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Copyleft - Information for direct action - Published weekly in Brighton since 1994
DIRECT HACKTION
SchNEWS interviews Richard Stallman – hacker, founder of the Free Software movement and activist for digital-software-information freedom...
“To try to own knowledge, to try to control whether people are allowed to use it, or to try to stop other people from sharing it, is sabotage.” - Richard Stallman, 1986.

Most people have barely taken stock of the social and political impact of the rapid rise of the digital age and the internet – because they're too busy using it. It's an era characterised by people charging headlong (or maybe that's sleepwalking) into more and more digital consumption – eager to get whatever shiny new gadget, means of communication, or way to access data/media that comes along.

Of course there's lots of great liberating aspects to this, but there are also new problems – e.g. privacy/surveillance online; What measures can be taken to resist the privatisation of the internet? And can technology and means of communication be motivated and controlled by anything other than market forces and the interest of corporations? And there are some things that need totally rethinking due to paradigm shifts, like the debate about peer-to-peer file sharing.

Many of these questions and debates are to be found in the work and ideas of Richard Stallman (RMS), founder of the GNU operating system (later to become GNU/Linux) and the Free Software Movement, as well as the creator of 'copyleft', and activist for software/digital freedom.

RMS was a prolific programmer at places like the AI Lab at MIT during the 70s and early 80s, immersed in the subculture of Hackers (see glossary). But he'd found by the early 80s, as the personal computer boom took off, that the world of computing was becoming dominated by commercial interests staking out ownership and control of technologies. RMS's work during that time was mostly on the operating system in the lab - necessarily a collaborative effort because everybody there depended on it and contributed fixes – yet outside the AI Lab, nonfree "proprietary" software was increasingly denying other computer users the possibility of exercising control over the software they used. These were formative times for Stallman's ideas about software freedom, even though many of his fellow programmers and the majority of the computer industry was rapidly moving in the opposite direction.

To combat this slide towards commodification, RMS took the ambitious step in 1983 of beginning a new 'free' operating system, including a set of common applications - under ethical principles – which he called GNU. And to do this he developed the copyright-based legal method known as 'copyleft', which guarantees that the software stays free, while encouraging improvements and input from its community of users. He implemented the technique in a series of licenses culminating in the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL).

Over twenty five years later, we now have a full operating system platform called GNU/Linux. Stallman's role in GNU has gone from writing key software components, to laying the groundwork for the communities of programmers and users needed to develop it, through to strengthening the legal and ethical foundations of the Free Software Movement.

The principle of copyleft has gone on to create new categories of commonly shared knowledge – and has become an important tool, particularly on the internet. Its most successful use outside software so far (apart from SchNEWS of course!) is Wikipedia - something else Stallman had a hand in at its beginning, urging the founders to make its contents free.

The copyleft concept has also been applied in a number of other ways: Indymedia, the international network of independent news sites – built on an 'open-publishing' model - is an example of a collaborative, decentralised way of creating a commonly shared – and copyleft – resource. Creative Commons have developed a set of copyright licenses for creative works, which enable authors/artists to specify different rights for others to re-use/share/copy/change their material. The ability to create bodies of knowledge which are outside or resistant to being privatised – through copyleft and other 'shareable' publishing licenses - will continue to play a greater role as it moves to other areas like educational texts and staple technologies.

These days RMS's focus has shifted from programming per se to tackling the politics and ethical issues around software/digital freedom. SchNEWS had this dialogue with him...

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Q: You are a full-time campaigner– could you begin by describing what you do?

RMS: I campaign for free software -- free as in freedom, that is. Free software means that the users have control of their computing. If you use non-free software, the developer controls what the program does, and through it controls you.

More precisely, free software means that you as a user have these four essential freedoms:

* Freedom 0, the freedom to run the program as you wish.

* Freedom 1, the freedom to study the source code of the program, and then change it, to make the program do what you wish.

* Freedom 2, the freedom to redistribute exact copies when you wish. This is the freedom to help other people.

* Freedom 3, the freedom to redistribute copies of your modified versions when you wish. This is the freedom to contribute to your community.

I also campaign for the freedom to share copies of all published works. Copyright was no problem when it just restricted publishers, but now it has become an excuse to restrict and attack the public (see more below).

I also write articles, talk to people through email and give a lot of speeches. I meet with politicians to discuss this, when they want to meet with me. In December 2009 I met with senators in Mexico and Chile, and also with the organization of Chilean labor unions.

Q: You do advocacy work all over the world - what are some of your experiences promoting free software internationally?

RMS: I personally convinced President-Elect Correa of Ecuador to move government agencies to free software, and Ecuador is also now studying how to move its public schools to it. I've seen explicit government efforts to promote free software in Venezuela and Brazil as well. Some provinces of Argentina have adopted policies of using only free software in state agencies,and others are considering such laws.

Most of our successes are the work of many activists. There is a strong free software movement in many Latin-American countries, in India, and in some parts of Europe. Meanwhile, Microsoft goes around offering very cheap prices to countries and institutions that are considering a free software policy. So it's not an easy campaign to win.

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Q: Visit nearly any alternative media office or activist resource centre in the world and an increasing amount of the sticker-encrusted, grinding old boxes will boot up into GNU/Linux. People in social and environmental movements are beginning to realise the roles free software – and copyleft – play in an egalitarian future: they help keep information free in a world which is being increasingly commodified; they are consistent with models of decentralisation, mutual aid and cooperation; they're ridding peoples' lives of nasty monopoly corporations like Microsoft; and help give those living in poverty more access to technologies.

RMS: I basically agree with what you've said, but the most fundamental point about copyleft is that it gives all users freedom. Once they have freedom, they can use it separately or in groups, as they wish. Other benefits, such as sparing the poor the need to pay license fees, and reducing monopolies, are secondary benefits - consequences of that freedom.

People often focus on the secondary benefits, as if they are uncomfortable saying straight out that freedom is what they demand. Perhaps they worry that others will consider them weird. So they talk about monopolies, about price, about collaborating to make "better" software (better in quality, they mean). This may increase the chances of convincing other people, but it also reduces what you achieve when they do agree. So I focus on the basic issue, freedom.

Proprietary software puts the developer in a position of power over the users, and that is unjust, pure and simple. So the argument is not that proprietary software leads to injustices (though it does). It is an injustice <em>in and of itself</em>.

Q: But while many people in these political movements have little difficulty joining the dots here, there are ones who don't get it. I can think of some typical activists whose anti-imperialist missives are generated on computers full of the latest from Microsoft or Apple (not that they paid for any of it), and they keep their songs of revolution on an i-pod. They wouldn't see what the problem was. How do you respond when you encounter this?

RMS: I explain that proprietary (nonfree) software is a kind of digital colonization. Like any colonial system, it keeps people divided and helpless: divided, because they are forbidden to share copies, and helpless, because they don't have the source code, so they can't change it, or even check what it is really doing.

By using software from Microsoft and Apple these activists have allowed those companies to control what their computers do. Both Microsoft and Apple intentionally program systems to refuse to do things which they don't like. (Of course, many other companies do the same bad things, which doesn't excuse any of them.)

In the case of Windows, Microsoft does other nasty things too. For instance, Windows has two back doors. One of them allows police to use a USB stick to take control of any Windows machine and view encrypted data - and this program may have leaked onto the internet last October. If you're an activist, do you want the regime to have a 'skeleton key' for your computer? The other back door lets Microsoft remotely install changes in the software, without asking permission. Any nasty thing that isn't in Windows today could be in it tomorrow.

The i-Scrod (i-pod) can't have that kind of back door, because it does not talk directly to a network. But the i-Moan or i-Groan (i-phone) certainly has one: Apple can change the software remotely. Many cell phones can be turned on remotely to transmit the conversations in your vicinity.

Malicious features are frequent in proprietary software because the developer or owner has total control. This power tempts the developer to do malicious things to the users. The software may humor you by complying with some of your wishes, but its first loyalty is always to the developer. For a free society, now that we use computers, we must insist on free software, software that the users control.

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Q: You said that there's strong free software movements around the world. Could you give us some examples of groups working in these countries, and the sorts of things they're doing?

APRIL in France ( www.april.org/en ), and Assoli in Italy ( http://softwarelibero.it ), have organized campaigns asking candidates for the national parliament, and for the European Parliament, to make pledges giving limited support for free software. For instance, not to vote for laws that would hurt free software.

FSF Europe ( www.fsfe.org ) runs Document Freedom Day which promotes the use of open document formats and open file standards in general.

Zeuux, in China ( www.zeuux.org/index.en.html ), launched a boycott of a major bank whose web site insists on using Internet Explorer.

FSF Latin America ( www.fsfla.org ), in Brazil, has a campaign called "software imposto". The name is a joke - it means "tax software" and "imposed software". The campaign criticizes a proprietary program released by the state that citizens have to use to file their tax returns. FSF LA released a compatible free program that people can use instead.

The original Free Software Foundation (FSF), in the US, has several campaigns. There is DefectiveByDesign.org, which fights against Digital Restrictions Management (DRM - see glossary). There is also PlayOgg.org, which campaigns for the use of the freedom-respecting Ogg formats (such as Ogg Vorbis and Ogg Theora) for distribution of video. If you want to distribute a video, please don't post it on a site such as You Tube that will distribute it in a patented MPEG4 format embedded in Flash! (For the rest see www.fsf.org/campaigns )

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Q: Copyleft - though developed as a legal framework for developing free software (namely the GNU GPL) - also turns out to be a very useful tool for both developing all sorts of knowledge/information/technologies cooperatively, and preventing them from being co-opted or stolen. Can you sum up the principles of copyleft?

RMS: First off I should explain that copyleft is a legal framework for releasing works of authorship as free, and using copyright law to require that they stay free.

Copyleft and free are not synonymous. There are free software licenses with copyleft, and free software licenses without copyleft. A free license is one that respects the four essential freedoms; a copyleft license goes further and actively defends these freedoms for all users.

The aim of copyleft is to require that all copies of all versions of the program come with the four freedoms. Non-copyleft free software licenses permit distributing copies as proprietary software. In other words, a middleman can strip off the program's freedom. A modified version can be entirely proprietary. Then, when you get a copy, you don't get freedom with it.

I invented copyleft as a way to block that threat. A copyleft license says that you are free to redistribute copies of the work, with or without changes; but the whole of the version you distribute must be under the same license, and you must make the source code available. So you must respect the next person's freedom as we respected yours. In effect, copyleft translates "forbidding is forbidden" into legal language and makes it legally binding.

I applied the technique of copyleft first to software, in the GNU General Public License (GNU GPL), but it can be used for any sort of copyrightable work. Of the six Creative Commons licenses, two are free (CC-BY and CC-BY-SA); of those two, only the latter is copyleft (see below).

The word "left" in"copyleft" refers to the direction which is the opposite of"right". Some relate it to the past tense of "to leave", but that is a misunderstanding. Using copyleft on a work does not mean abandoning the copyright; on the contrary, asserting the copyright is a prerequisite for practising copyleft.

Although I make use of copyright in this paradoxical way, that does not imply I think copyright law as it exists today is ethically acceptable.

Q: Was it obvious that copyleft was going to be immediately useful outside software development?

RMS: In the 90s I concluded that educational works and reference works had to be free as well.

Ever since starting to develop GNU,in 1984, I have copylefted the manuals for GNU software packages. Free software requires free documentation. When people copy and redistribute the program, they ought to include a copy of the manual. And when they modify the program, they ought to modify the manual correspondingly. To make this legally possible, the manual itself must be free. And to ensure it remains free, it should be copylefted.

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Creative Commons is a project set up in 2001 by a group of cyberlaw experts – unrelated to copyleft, but partially inspired by it - and like copyleft, offers alternatives to copyright. CC gives authors/creators/artists a set of six copyright licenses with which they can publish works, allowing them to be shared or re-used - while specifying which rights are reserved or waived. These include combinations of clauses: whether the work cannot be re-used for commercial purposes (NC), whether it can only be re-used without alterations (ND), whether the re-used version should also have the same CC license (SA); all six specify that the author be attributed (BY). Two of the CC licenses are 'free' in the sense that free software uses the term, and just one of the six is actual copyleft. (See http://creativecommons.org)

Q: Do you think that CC achieves what it sets out to do for artists/authors wanting to share their works?


RMS: For me, the first question is what policies the copyright holders might ethically adopt, and the second question is what they choose to do. The current CC licenses broadly span the range of the conduct that I think can be legitimate at least for some kinds of works.

Q: Would you do CC any differently?

RMS: My main disagreement with CC is at the level of philosophy. Whereas the free software movement starts by saying that users deserve freedom, CC says that its goal is to help copyright holders use their power more flexibly. The idea of ethical limits on the use of this power does not appear in what CC says.

Despite that philosophical disagreement, I have no criticisms of CC's main practical activity - its licenses. I think each of CC's current licenses is ethical for some range of uses.

But they are not all acceptable for all uses, because educational and reference works ought to be free. So I wish that CC would prominently urge people to use only free licenses (which, in CC, are CC-BY or CC-SA) for works of those kinds.

Q: You said you criticised CC in the past, but the problem was resolved.

RMS: Some years ago CC introduced several licenses which did not grant the universal freedom to non-commercially share exact copies. I think such a license is restrictive to the point of being unethical, and there are no cases where it is legitimate to use. So I criticized CC for recommending them, and many others did too. After a couple of years, CC discontinued these licenses, which eliminated the problem.

Q: What about the GNU Free Document License (FDL – see www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)?

RMS: I developed the GNU Free Documentation License in the late 90s as a single copyleft license for all GNU manuals. Before that, each GNU manual used its own ad-hoc copyleft license.

There are some specific features in it that are not available in any CC license.

For instance, the GNU FDL allows an "endorsements" section that must be deleted in any modified version. This would be useful for making standards documents free (which they ought to be); the endorsements section of the official standard could say, "This is the text of the official Foobar standard", and if we make modified versions we would have to delete that.

The GNU FDL also allows secondary sections which are invariant. A secondary section talks about the author's relationship to the topic and not about the topic itself. For instance, the standard document could have a secondary section saying “If this text doesn't have an endorsements section saying it's the official standard, you know it has been modified.” Some GNU software manuals have an invariant section explaining our ideas of freedom. People can change the technical parts of our manuals, to correspond to modified versions of the programs themselves, but cannot remove the part that explains that we developed the manual for the sake of freedom.

Q: If a SchNEWS reader or anyone was self-publishing a political pamphlet, leaflet or book containing theoretical, historical or researched factual text, and they wanted it to be shareable - which license would you recommend?

RMS: For statements of political views I recommend CC-ND. I would not want to let people publish modified versions of my statements of my views.

[Note: if you are self-publishing material, be aware of the options, and what each allows or prevents. If you publish as 'copyleft': this means you are not only allowing people to re-use or copy your material - attributed to you of course - but also to change it, and re-use it for commercial purposes. As long as what ever form it is re-used in, the resulting work is also copyleft. If that's not OK for your material, then you can use CC licenses to select the clauses and provisos you want, as Richard just illustrated. FDL would be the best option for manuals, reference works or standardised documents – which again would suit certain kinds of self-published material.]

[SchNEWS and Indymedia are both copyleft, and although we would prefer that our material was not able to be re-used for commercial purposes, actually it would be difficult for a commercial journalist to legally re-use a SchNEWS article, because the resulting article would have to also be copyleft, which not many mainstream publications would allow.]

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Q: When it comes to peer-to-peer downloading, and the sharing of anything digital – including copyrighted material like music, movies or even non-free software – you argue that people should be able to share anything as they wish. But this is not simply libertarian posturing: as well as an ethical position about the right to share, another key part of your argument is the analysis of the way copyright began as a useful means to regulate publishers, but now is used by publishers to control media and audiences.

RMS: I think people should be free to non-commercially redistribute exact copies of any published work. In other words, all these works should be 'shareable'. That implies ending the War on Sharing that governments wage against their own citizens on behalf of the copyright industry. An attack on sharing is an attempt to divide people and dominate them. The Digital Economy Bill (See www.schnews.org.uk/archive/news7162.php) is an instance of the War on Sharing; its adoption reflects the fact that the UK government has declared war on its citizens on behalf of the copyright industry. (See www.guardian.co.uk/technology/blog/2010/apr/06/digital-economy-bill-richard-stallman)

For other kinds of works, those that you use to do a practical job in your life, being shareable is not enough. These works must be free, which means carrying the same four freedoms that define free software.

Works that do a practical job include software, recipes, educational works, reference works, and many other kinds of works you might think of. These must be free because unless people control the works they use to do jobs in their life, they don't control their life. (For more see this essay www.gnu.org/philosophy/freedom-or-copyright.html)

Q: In a recent talk (viewed online), using the examples of the music and book publishing industries, you're saying that it is the publishing companies, rather than the artists, who are the ones driving the tightening of control on file sharing – and have by far the most to gain from it. In a quote you say “...because record companies have campaigned to attack our freedom, they deserve to be eliminated. One way to put an end to them is to share music.”

RMS: I see nothing bad about having a company to distribute music in a useful way. In particular, since I buy CDs (it's the only way I can anonymously purchase a copy of recorded music), I am happy that someone makes them and sells them. I would not mind if we had a copyright system that required these companies to pay the musicians (since the current system fails to pay most of them).

But today's major record companies, megacorporations which have sued teenagers for hundreds of thousands of dollars for sharing (see www.fsf.org/blogs/community/war-on-sharing-riaa-lawsuits), and which continue to press for nasty laws like the UK's Digital Economy Bill, they have declared war on the public. They deserve to be wiped out.

Q: So therefore artists, authors and media makers (and users/audiences) need a new, more egalitarian system...

RMS: There are ways to support artists without restricting the freedom to share. Requesting donations and selling directly to fans already work well for many (music) artists. (See www.techdirt.com/articles/20091119/1634117011.shtml).

Tax money can also do the job well, provided we distribute the money properly and efficiently: to artists rather than executives, and in less-than-linear proportion to an artist's popularity so that we avoid using most of the subsidy to make superstars richer. See www.gnu.org/philosophy/dat.html for my1992 proposal.

There is also Global Patronage (mecenat-global.org – temporarily offline) which combines the two.

Q: Given that all digital information and media is readily reproducible, does this really mean we are into a new era where attempts to control copyrighted digital material are futile - whatever DRM measures are taken? Or are there going to be tougher laws and large-scale clampdowns?

RMS: These two alternatives are not alternatives: it is possible for both of them to occur simultaneously. But it's useless to ask me what WILL happen. I can't see the future, because it depends on you.

What I can see is that our enemies, the politicians that work for the empire of the megacorporations, are already trying to impose more vicious laws. For instance, there is ACTA, the proposed Anti-Citizen Tyranny Agreement. (They don't call it that; they use a propaganda name which calls sharing"counterfeiting".) It is an excuse to impose vicious copyright enforcement on Europe, the US, and several other countries. (see www.fsf.org/campaigns/acta, www.eff.org/issues/acta)

We need to fight for the freedom to share, because the copyright megacorporations that benefit from dividing people will never voluntarily cede their power. "Power concedes nothing without a demand."

In particular, we must demand the freedom to copy and redistribute copies of any published work. The most basic way to fight for this freedom is in your own choices. Never buy any product with DRM unless you personally have access to the means to break the DRM. Those products are designed to attack your freedom. Their success is predicated on people's willingness to throw away their freedom for some sort of convenience or fun. So don't be willing!

Of course, we can achieve more by organizing. Please visit our campaign against DRM, in www.DefectiveByDesign.org and participate in our protests.

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Q: One SchNEWS story which you picked up on at the time was about the shocking sweatshops in China which produce most of the world's phones, music players, laptops and PC hardware – where workers do over 60 hour weeks and are paid under $50 a month (See www.schnews.org.uk/archive/news582.htm).

RMS: I think it is an injustice that workers are paid so badly, and I blame it on the Free Exploitation Treaties that sell-out governments have imposed on most of the world. The purpose of these treaties is to cut wages and turn democracy into a sham.

Q: What can an ethical computer user do in response to this?

RMS: When new Free Exploitation Treaties are proposed, we can campaign against them. I have done that a few times in the past decade. But I don't know anything effective we can do as computer users. I don't know how to move computer production out of the sweatshops.

Q: GNU/Linux is useful for recycling and re-using hardware - to keep consumption of new hardware down - as it's possible to tailor versions for older, lower-spec computers.

RMS: Free software mostly eliminates the business-driven cycle that pushes users into software upgrades that require ever-more-powerful hardware. To some extent this can reduce the rate at which users replace their computers. Free software often has this advantage, but it's not the primary issue for us. I'd buy a new computer rather than use one that requires me to live under someone's thumb.

Q: I wonder if there'll ever be hardware that's on some form of GPL...

RMS: When we can build our own hardware from plans, then the free software issue of freedom will apply to hardware too. Then we will need to insist on free plans for our physical objects. Technology is slowly moving in that direction, but it isn't very close yet.

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Q: In 2008 in SchNEWS we covered the story of the Kokopelli seed library in France, which collects and sells seeds of various rare and heritage plant species, a practice which is becoming illegal due to government restrictions (See www.schnews.org.uk/archive/news622.htm). The article drew the analogy that seeds are the software of life – that there is strength in diversity - and that they must be kept outside the clutches of state or private ownership. You emailed us at the time. What connections did you make between software and genetics?

RMS: Genetics and software development, as engineering, are as different as could be. In software, designers combine tremendous numbers of well-defined simple elements that act directly to produce the desired result. Genetic engineering involves working with complex elements that were never designed, and whose effects are only partially understood.

However, there is a close similarity between redistributing and changing free software, on the one hand, and the traditional agricultural practice of saving and breeding seeds and animals, on the other. So I believe that farmers' freedom to do this must be respected. Laws that create monopolies that stop farmers from saving and redistributing seeds are unjust and morally invalid.

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Q: It looks to me that you (and the free software movement) operate in the global computer industry/community as a kind of conscience – but that you are up against it! From what I've seen, computer people are quite an apolitical lot, as though their heads are lost in lines of code. So on one hand there's the corporate suits and company lackeys, on the other there's a bunch of geeks who seem to be more interested in the Clone Wars than the Iraq War..! Is this how the computer industry looks to you – or do you see the free software ethic rubbing off onto individuals and organisations?

RMS: Most geeks are as you say, but there is a substantial fraction which do care about their freedom. Many of those lean towards right-wing anarchism and laissez-faire, which I don't sympathize with in general, but they are welcome in the free software movement anyway.

But don't forget the non-geeks who care about freedom. President Correa is not a programmer, but he understands the political issues of free software.

Q: Sometimes I wonder if non-geeks understand the issues at stake better than those immersed in the world of computing...

RMS: In both groups there are some who care about freedom and some who only think short term.

Q: Right-wing anarchists – wow!– I've never met one...

RMS: Right-wing anarchists want as little government as possible. They are split between those who have been gulled [duped] by the term "intellectual property", and regard all the disparate laws that term refers to (copyright, patent, trademark, controlled geographical denominations, and more) as sacred because they are "property"; and those who condemn these laws as infringements of their sacred right to their physical property. I don't agree with their premise that property is sacred. I regard property as a system we maintain because often it is good for everyone, but which can get out of hand and do harm.

Q: Does the old hacker spirit live on?

RMS: Not exactly as it was in my old community in the 70s, but it does more or less. However, I'm the wrong person to ask if you want to know what young people do.

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Q: Back to the point about people using GNU/Linux because it sticks two fingers up to Microsoft – which – alone - is certainly a big attraction for many. But strangely the same people don't always offer an obscene hand gesture in the direction of Apple. I look at Microsoft as the Republican Party and Apple as the Democrats: One is predominantly in control – ruthlessly putting business interests first – while the other has a veneer of being more er 'humanist', but put it in charge and it's as bad as the other guys. Would you agree with this analogy? Are Apple as bad as MS?

RMS: The analogy is imperfect: the Democratic Party is still a little less right-wing than the Republican Party, but Apple is just as nasty as Microsoft. Apple presents itself as "cool", whereas Microsoft presents itself as "what everybody does", but those are just marketing. Both put malicious back-doors and digital handcuffs in their products; they can do so because their software is proprietary.

Our campaign against DRM has picketed Apple over the i-Groan [i-phone], and we protested at the launch f the iBad [i-pad] in January 2010. (Apple's i-pad is heavily restrictive as far as what applications or media formats can run on it. See www.fsf.org/news/ibad_launch)

Q: How far is GNU/Linux from pushing aside the big proprietary software platforms to become ubiquitous?

RMS: With 98% of users still running Windows or MacOS, we are not close to winning. We do keep advancing;at the same time, new problems and threats keep appearing. Thus, even though in absolute terms we are far beyond where we were five or ten years ago, we are not yet on the verge of victory.

This use of the term "ubiquitous" leads towards a basic error: equating 'what most everyone does' with the whole of the outcome. That in effect values any minority as nothing. The readers of SchNEWS are a minority of the world, but their existence is a good thing nonetheless.

Q: Even if GNU/Linux became dominant on desktop computers and devices like phones, the question is whether it can achieve this without non-free code becoming integral to it. Do you worry that we'll end up with something like Mac OsX where free FreeBSD underpinnings are layered with proprietary software, effectively putting the whole operating system back in the hands of a corporation, practically nullifying the fact that it's based on free software?

RMS: I am very concerned about this. The popularity of GNU/Linux (under whatever name) is not an end in itself. GNU is a means to an end, and that end is freedom. So if GNU/Linux becomes popular - but without giving us freedom - that won't be success, that'll be an ironic kind of failure.

The only long-term way I can see to prevent that is to teach users to demand freedom, and recognize nonfree software as an attack against them. So that's what I do.

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Q: On your own website - www.stallman.org - in 'political notes' you run a near-daily news service - with continual bulletins on a wide range of issues including the Israeli occupation and plight of the Palestinians, the war in Afghanistan, Iraq, other consequences of the 'War of Terror', plus issues of surveillance, civil liberties, censorship, anti-imperial struggles and more. How would you describe your broader political position?

RMS: I am what we call a "liberal"in the US. That means I stand for human rights, democracy, and reducing poverty. Applying these ideas to software led me to the ideas of the free software movement. However, not all the supporters of the free software movement agree with me on those broader issues.

Q: What links do you make between software/digital freedom and other freedom, libertarian and anti-imperial/oppression struggles?

RMS: Proprietary software in most cases is the product of a powerful corporation. It tends to concentrate wealth, and it cements the corporation's power over the users. Thus, the free software movement turns out to be an essential part of the broader movement to overthrow the empire of the megacorporations.

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Information For Hacktion

What can I do?


* Use free software. Download a version of GNU/Linux and start using it. See www.schnews.org.uk/diyguide/howto-gnu-linux.htm

* Contribute to free software. To help improve free software, people need to use it and submit feedback or bug reports on relevant forums. Or if you're a programmer, actually contribute code.

* Free software campaigning. Hand out disks, talk to people, and help them install free software. Find groups in your area, or get involved in the campaigns of the FSF – see www.fsf.org/campaigns and www.gnu.org/help

* Keep downloading. Protest against ACTA, and keep seeding bit-torrents! Remember – if you buy a major-label track from i-Tunes (for typically around £1), the artist may get less that $0.045 – so corporations are getting the rest. Sod 'em, just get the song for free somewhere else – and offer to pay your £1 directly to the artist if they need it.

* Copyleft the world. Don't 'copyright' your work, copyleft, FDL or CC it. Get involved in projects which are about making creative works shareable, or preserving reference/educational material as public information.

* Don't buy an i-Anything. In fact try to buy as little computer or digital gear as possible, ever – that shiny new device was made by a Chinese worker in slave-conditions.
Further reading

* www.gnu.org/philosophy contains a wide range of articles on much of what's been discussed here plus more, written by RMS and others.

* 'Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman' – a book available gratis on pdf at www.gnu.org/philosophy/fsfs/rms-essays.pdf or buy a paper copy for $25 see http://shop.fsf.org/product/free-software-free-society (2nd edition out mid-2010 for $30)

-----------------------------------------------------

Glossary

* GNU/Linux

It is a full operating system with applications – eg – web browser, office, media players etc. To find out all about using it see www.schnews.org.uk/diyguide/howto-gnu-linux.htm But as RMS points out, the most popular version (distro) of it – Ubuntu – contain some nonfree software, and recommends www.gnu.org/distros for a list of 100% free GNU/Linux distros.

* DRM - Digital Restrictions Management (or according to the copyright industry, Digital Rights Management)
A euphemism used by computer corporations to control the use of programs and file-types. Examples include measures to stop a media file or disk being copied or used by certain software, or limiting what software a device (such as an iphone) can run. Nobody does more of this than Microsoft and Apple, and Apple's ipad and iphone push DRM restrictions to a new level. See www.defectivebydesign.org

* Hackers
Hackers are a 'subculture' of programmers which emerged in the late 1960s, mostly in US campuses. These were the original geeks, enjoying a 'playful cleverness' with computers and networks. A lot of what became the internet and modern networked computing was due to their work; even ways of interacting online (netiquette) and net jargon go back to the hackers. These are not to be confused with people who break security – they are called 'crackers'.

 
 

The following comments have been left on this story by other SchNEWS readers...

Added on 15th August 2011 at 03:53 by Shayne O

@Steve, Have a look at Ubuntu. Its worked perfectly on *everything* I've tried it on, although sometimes you might have to have bit of a punchup with it over graphic card drivers (But never fear, its actually easier than wrestling with windows drivers, since it already comes with it, and it autoconfigures).

Plus Ubuntu doesn't come with any parts that are non-free OR open source (Theres a difference, mostly political).

SchNEWS, I feel you re the "right wing anarchist" thing. I agree, theres no such thing. I'm tempted to write Mr Stallman a note outlining the history of the word Anarchist, and why ancaps are not anarchists, but meh.. He's a busy man.


Added on 29th August 2010 at 20:07 by Steve Wallis

I've just posted this article on my Facebook "wall" (I'm at http://www.facebook.com/socialiststeve):


Extremely interesting interview with GNU/Linux and Free Software Foundation (copyleft) founder Richard Stallman. I was not aware that Micro$oft puts a back door into its operating system enabling the police to put a memory stick in a USB port and read encrypted files, but did know that Micro$oft can modify your operating system remotely. Fortunately I don't have any particularly sensitive information to read, since I use Windows XP and Windows 7.

I was a great fan of GNU (GNU's not Unix) in its early days - using its text editor Emacs a lot in the days before WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) word processors. I insisted on continuing to use the Unix operating system when I moved from Manchester University (where I got my BSc and PhD) to Manchester Metropolitan University (where I was the main designer and sole developer of an artificial intelligence/simulation language SDML, which stands for "Strictly Declarative Modelling Language", with details at http://www.socialiststeve.me.uk/sdml.htm) - after trying out Windows 3.1 at first and finding it far too restrictive and primitive.

I knew quite a lot of the commands in Unix and was system administrator at the MMU, but I got fed up with installing the latest patches after a while (which required quite a lot of effort). The need to learn lots of commands again when I'm used to doing everything with windows and menus in Micro$oft software is the main thing that has put me off switching to Linux (though based on Unix and therefore with a lot of commands the same). I hated the terrible documentation in Windows 98, with a lot of facilities not found when you search for them in the help facility, but XP was a big improvement (and Windows 7 has some new facilities that make it even easier to use).

Part of the problem with switching to Linux is things not working and not knowing what to do about it. One of the other researchers at MMU tried installing Linux on a PC and it wouldn't install for some reason, and he had to give up. I bought some cheap Linux discs (I think it was in the days of floppies rather than CDs) on ebay and wasn't given enough of them according to the instructions - and looking at the long list of things to do put me off. As Richard says in the interview, documentation as well as software needs to be free (copyleft not copyright), and you obviously need adequate documentation that explains things well in an easy to follow manner.

In those days there were lots of different versions of Linux and some companies appeared to be making a lot of money out of their particular extensions, which removes a lot of the point of switching to it! Also, how do we know that those particular extensions actually work - I certainly like the idea of open source code but I didn't have (and still don't have) the time to wade through reams of code analysing and understanding it! If somebody can comment on whether this flaw has now been resolved and what version(s) can genuinely be obtained for free, that'd be very good.

I'm actually using a netbook (small laptop) which had Linux installed when I bought it. The problem was it was such a massively cut down version of Linux that you could hardly do anything with it! That sort of thing gives Linux a bad name, and seeing that I already had unopened Windows XP CDs, I decided to install them. There seemed to be a facility to install both operating systems at the same time, which I would have liked so I could choose which I wanted to use on start-up, but it didn't work so I had to completely overwrite Linux with Windows.

The other problem with switching to Linux is the software. I'm used to Micro$oft software so having to learn new user interfaces would be a real pain - with no way of knowing what software is actually good and what has lots of bugs in it. As with Linux, it's good for it to be open source but that only helps if you've got a good community of programmers making the software reasonably bug-free with lots of facilities, since I'm not somebody keen on debugging other people's code (especially since I'm an expert Smalltalk programmer and hate C++ and Java, being very hard to read with lots of symbols, which most code is written in nowadays). Can someone please say where on the web good advice on Linux software can be found?

Much as I hate paying extortionate sums of money to Micro$oft (plus even more to the developers of web authoring software I was using until my laptop with it on was stolen - I now write directly in HTML with free software, Alleycode, but I'm not good enough at it to do anything too pretty), I've been a bit worried about corporations suing me as a test case, perhaps forcing me to take my websites down. I know the chances are slim, but they could be swayed by the motive of silencing an important revolutionary!


Added on 23rd August 2010 at 22:29 by Kaze no Kae

One other benefit of the free software movement is that the very fact of increasing the proportion of purposes that can be fulfilled reasonably easily and risk-free without spending money undermines the capitalist system directly


Added on 25th June 2010 at 18:09 by Chris

God is a hacker!


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