Q: Lets assume for a moment that free software becomes the way business happens. Every company, if it wants to keep shareholder value anyway, opens up the source, makes their softwre free. What's next? Where do you go from there? What do you do for an encore? Or is that the "end of the war" and at that point, GPL protecting our freedoms, you go back to coding?
RMS: Non-free software is not the world's only problem. I undertook to work on this problem because (1) it dropped in my lap (I could not be neutral except by leaving my field), (2) I had an idea for how I could tackle it effectively, and (3) nobody else was even working on it.
It's clear that other problems such as religious fundamentalism, overpopulation, damage to the environment, and the domination of business over government, science, thought, and society, are much bigger than non-free software. But many other people are already working on them, and I don't have any great aptitude or ideas for how to address them. So it seems best for me to keep working on the issue of free software. Besides, free software does counter one aspect of business domination of society.
If in my lifetime the problem of non-free software is solved, I could perhaps relax and write software again. But I might instead try to help deal with the world's larger problems. Standing up to an evil system is exhilarating, and now I have a taste for it. I could volunteer my time to the ACLU, Amnesty International, Americans United for Separation of Church and State, or ZPG, if I'm of any use to them.
(In 1988, George Bush called Mike Dukakis a "card-carrying member of the ACLU", in effect comparing the Bill of Rights with Communism and its defenders with Communists. This insult to the US Constitution inspired me, as it did many others, to join the ACLU. Let's hope the Shrub will not be president; one Bush was too many.)
Or I could work on winning for other kind of published information the freedoms that are appropriate for them. These could include dictionaries and encyclopedias, textbooks, scientific papers, music, and other things.
Q: Are there any good case studies of large corporations opening up proprietary in-house source code?
RMS: It's appropriate that you've used the terminology of the Open Source Movement for this question, because this is the sort of question they would be most interested in. That movement, founded in 1998, argues that "open source" is good because it is more profitable for software developers. They collect examples to justify that claim, and might be able to help you.
I am not the best person to ask for this kind of help, because I focus on something else. Rather than trying to convince IT managers that it is more profitable to respect our freedom--I don't know whether that is true--I try to convince computer users that they should insist on software that respects their freedom.
I am not affiliated with the Open Source Movement. I founded the Free Software Movement, which has been working to spread freedom and cooperation since 1984, and is concerned not only with practical benefits but with a social and ethical issue: whether to encourage people to cooperate with their neighbors, or prohibit cooperation. The Free Software Movement raises issues of freedom, community, principle, and ethics, which the Open Source Movement studiously avoids.
What the Open Source Movement explicitly say is right, as far as it goes; but I'm very unhappy with what they leave out. By appealing only to practical benefits, such as developing powerful reliable software, they imply by omission that nothing more important is at stake.
The Open Source Movement seems to think of proprietary software as a suboptimal solution (at least, usually suboptimal). For the Free Software Movement, proprietary software is the problem, and free software is the solution. Free software is often very powerful and reliable, and I'm glad that adds to its appeal; but I would choose a bare-bones unreliable free program rather than a featureful and reliable proprietary program that doesn't respect my freedom.
Eric Raymond said publicly that if "open source" isn't better (he means, more profitable) for software developers, it deserves to fail:
(Quoted in Salon, September or October 1998.) Implicit in this position is Eric's belief that proprietary software is legitimate, and his rejection of the idea that free software is imperative for freedom, ethics or social responsibility.)"Either open source is a net win for both producers and consumers on pure self-interest grounds or it is not. If it is, you cannot lose; if it is not, you cannot (and *should* not) win."
Imagine someone saying, "If an uncensored press is not better for publishers as well as readers, it cannot (and should not) prevail." This would show that person does not understand freedom of the press as an issue of liberty. For people who value civil liberties, such views are ludicrous. (This example is not entirely artificial, since corporate media owners and corporate advertisers increasingly exclude certain issues and views from press coverage.)
Although I will not join the Open Source Movement, I agree that they do some useful things. They might be the best ones to suggest something useful to say to your IT manager.
Q: Today everyone is hearing the critics about how open source is also hurting the community. All that aside did you ever in your wildest dreams at the very start of the "crusade" think that open source would be a "movment"?
RMS: I thought of free software as a movement years before the GNU Project. I learned about free software as a way of life by joining a community of programmers who already lived it. My contribution, the place where I took things a step further, was in thinking in ethical and political terms about the contrast between our way of life and the way most computer users lived. I made free software a movement.
But I never imagined that the Free Software Movement would spawn a watered-down alternative, the Open Source Movement, which would become so well-known that people would ask me questions about "open source" thinking that I work under that banner.
If we in the Free Software Movement are lumped in with them, people will think we are championing their views, not ours. For this reason, I don't want to discuss my work or the ideas I advocate under the rubric of "open source". If people seem to be lumping me in with them, I have to correct that mistake. The work I do is free software; if you want to discuss it with me, let's have the discussion using the term "free software".
Q: What would happen, in the hypothetical case, where you litigated the GPL, and lost? Do you have a Plan B?
RMS: It would depend on the precise details of the decision. Perhaps we would change some words in the GPL. Perhaps we would just say "Too bad, copyleft can't be done entirely right in that particular country or state." That would be unfortunate, but not necessarily a disaster.
For example, there are companies in China that distribute versions of the GNU/Linux system in China, and violate the GPL completely, by not distributing source code at all. As a practical matter, we cannot enforce the GPL against violators in China, because China does not enforce copyright law very much. (That policy makes perfect sense for China--the US likewise did not recognize foreign copyrights when it was a developing country.) But I don't think this means that the GPL is a failure in general.
Q: Have you ever thought of taking a more conciliatory attitude to things? Does the phrase "Don't Sweat the Small Stuff" (I'm thinking of the "GNU/Linux" thing) have any resonance at all with you?
RMS: The reason I continue asking people to use the term "GNU/Linux" for the combination of the GNU operating system with the kernel, Linux, is that it's an important little detail. It makes a big difference for the GNU Project's effectiveness in spreading the philosophy of the Free Software Movement.
Calling the whole system "Linux" leads people to think that the system's development was started in 1991 by Linus Torvalds. That is what most users seem to think. The occasional few users that do know about the GNU Project often think we played a secondary role--for example, they say to me, "Of course I know about GNU--GNU developed some tools that are part of Linux."
This leads users to take their philosophical lead from Linus's "apolitical" views, rather than from the GNU Project. They tend to adopt the goal of boosting the popularity of "Linux" (what Linus jocularly calls "world domination"), rather than spreading freedom. Ironically, these users of the GNU system love the system so much that they cast aside the freedom for which we developed the system, in the name of the system's success. You might call this "success" for GNU, but it is not success for freedom.
Businesses that distribute "Linux" are actively urging people to adopt success as the goal, and sacrifice freedom for that. See http://www.zdnet.com/filters/printerfriendly/0,6061,2552025-2,00.html for a clear-cut example in a recent speech by the CEO of Caldera. They can do this more more easily and effectively when their audience does not connect the "Linux" system with that inconvenient, idealistic, uncompromising GNU Project. The ability to avoid calling to mind issues of freedom, by using the term "open source", is also convenient for them: they can ask people implicitly to give up their freedom, without explicitly acknowledging this implication of the conduct they recommend.
As businesses get more involved with free software, they will be faced with a choice: whether to do business in a way that contributes to the community, as Red Hat mostly does, or base their business on proprietary add-ons, as Oracle does and Corel mostly does. It will be up to the public--the community--to make business respect our freedom, by rewarding the businesses that do. The future of our community depends above all on what we value. If people adopt the value of popularity or success, we will end up with many people using a system that is based on GNU and Linux combined with lots of proprietary software.
I ask you to call the system GNU/Linux so you can help inform the system's users that it exists because of the GNU Project's idealism. Users who know that will probably take a look at our views, and some of them will agree. Later on, they may stand up for freedom.
Q: Are there any things that you sort of care about, but not very much?
RMS: Sure, plenty--but I don't argue about those things.
Q: What sort of things do you do in your spare time, and do you approach them with the same amount of intensity that you have for free software?
RMS: I like reading, music, eating delicious food, seeing natural beauty. I also like to dance, mostly Balkan folk dance, but an ankle problem means I can't do it any more. I also like sharing tenderness with someone I adore, but I only occasionally have a chance to do that.
Q: How applicable do you think the GPL is to these other areas? (As in, the concepts embodied in the GPL). Also, what are the essential aspects of any license that wishes to convey the same kind of freedom the GPL conveys?
RMS: I don't have a simple answer for this. The ethical issues about copying and modifying works depend on the kind of work and how people can use it. There is a certain basic similarity between all the kinds of works that can be in a file on a computer: you can always copy them, unless someone has gone out of his way to obstruct you. There are also differences. Novels, musical recordings, dictionaries, textbooks, scientific papers, essays, and software are not all used the same ways.
So I don't have the same views for all these different kinds of works. Textbooks and dictionaries should be free in the same strong sense as software: people should have the freedom to publish improved versions of them. For scientific papers, I think that everyone should be allowed to mirror them, but I see no reason to permit modified versions (that would be tampering with the historical record). For some kinds of works, such as novels, I am not sure just which kinds of freedom are essential.
However, a certain minimum freedom is essential for any kind of published work that is in a file on a computer: the freedom to occasionally make copies for other people. To deny people this basic freedom is intrusive and antisocial, and only Soviet-style methods can enforce the prohibition.
Q: I'm currently attempting to persuade a hardware manufacturer to provide unobfuscated source code and hardware documentation to free driver writers.
In your opinion, what is the best and/or most effective way to go about this? The court of public opinion? Economic arguments? Pointing out the higher quality of free drivers? Or should I just advise people to move to more enlightened hardware manufacturers.
RMS: I think it is best to use a combination of approaches:
- Informing them that people who want freedom will have to buy the other hardware for which free drivers are available (which is not quite a threat, because we would be doing this not as a punishment but in order to do the job with free software).
- Saying that the community is encouraging people to do reverse engineering to write free drivers (thus, obstinacy may be futile).
- Offering them the community's good will and commercial patronage if they cooperate.
- Asking them what their concerns are, and creatively suggest ways they can cooperate enough to enable us to write the free software soon, while still partly achieving those concerns.
Q: (from Bruce Perens) - I'm concerned that GPL restrictions on derived works haven't kept up with software technology.
RMS: I am working on GPL version 3, but this is not something that should be rushed. I put it aside for most of a year to work on the GNU Free Documentation License, but now I plan to get back to it.
Bruce: The most pernicious example is CORBA, which lets us create derived works from components that aren't in the same address space at all, yet work seamlessly as if they were. I'd rather not see my GPL work end up in somebody's proprietary program, simply because it's been server-ized to avoid my license restrictions.
RMS: If people can write non-free software that makes use of free CORBA components, that is bad in one way: it means that their non-free software can build on our work. But using our free software through CORBA does not make our programs themselves non-free. So it is not as bad as extending our programs with their non-free code.
I think it will be hard to claim that a program is covered by our licenses because it uses CORBA to communicate with our code. Perhaps in cases of particularly intimate coupling we could convince a court of that view, but in general I think we could not.
Bruce: A more common problem is dynamic libraries that are distributed separately from the executable. You say that a court would hold those to be devices explicitly used to circumvent the license restrictions, but that's rather chancy, and no substitute for explicit language regarding what is, and what isn't, considered a derived work in the GPL.
RMS: We have no say in what is considered a derivative work. That is a matter of copyright law, decided by courts. When copyright law holds that a certain thing is not a derivative of our work, then our license for that work does not apply to it. Whatever our licenses say, they are operative only for works that are derivative of our code.
A license can say that we will treat a certain kind of work as if it were not derivative, even if the courts think it is. The Lesser GPL does this in certain cases, in effect declining to use some of the power that the courts would give us. But we cannot tell the courts to treat a certain kind of work as if it were derivative, if the courts think it is not.
I think we have a pretty good argument that nontrivial dynamic linking creates a combined (i.e. derivative) work. I have an idea for how to change the GPL to make it clearer and more certain, but I need to see if we can work out the details in a way that our lawyer believes will really work.
Bruce: There's also the problem of Application Service Providers, who make a work available for people to use without distributing it, and thus would be under no obligation to make the source code of their modifications available. Do I have to see my GPL work abused that way as well?
RMS: I too feel these servers are not playing fair with our community, but this problem is very hard to solve. It is hard for a copyright-based license to make a requirement for these servers that will really stick. The difficulty is that they servers are not distributing the program, just running it. So it is hard to make any conditions under copyright that affect what they can do.
I had an idea recently for an indirect method that might perhaps work. I'd rather not talk about it until our lawyer figures out better whether it can really do the job.
Bruce: It seems there's a lot of new technology that the GPL isn't keeping up with.
RMS: You make it sound as if solving these problems were only a matter working hard enough to change the GPL. But the GPL can only use copyright law as it exists. The recent changes in US copyright law to "keep up" with technology, in the DMCA, were commanded by the software privateers, and they were designed to help them restrict away the users' freedom, not to help us protect users' freedom. They allow copyright owners to restrict the mere running of a program--but only if some sort of hard-to-bypass license manager or access control enforces the restrictions. The freedom of free software means that even if we did put such artificial restriction into a program, the user could easily bypass them--and that's a good thing! But it means that new legal power is not available for use for copyleft.
The DMCA is a perfect example of the harm done when business dominates government and society. One part of the law explicitly says that only commercially significant activities are considered important (to legitimize a program which is often used to bypass technological means of controlling the users)--showing explicit prejudice against educational uses, recreational uses, communitarian uses, military uses, and religious uses.
Q: What kind of a position do you take on applications such as Napster?
RMS: Napster is bad because it is proprietary software, but I see nothing unethical in the job it does. Why shouldn't you send a copy of some music to a friend? I don't play music from files on my computer, but I've occasionally made tapes of records and given them to my friends.
Q: In particular, I see GTK Napster carries a standard GPL. I'd just like to know what happens when someone like Metallica wins a lawsuit against Napster who has a GPL'd counterpart such as GTK Napster? Can they touch it at all?
RMS: I don't know who will win those lawsuits, but I don't see anything that would give free programs any special protection from this kind of suppression. It seems to me that if they win against Napster, they would probably win against any program doing a similar job.
If they do not win using present-day law, we can expect to see the record companies purchase new laws they can use to suppress these programs in the future--and trot out famous musicians like Metallica (only famous musicians get much of their income from copyright) who will say that copying music is like killing their baby.
We can also expect to see fierce attempts to catch individuals who use Napster and imprison them. The War on Copying will become more vicious.
The War on Drugs has continued for some 20 years, and we see little prospect of peace, despite the fact that it has totally failed and given the US an imprisonment rate almost equal to Russia. I fear that the War on Copying could go on for decades as well. To end it, we will need to rethink the copyright system, based on the Constitution's view that it is meant to benefit the public, not the copyright owners. Today, one of the benefits the public wants is the use of computers to share copies.
Metallica justifies their lawsuit saying they think it is an outrage that their music has become a "commodity". Apparently they think music is a commodity when shared between fans, but not when large companies sell copies through record stores. What hypocritical absurdity!
Such drivel is normally laughable. But Metallica is presenting it as an excuse to attack our freedom, and that is no laughing matter. I encourage people to write letters to periodicals that cover this story, stating disgust for Metallica's lawsuit and rejecting their views.
Q: The battle over CSS has been about whether people have the right to use software (I consider DVDs software because they are programs read by a computer chip) when it is controlled by the content control system CSS, even after they've bought it. I hope they'll lose in the courts, but it is unclear at this point whether they will, however, my question is on another, related topic.
Suppose very strong, nearly unbreakable encryption were used on traditional Software DVD (i.e. stuff like M$ software or other companies software, just in a DVD format) and a DVD CCA for software were set up saying, "You aren't allowed to access the content of any DVDs unless you use our licensed DVD decryption software. Oh, and our DVD decryption software contains a legally enforceable (under UCITA) software license which states that you cannot reverse engineer any content you have decrypted using our decryption software." How would Free Software handle it?
RMS: With laws like that, there would be no lawful way to solve the problem. The Digital Millenium Copyright Act comes close to what you imagine, and it may be enough to prohibit free software for this job. (I don't know for certain, and I think the answer is not known yet.) It may be necessary to develop this software in countries which do not have these laws.
Q: Does there now need to be a Free Hardware philosophy which states that "Hardware which exists tied to a proprietary software system must be replaced by Free Hardware standards" or something similar?
RMS: I agree--but it will be hard to get the movie companies to release movies for that hardware. Fundamentally, the only solution will be when enough of the public believes in freedom to change the laws that are the basis for denying our freedom.
Q: I've been reading your opinions for some time now, and while they make sense in and of themselves, they beg certain other questions. What interest me most are your meta-ethical notions.
You often speak of notions such as right and wrong as if they were objective things; do you hold them to be so?
RMS: I think of right and wrong as based on how what we could do affects other people--the implications of imagining ourselves in the situation of the people our actions affect.
People can come to different conclusions about the implications. I don't believe in relativism; I don't believe that any conclusion is as valid as any other. If I and someone else disagree, at least one of us is wrong. Unfortunately, there's no way to place to get complete certainty about what's right and what's wrong. We can only try our best to figure it out.
The generalizations that we get from our consciences are our values. Our specific conclusions about ethics derive from these values; arguments about ethics depart from them. So my arguments about free software, or anything else, start from the values I believe in. They are addressed to people who at least partly share these values. When people persistently reject these values, there is nothing I can say to them. But sometimes people will start to share my values when I point out to them the situations the values are based on. They may then imagine the same feelings I felt or imagined.
Q: Are there "natural" rights, and what is the nature of their existence?
RMS: I think there are natural rights, natural in the sense that people are entitled to them regardless of what governments say about them. Freedom of speech is a good example; I think people are entitled to freedom of speech, and censorship is wrong. That is one example that I think most people reading this would agree with. I also believe that the freedom to share software and other published information is also a natural right.
There are also artificial rights, rights that are not natural. I agree with the US legal system, for example, in the view that copyright is an artificial right, not a natural one. It can be reasonable to have a limited kind of copyright system for some kinds of works, but this is a concession made to benefit the public, not an entitlement of authors and publishers. This system should be limited so that it doesn't seriously conflict with other people's natural rights.
Q: If so, how does this fit with your atheism? If not, do you feel that ethical claims have some basis beyond personal taste?
RMS: Religious people often say that religion offers absolute certainty about right and wrong; "god tells them" what it is. Even supposing that the aforementioned gods exist, and that the believers really know what the gods think, that still does not provide certainty, because any being no matter how powerful can still be wrong. Whether gods exist or not, there is no way to get absolute certainty about ethics.
Without absolute certainty, what do we do? We do the best we can. Injustice is happening now; suffering is happening now. We have choices to make now. To insist on absolute certainty before starting to apply ethics to life decisions is a way of choosing to be amoral.