Richard Stallman: an exclusive interview
Thodoros Papatheodorou

Richard Stallman, the free software activist and software developer, maintains a legendary status in the computing community. He adresses all our questions in an interview of epic proportions that he gave to OUGH! in two parts. This is part one.

While working as a "system hacker" in MIT's AI lab (i.e., a member of the team developing the lab's own operating system) he experienced the profound change that overtook the software industry. Up until that point the general practice was for people to freely share, modify and reuse operating system software developed for the machines of the day. In the 1970's the software industry stopped distributing the source code of these programs, making it impossible for computer users to study and modify them. Furthermore new copyright laws made it illegal to do so.

The change struck him as unethical and it affected him personally as the hacker community in which he thrived was broken up as two competing companies hired most of the talent in the lab to develop non-free products. Stallman went against the trend and decided to devote his life to the development of free software, where the user has the right to use the program in any way he sees fit, study the source code, modify it and even redistribute his modified versions to others. In 1984 he quit the MIT AI lab and started developing GNU, the first free operating system which today, with the addition of a piece of software developed by a young Finish student, Linus Torvalds, forms GNU/Linux.

Today, it is run on the majority of servers on the Internet, academic institutions, large enterprises, the military and on desktops of millions of people around the world who have rejected software licenses that come with Windows and Mac OS. They choose to run a system that was started by Stallman and further developed by thousands of others over the Internet. GNU/Linux is superior to proprietary software from a technical point of view and it's available gratis, but Stallman insists that these are welcome, but secondary features. Freedom is the key. We start the conversation talking about electronic rights.

Photo: Blake Livingston (may be used under CC-BY-SA).

You've said “in the Internet age we have less rights that in the physical world.”
Yes. For instance in The US, Internet service providers can disconnect you without going to court, they don’t have to prove that there is a reason. And as a result they can censor you. If you want to print papers and stand on the street handing them out you can do that, you don’t have to beg some company to “please cooperate” so that you can do it. But to do this on the Internet you need the cooperation of an ISP and a domain name registrar and maybe a hosting service and if they don’t like what you’re doing or somebody threatens them who has a lot of power and doesn’t like what you’re doing then they can just terminate your service and censor you.People should have a legal right to continued service of any of these kinds as long as they fulfill their side of the bargain. I believe it’s the case in the US that the phone company can’t arbitrarily disconnect your phone line as long as you continue paying your bill and so on, then they have to keep giving you phone service, it’s not their choice. It should be the same with Internet connectivity. It shouldn’t be their choice, they shouldn’t be allowed to set their own conditions for continuing to give you service.

They should provide the service as a public utility?

This dependence on a corporation also extends to financial transactions.
That’s the other aspect in which the digital world gives us less rights than the physical world. Suppose in addition to handing out papers on the street, you’d like to ask people to give money to the cause. They can give cash and you can accept the cash and you don’t need the cooperation of any company in order to do so. Once you receive the cash, it’s valid money and you can spend it. But, to do the same thing in the digital world you need the services of a payment company and those companies might arbitrarily disconnect you also.

This is what happened with WikiLeaks. After it released information that embarrassed the US government (among others), MasterCard and Visa stop accepting donations for the site.
Exactly. WikiLeaks showed all these vulnerabilities because the US government decided to silence them and did everything they could to do so. It has caused a lot of harm although you can still access the WikiLeaks pages if you use the right domain name. They did manage to cut off most of the donations to WikiLeaks and now it’s having trouble operating.

The organization has received a lot of bad publicity in the US. What's your view?
WikiLeaks is doing something heroic. A lot of the press in the US is subservient to the government, this is true in a lot of countries. Or you might better say that it’s subservient to business but the US government works for business, so business wants to say good things about it. I think we need laws stopping the payment companies from disconnecting anybody’s service, except when they prove that they have cause.

Technology has spawned new forms of control but it has also resulted in new ways of protest, self-organization and dissent. 'Anonymous' stands out as an example of hacktivists.
Anonymous does various different thinks. Most often Anonymous has a lot of people go to the door of an organization’s website, they’re a crowd and so they may get in somebody’s way. This is comparable to protesting in front of the organization’s building in the physical world. And that we recognize as democratic political activity. So Anonymous’ web protests are also democratic political activity. Of course, the forces of oppression want to define this as a crime rather than a protest and they’re using the change in technology as an opportunity effectively to criminalize protests. Another thing that I think maybe Anonymous’ members have done, is changing the text in the websites so as to criticize the organization whose site it is. This is the virtual equivalent of writing a critical slogan on a poster, which is pretty normal democratic political activity, but they call it “attacking” the site. The word “attack” is meant to give people the idea that this is something other than a political protest and put people in prison for protesting.

Among hackers the term hacker means something completely different than what it means to the general public. Could you explain that difference?
Starting from 40 years ago, when I joined the hacker community at MIT, I’ve been proud to call myself a hacker. I was hired by MIT to be a system hacker, meaning to make the system better. At the time, we used an operating system called ITS, the Incompatible Timesharing System, which had been developed by the team of hackers at the Artificial Intelligence Lab; and then they hired me to be part of the team. My job was to make the system better. Hacking had a more general meaning, which meant basically being playfully clever and pushing the limits of what was possible.

Hacking doesn't even have to involve computers.
Hacking was not limited in improving the operating system. You could hack in any media, it didn’t have to involve computers. Hacking, as a general concept, is an attitude towards life. What’s fun for you? If finding playful clever ways that were thought impossible is fun then you’re a hacker. One thing that was supposed to be impossible was breaking the security on computers. So some people who were inclined to be hackers got into that medium of breaking security. Then journalists found about hackers around 1981, misunderstood them and they thought hacking was breaking security. That’s not generally true: first of all there are many ways of hacking that have nothing to do with security and second breaking security is not necessarily hacking. It’s only hacking if you’re being playfully clever about it.


Apart from electronic rights you are also a campaigner against software patents. Companies like amazon, Google and Apple, to name a few, are currently engaged in heated patent wars.
Patents are like land mines for software developers. It doesn’t surprise me that a product such as an Android phone is accused of violating a tremendous number of patents, because it’s a complicated software system. Any such complicated software system is going to have thousands of ideas in it, and if 10% of these ideas are patented that means hundreds of those ideas are patented. So any large program is likely to run afoul of hundreds of patents and a system that’s a combination of many programs is likely to run afoul of thousands of patents or more.

As the law stands, these patents have an expiration date of 20 years from the moment they were filed.
[This] is a very long time in the software field. Keep in mind that any time the technological context changes, then we need to adapt our way of doing many things to fit the new context. Which means they will all need new ideas and if those new ideas are patented it’s yet another disaster.

What's special about software that you think it should not have the patent system apply to it?
[Software] is not the usual kind of case for patents. Let’s look at the usual case: patents for something that’s made in a factory. Those patents only affect the companies that have the factories and make the products. If they can all live with the patent system the rest of us have no reason to care. But with software, the problem is that it is much more complicated than anything else. The reason is software is inherently easier to design than physical products. Software is simply mathematics, whereas physical products have to cope with the perversity of matter. And lots of unexpected things will happen, we have models to try to predict what will happen with physical systems but they’re not guaranteed to be right.With software you’re using mathematical constructs and they do what they’re defined to do and if they don’t then you go to the compiler developer and you say “there’s a bug in your compiler. Fix it so that this construct does what is supposed to do.” You can’t do that to the physical world but you can do that to the compiler developer. Because of this it’s easier to design software but people push every ability to its limit. So you give people an easier kind of design and they make bigger systems. So with software, a few people in a few years can design something that has a million elements in its design. That would be a mega-project if it had to be made with physical matter. So you make the system so complicated and it’s going to have lots of ideas in it and that means that it’s going to infringe lots of patents or at least be accused of infringing lots of patents. In other words, the burden of the patent system on software is much higher that it is on anything else. All software developers are in danger and what you see with the patent wars that have broken out in the past year or so is if you develop a big complicated software package you’re going to be sued.

How is it different, say, to the patent for a drug?
Patents on medicine are another special case. Because when you force poor countries to have patents on medicines, which is what the World Trade Organization does, that makes medicine so expensive that people can’t afford it and they die. The people who founded the WTO and its executives should be sent to the Hague to be tried for mass murder. We should organize to demand that our governments stop their support for the WTO; there are thousands of reasons for that. That organization's purpose is to give business more power to turn democracy into a sham. All so-called “free trade treaties” are actually aimed to weaken democracy and transfer political power to business. Therefore in the name of democracy we must abolish those treaties. There are good arguments that international trade can make both countries wealthier and if these countries are democratic enough that the wealth will spread to everyone in both countries then they really are better off. However the so-called “free trade treaties” are designed to make the countries less democratic and ensure that the wealth won’t spread around. That means that they cancel out whatever benefit they might produce -even if the GNP of both countries increases-. What good is that if the increases all go to the rich, which is what they’ve done in the US -at least- since 1980.

These patents wars have seen companies buying up an arsenal of software patents just to protect themselves from litigation...
You know they might be, but it could be that Google has fewer patents because it hasn’t existed so long. This may be one case where they’re not all in the same position and not all interdependent, and if so that would be unfortunate because after all Android is the only smart phone operating system still in use that is mostly free software and that at least gives us a starting point to try to run phones without proprietary software. If Android becomes dangerous and is crushed by patents then we might never be able to run smart phones with free software.

Google is about to buy Motorola, which is not doing great financially, just in order to get access to its patents.
This shows how the patent system becomes an obstruction to progress. When there are enough patents applying to one product it becomes hard to cope with the patent system at all. I hope that they (Google) succeed that way, in protecting themselves, because by doing so they are to some extent sheltering the free software community as well.

Do you believe in the complete abolition of software patents?
Right, patents should not apply to software. Keep in mind that you can’t always classify patents as either software patents or non-software patents. Sometimes the same patent will apply both to programs and to circuits. What I recommend is to change the law to say “by definition if it’s a program it does not infringe any patents.”



 You've often spoken against the use of the word “piracy”.
It’s a smear term! They want to say that sharing is the moral equivalent of attacking ships. I don’t agree with that position, so I don’t call sharing "piracy". I call it "sharing". I am not against profit in general. I’m against mistreating people. Any given way of doing business may or may not involve mistreating people. [The example of the struggling artist] is a ridiculous example because the existing system does very little for struggling artists. It’s lousy. And if we just legalize sharing it won’t make any difference to struggling artists. It might even help them. I think artists should release music with licenses that explicitly permit sharing and some of them do. The point is that this argument against sharing is bogus. These giant multinational companies want more money for themselves and they use the artist as an excuse. Little bit trickles down to the artists and then there are few stars that get treated very well. But we don’t need to make them richer.

People should have the right to non-commercially share and redistribute music?
Music and any published work. Because sharing is good, sharing builds community, so sharing must be legal, now that sharing is feasible and easy. Fifty years ago making copies and redistributing them non-commercially was so hard that it didn’t matter whether it was legal or not. But now that it’s so easy, to stop people from doing it can only be achieved using nasty, draconian measures and even those don’t always work. But, I guess, when they get nasty enough they may work, but why should we tolerate such nastiness?

The music and film industry campaigned very hard on PIPA, SOPA and ACTA.
They want unjust laws all around the world and in some countries they’ve succeeded getting them. I read that Ireland adopted a law similar to SOPA, at least described that way but I don’t know any details yet. These laws are an injustice. They are meant to subject people more to the media companies, so of course they’re wrong, of course people hate them. The only question is; is there enough democracy left in any given country for people to be able to stop them? European citizens should take action and organize with others so as to get your country not to ratify ACTA and convince the European Parliament to vote it down. Save the world from that injustice.

Recently government agencies acted to shut down a few sites, such as Megaupload.
I don’t know whether Mega-Upload ultimately would deserve to be shut down. Remember Megaupload is a business, not an example of sharing. Sharing means non-commercial redistribution of exact copies. So I don’t have a conclusion about Megaupload in particular. I do think there was something outrageous about the way it was shut down, before a court got to decide whether it’s legal or not. But meanwhile there’s been a law suit against -I guess it’s called- Hotfile and the plaintiffs are claiming that “this has to be bad because its similar to Mega-Upload which we shut-down.” Which is a swindle because no court has decided whether Mega-Upload was legal. So they’re citing this premature shut-down as proof that it’s bad. I don’t know, maybe it is bad. That’s not the issue I’m strongly concerned with. I’m more concerned with peer-2-peer sharing because that’s clearly good.


What about services like Facebook and Gmail?
There are many issues of freedom in life and having control of your computing is my contribution -I hope- to the idea of what human rights are.   There are many other human rights people deserve and many of them that apply in other areas of life carry over to the virtual world. So for instance, what are the bad things about Facebook? Well, it gives people a false impression of privacy. It lets you think that you can designate something as to be seen only by your friends,. not realizing that it’s actually to be seen by your Facebook friends and not your actual friends. And any of them could publish it, so it could be seen by anybody; it could be published in the newspaper. Facebook can’t prevent that. What it could do is warn the users every time they start a session “Watch out, anything you post here -- even if you say that only certain people should see it -- it could get published due to events beyond your control.  So think twice about anything you are going to post here.  And remember that, the next time you try to apply for a job, the company might demand that you show everything in your account. Your school might also demand this.  And if you really want your communication to be private. do not send it this way." That’s one thing that they should do. Facebook is a surveillance engine and collects tremendous amounts of personal data and its business model is to abuse that data. So you shouldn’t use Facebook at all. And worse than that, Facebook even does surveillance on people that don’t have Facebook accounts.  If you see a “Like” button in a page then Facebook knows that your computer visited that page.  And it’s not the only company that’s doing this; I believe that Twitter does this and Google+ does this, so it’s a practice that’s being imitated. And it’s wrong no matter who does it. The other thing that Facebook does, is that it uses people’s pictures in commercial advertisement and gives them no way to refuse.

Eric Schmidt of Google fame said a couple of years ago that if you have something you don’t want anyone to know maybe you shouldn’t be doing it.
That’s ridiculous. What kind of things would you not anyone to know? Maybe you are planning a protest. It is common nowadays for governments to label dissidents as terrorists and use electronic surveillance on them to sabotage their protests in order to effectively sabotage democracy.

These social media also claim that they have had a very strong, subversive role in the Middle-East uprisings.
Maybe they do, but remember that these are not located in these Middle-Eastern countries so they have no strong motive to care to those governments. When say the US government wants to crush dissent these companies are likely to volunteer to help. If they don’t they will be compelled to anyway.

You’re also known to not use a mobile phone in order to protect your privacy.
Of course. Every mobile phone is a tracking and surveillance device. You could stop your phone from transmitting your GPS location if you’ve got a phone that’s controlled by free software although those are very few. Still the system can determine pretty accurately where the phones even without any active cooperation from the phone. The US government says it should be able to collect all that information without even a warrant. Not even a court order, that is. So that shows how much US government respects human rights.

Some people have been using TOR and other software to hide their identities online.
TOR is a very good thing. It helps protect people from Big Brother. And by Big Brother I mean perhaps the government of Iran or Syria or the US or any other country that doesn’t recognize human rights.

Theodoros Papatheodorou (PhD of Computer Science) is teaching at the Athens School of Fine Arts ( 

released under Creative Commons License (CC, BY, ND)

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