressure, and to do that effectively we need to be aware of the underlying philosophy. If we can't apply market pressure we will be held back.
* Now a days journals are published on Linux, and the ads in these journals exhort you to pay for proprietary add on software.

"To defend our freedom we have to value our freedom. Freedom doesn't defend itself."

"We have to teach people the issues of freedom." There are two stages: people learning how to use Gnu/linux software; and teaching the philosophy behind the software.

Open Source software has practical value, but they do not follow the philosophy of free software in defending basic values of freedom. "I want software that works well and respects our freedom." What should we choose.

There is also the additional threats from laws. With the amendment of the USFTA in the Australian senate it is possible the deal may be rejected by Congress. If it is, it will be a close scrape.
The Free Trade Treaty with the USA is stupid anyway.

There is also the provisions of the Digital Millenium Copyright Act.

"Software ideas can also be patented. They are a disaster for all except the large software companies."

"Just visit and read the patents.pdf"
Sequential Innovation, Patents and Imitation - by James Bessen and Eric Maskin, Harvard University and MIT]

We need to get rid of Free Trade treaties. Put more barriers to the mega corporations enlargening their control.

How can you help? By visiting By donating time or money. By becoming an associate member.


[Richard Stallman pulls on a 'ceremonial' gown and produces a 'halo' made from an old disk drive.]
St Ignucius of the Church of Emacs

with the holy chant:
"There is no system but GNU
& Linux is one of its kernels"

"To join the church doesn't require celibacy, you just require to install holy free Operating System on all computers under your control. Then you too can be a saint."

[Several questions were then asked from the audience, and more details given on the Australian US Free Trade Agreement. See]


The 'hackers' from LUV (Linux Users Victoria) gathered around, along with a few people in suits. Lights dimmed, then were momentarily turned off to make it clear it was time to leave.

The speech was inspiring stuff! If you use a Proprietary operating system, it might be time to consider moving to the free Gnu/Linux operating system. You even get a wide choice of flavours, each with their own advantages.



Free Software Foundation

Richard Stallman's Personal website

Read a recent interview: Developer Spotlight: Richard Stallman;=39130008-39024614t-20000000c

Audio: Speeches and interviews

Interview with Richard Stallman - Free Software, Free Society! (May 2004)
(Transcript and Ogg Vorbis Audio]
Anarchobabe (IMC interviewer) reflects on the interview report on RMS in Dublin:
files of RMS's talk in Dublin:

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Brisbane, Canberra, Sydney Takver Saturday October 09, 2004 at 04:15 PM
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