Richard Stallman is the founder of the GNU project and the Free Software Foundation. Builder AU recently caught up with RMS about his achievements, the Free Software movement and his concerns with the US-Australian Free Trade Agreement.

Builder AU: For readers not aware of the GNU operating system or Free Software, can you give them a brief insight into your work?

Richard Stallman: The central idea of the Free Software Movement is that users should have the freedom to share and change the software they use. Free software is software that respects the user’s freedom. It’s wrong to take this freedom away from other people, wrong to tempt users into being helpless and divided. All software should be free, so that all computer users have freedom.

When I reached these conclusions, around 1983, the actual situation was just the opposite. All the operating systems for modern computers were proprietary: you had to sign a nondisclosure agreement, a promise not to share with your community, just to get the binaries, and ordinary people could not get the source code at all. The first step in becoming a computer user was to betray the whole world.

Looking at the bleak prospect of life under that antisocial system, I said no. I could have escaped from it by not using computers, but I wanted to fight back, not just run away. So I decided to develop a free software operating system if it was the last thing I did. I decided to make it a Unix-like operating system, for technical reasons, and named it GNU. GNU is a recursive acronym (programmers’ humour) that stands for GNU’s Not Unix. Since I began GNU development, on 5 Jan 1984, thousands of developers have contributed to GNU.

During the subsequent years we developed many system components, and two licences, the GNU GPL and the GNU Lesser GPL. In 1991, GNU was nearly complete, lacking only a kernel. The kernel Linux, written by Linus Torvalds in 1991, became free software in 1992 when Torvalds adopted the GNU GPL as the license for it. At that point, people combined GNU and Linux, producing a complete runnable free operating system, the GNU/Linux system. (The whole system is often called “Linux”, but that’s a confusion; Linux is the kernel only.)

If you would like to help the GNU Project by programming, please visit and look at the task list. If you’d like to join the Free Software Foundation, visit You can also help by organising a free software user group, or an activist organisation to promote free software, in your area.

You have been attributed for starting quite a few notable and important initiatives in your career. What are you currently focused on?

My work, in general, is to manage the FSF and spread the philosophy of free software and help lead the Free Software Movement. This year, one of my priorities is the fight against software patents in the European Union. I’m not the leader of that campaign, but I am trying to help by giving many speeches throughout Europe on this issue.

What is the update on HURD?

The GNU HURD is a “herd” of GNU server programs that run on top of a microkernel. Together, the HURD and the microkernel are the kernel of GNU, the part that corresponds to the kernel of Unix.

The HURD is not ready for production use; it is not reliable enough. About a year ago, the HURD developers decided they need to switch from the Mach microkernel to another microkernel, L4. That is a big job, and is still ongoing.

At present, the practical way to use the GNU system is with Linux as the kernel.

What first attracted you to the world of programming and computers?

I found the idea of computers fascinating from the first moment I heard about them. But it was not until age 10 or so, in summer camp, that I first came across the manual for a programming language. No computer was available, and I had no jobs to do with one if I had had one, but I felt compelled to write programs anyway. I wrote them on paper.

You clearly point out in many interviews and articles you write that you don’t associate free software with the open source movement. Why is that?

The Free Software Movement holds that software users morally deserve the freedom to run, study, change, and redistribute the software they use. The term “open source” was coined, in 1998, to encourage free and not-quite-free software while leading attention away from the ethical foundations of free software. The rhetoric of “open source” presents the issue solely as a matter of practical convenience, not as a matter of freedom and cooperation. It does not say software *should* be open source, it just recommends a certain “development model” saying it usually leads to “better” software.

Open source proponents and the BSA disagree about how to produce “better” software, but they agree about what “better” means: powerful, reliable, convenient, and cheap. In the Free Software Movement, we have different basic values: we want to live in freedom in a community. Better software is software that we are free to share and change.

If a person persuaded of open source ideas comes across a powerful, reliable, non-free program, she may think it admirable. “I’m surprised they were able to do this without open source,” she might say, “But I can’t deny that it works well.” When a free software advocate looks at the same thing, she will see a nasty, unethical license. “I don’t care how ‘powerful’ it is, if it takes away my freedom,” she will say. “Let’s start writing the free replacement now!”

How successful do you think you have been in your campaign for freedom from proprietary software licence?

We have not liberated all of Cyberspace yet, and we have a long way yet to go, but we’ve made a good start.

What has been the biggest inhibitor?

The biggest obstacle is the ideological pressure for people to judge important issues in terms of short-term practical values alone. If you make decisions about software — or anything — based solely on short-term cost and benefit, someone with a longer view can easily manoeuver you into a trap from which it is hard to escape.

Who else do you look at in the software development world as your peers? Who do you look up to?

The people I look up to are not programmers; they are people who have campaigned steadfastly for freedom. I admire Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Ralph Nader, and Dennis Kucinich. I admire other people who are less well known, when I find out about them; people like Albert Langer, who was imprisoned for telling Australians, “Tweedledum and Tweedledee–Vote 1, 2, 3, 3.” His point was that people should refuse to state a preference between the two major parties.

What is your current Operating system set up for day to day computer use at the moment?

I use the GNU operating system, with Linux as the kernel.

Where does the future for RMS, the free software movement and the GNU project lie ?

I can’t tell you what the future will bring, because it depends on you. If you help defend freedom, it may endure, for you and for others. If you leave it to others to defend freedom, we all may lose it.

Consider Australia, for instance. On a previous visit, I saw a copy of the Magna Carta enshrined in Canberra. I’m sure it is still there, a symbol of freedom, even though the rights it established have been largely abolished. The Australian government can now detain you just because of who you have met, and imprison you just for not answering questions. The Attorney General, with the consent of a few other officials, could declare ZDnet a “terrorist organization” tomorrow, without a trial, and you would have no recourse. They can ban a club, a union, even a political party. If you are connected with the banned organisation, you are a criminal, guilty by association. It is unnecessary to prove you actually tried to hurt anyone.

These laws are supposed to protect you from “terrorists”, but they are more dangerous than terrorists. Governments are more powerful and can do more harm.

What is your fascination with Australian Parrots?

Many of them are beautiful, and pet parrots are sometimes very friendly in a clownish and uneffusive way. I especially enjoy it when a parrot likes my recorder playing. Once a budgie was so delighted that it ran up and down the recorder. It wasn’t easy to keep playing during that!

Outside the GNU project, what are some of the more interesting free software projects you are attracted to right now?

There is so much free software now that I mostly don’t try to keep track of it. There are over 3000 packages listed in the Free Software Directory. I’m sure I’ve never heard of most of them personally.

However, I think that development of a free BIOS is particularly important. The main obstacle is that computer manufacturers have not released all the information necessary to do the work. We are looking for companies willing to cooperate with the community in this way.

Other than software licenses, patents, copyright, copyleft, GNU and Free software, what do you think are some of the technology challenges developers face in 2004?

The worst challenge is laws that explicitly ban free software for certain jobs are starting to proliferate. The US is considering a ban on free software to receive digital TV signals. It already has a law that has been interpreted as banning free software to play a DVD. The proposed US-Australia “Free Trade” Agreement would impose some of these prohibitions on Australia.

The Southern Ocean has the biggest waves because they roll on and on around Antarctica without ever stopping. Today’s global megacorporations roll on and on around the world without stopping, so they can often swamp democratic resistance to their demands. This situation did not arise by chance; it was constructed through international institutions and through “free trade” treaties which really are designed to give business more power.

The duty of the world’s governments is to restore democracy. Creating obstacles for the megacorporations, breakwaters so to speak, will make them smaller, weaker, and easier to keep in their place in the future. Instead of signing this treaty, Australia should withdraw from the WTO, so Australians can decide their own laws once again.

Can you sing the free software song in Sydney for us at the Builder Conference in October? 😉

I will do it if people are sure they don’t mind.

Richard Stallman will be appearing as a keynote speaker at the inaugural Builder Conference, to be held in Sydney from October 5 of this year. For more information, click here.