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Feature: Free Software

Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

By Bruce Byfield on September 26, 2008 (5:00:00 PM)

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On September 27, 1983, Richard M. Stallman announced his intention to found the GNU project in order to build a free operating system. Now, 25 years later, the Free Software Foundation is marking the anniversary of the announcement with a month-long celebration. Looking back at the last quarter century, Stallman expresses some guarded satisfaction with the growth of the free software movement, but also some bemusement about how it has grown more complex as it has faced new challenges from within and without, and an awareness of how far it still has to go to reach its goals.

As Stallman remembers events, the GNU project started small, with "something like three, maybe four" developers besides himself. "But, once we started to release programs that people could use, that attracted more developers."

Stallman has written and discussed many times how he started the GNU project out of his growing concern over the rise of proprietary software, starting with a compiler and moving on to GNU Emacs, the program with which he is most closely associated. Originally, he says, "Our emphasis was on recruiting people to write free software. We didn't even have the core of a system, so the challenge was to write that. But it was written in the absence of any attempt to stop us. It was simply a task of programming."

Still, from the start, the project had to look beyond mere development if it were to accomplish its goals. Its first programs were released under what Stallman calls "an early version of a copyleft license," and in 1989, he produced the first version of the GNU General Public License, which was followed by the second in 1992.

Asked if he found the growing need to consider licensing and legal issues a difficult shift in his thinking, Stallman is matter-of-fact. "It just had to be done. It was just so clear that I had to do this that I did it. I'm not going to claim that I did the best imaginable job of it, but it was no problem at all."

Much of the growing concern over legal matters was a result of new obstacles to free software, such as the efforts to copyright interfaces that was at the heart of the famous Lotus vs. Borland case and the rise of software patents in the mid-1990s.

Another issue was what Stallman calls "secret hardware" -- hardware that uses proprietary drivers and BIOSes. "In the 1980s, it never occurred to me that hardware would be sold by companies that would refuse to tell us how to use it. I was really surprised when I found out about that in the 1990s. In the 1980s, it was still normal practice to document everything in the hardware."

More recently, issues such as proprietary formats and so-called digital rights management (which Stallman refers to as digital restrictions management) have become threats to free software. "It seems that every time that we make progress in some areas, a new kind of obstacle arises or a new social phenomenon systematically builds up opposition to free software," Stallman says ruefully.

In facing these challenges, Stallman suggests, the free software movement has not so much shifted its philosophical and political opinions or its tactics, so much as clarified them. For example, Stallman admits that "It took some years before I saw the need to carefully and firmly distinguish between free as in price and free as in freedom. Although, when I look at the specific decisions I made back then, I was always making them in terms of that distinction, but I didn't have the distinction explicit. I had somewhere inside me the right idea, and was drawing conclusions from it, but I hadn't learned to express it in a sharp and clear way."

Another issue that arose in the 1990s, he says, was that "People started asking me whether these ideas applied to anything other than software. So, I thought and I concluded that other practical works that serve factual purposes in life ought to be free, such as educational and reference works." Artistic works may not be free, in Stallman's thinking, although he believes that, at a minimum, "you must be free to non-commercially redistribute exact copies."

These are all large issues, and Stallman's voice sounds faintly surprised as he looks back at the history of GNU. "It looks like I did a whole lot of fairly effective things back then," he says. "But, in a sense, things have got harder since then. Back then, all we had to do was write programs."

The state of free software today

In Stallman's estimation, free software has reached the state where it is starting to be considered a serious alternative. Unfortunately, he says, people "still consider proprietary software as an alternative, too. In fact, most of them still use that. Even most users of the GNU + Linux system still use proprietary programs, because there are free software developers who don't care about the ethical ideals of free software. Probably they describe themselves as open source supporters, and they let in non-free software. They don't see it as unacceptable. They see it purely as a matter of what is convenient."

For example, he cites the existence of drivers in the Linux kernel that require proprietary firmware. "For a long time, I just went on thinking that, even though Torvalds doesn't agree with the free software movement, at least we have a free kernel. But then I found that proprietary firmware was being put into the source code of Linux. So, in fact, Linux as released by Torvalds is not free software."

Such circumstances mean that the free software movement is "still quite a distance from the total liberation of cyberspace. We should have free software to do any job that anyone has to do," Stallman says. "If the question is, what would be complete achievement of our goals, well, this is it: complete free software and free documentation in a world where the writing of proprietary software no longer seems reasonable or plausible, and nobody would be foolish enough to use it if it existed."

New challenges

Stallman declines to speculate on what will happen in the future, except to say that he expects new challenges will continue to arise. "Microsoft is still quite wealthy and powerful, and still using its money to create new obstacles for us. At the same time, we face the new problems of non-free software in Web applications -- both with proprietary software installed via browsers, and with Web servers themselves."

Another major concern is mobile devices. "This is an interesting example of how new problems can arise with new technology," Stallman says. "Ten years ago, I looked at cell phones, and there was no issue of free or proprietary software, because no one could install software in cell phones. But I looked at it, and said that this was Big Brother's dream: Wherever you go, they know where you are.

"Then I found out that, once they became programmable, that it was possible to turn them on remotely to listen to people. But, in the last few years, cell phones have become more powerful and turned into computers on which people can install software, so, as a result, the free software issue is relevant to them, also. And, as it happens, addressing that issue helps us address surveillance and tracking as well. If you have free software, then the phone is controlled by users, and it is possible to tell it not to send any remote signals. Also, there's at least a good chance that it will have security and won't let someone turn it on remotely."

Such issues help to explain why, in the last few years, the free software movement has become increasingly activist and attempted to make common cause with other social activists. These days, "we are not needed so much for simple free software development, because so many other people on doing. On the other hand, we saw threats like digital restrictions management that look like they would basically forbid free software, and we couldn't fight digital restrictions management just by programming."

Unfortunately, Stallman notes, "People who support human rights or a better society for most people don't realize that there's even an issue of supporting free software. And this is partly because open source has been so successful in hiding our existence. In the US, the propaganda that denies any solution to problems other than business solutions is very strong. It only thinks in terms of profit, and takes for granted that everything must yield to that."

In fact, Stallman's main criticism of the first 25 years of free software seems to be that the emphasis on user freedom was not more strongly emphasized from the first. "In the '90s, writing free software took off," he says, "but usually not accompanied by concern for the freedom that free software can give you. So now, our community is weak and vulnerable in various ways, because of lack of attention to this.

"That's why I decided that the most important thing we could do is call attention to this issue of user freedoms, and thus build up a large group of people determined to defend freedom. People sometimes warn me that I'm going to be preaching to the choir, quote-unquote, but actually most of our choir has never even heard of the ideas of the movement. So it's very useful to speak to people who are involved in the free software movement in some way, but who often don't realize that there is any idea in it beyond the idea of open source."

Clearly, Stallman believes that free software still has a long way to go. Yet, in talking about the last 25 years, he firmly denies being discouraged by the gap between reality and his goals. In fact, he says that, "in the rest of life, things are totally discouraging. The US basically seems to have made China its model, and practices every kind of disgusting thing you can imagine. It's a strange thing, but at least in the area of free software, we're making progress, whereas in all other areas of human rights, the world is getting worse. When I started it, I didn't think that things would be getting worse for human rights in general except in the field of software. So it's ironic and surprising that we're making progress in software, while the framework of other human rights is collapsing around us into fascism."

Bruce Byfield is a computer journalist who writes regularly for Linux.com.

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Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 128.193.169.54] on September 26, 2008 06:21 PM
Total liberation in cyberspace - that requires responsibility, keeping of records and some kind of oversight. Just look at what is happening with all those *buntus - slap together a few apps, a package manager and desktop themes, and release it as a new 'distro'. Then cyberspace gets cluttered with outdated information about all those 'new distros', and everybody has to wade through that mess to find information they need. It's sad, but this is an example of when individual freedom actually should be sacrificed for the good of the society. Information on half-baked ideas does not scale well.

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Re: Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 65.244.148.222] on September 26, 2008 08:36 PM
What's wrong with choice? Are you trying to say you would rather have only one option so that making your decision on which distro to use would be easier? I have no problem sifting through the "mess". Do you even use Linux? If you want all of your decisions made for you than stick with Windows.

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Re(1): Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.67.168.28] on September 26, 2008 09:01 PM
I don't quite understand what this 'mess' is. Anyone new to linux wouldn't be trying to make a decision between medibuntu, xubuntu or kubuntu. No, they would simply take the distro promoted the most, and that's Ubuntu. People don't review smaller variants between larger players; no one makes a comparison between bluebuntu and fedora. that's because it's not even a question worth considering. You go with the distribution promoted the most. that distribution is ubuntu.

It's frustrating to see someone like the original poster who goes through the trouble of finding every possible distro fork and then deciding it's a mess. If you cared about having a choice, then you would be glad to have so many options. But clearly you are not, so i wonder then why did you go through all the trouble of looking for all the forks if you weren't looking for anything in particular? If having an options is so messy to you, why bother looking for options in the first place?

you should respect the fact that what forked from debian, was ubuntu and what forked from ubuntu, is linux mint. and those distributions are proper in their own right. If this concept is too much for you to fathom... then maybe you prefer being TOLD what computer to use, how it should look like, and how to use it; in other words, a mac.

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DRM: What do YOU call it?

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 82.192.250.149] on September 26, 2008 09:33 PM
"digital rights management (which Stallman refers to as digital restrictions management)"

That's a strange sneer to appear on Linux.com. What is DRM for? To restrict what you can do with your computer. To restrict you to what the vendor wants to let you do.

A lot of people call it "digital restrictions management", not because Stallman calls it that, but because that's what it is. I call it digital restrictions management because that's what it is. What do you call it, Bruce?

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Re: DRM: What do YOU call it?

Posted by: nanday on September 27, 2008 03:57 AM
So far as I can see, the only one who is doing the sneering is you. Do you really imagine that I would choose to interview Stallman - and one in which I kept my own interventions to a minimum -- if I had any trouble with his views?

Stallman's term is undoubtedly more accurate, but, the fact remains that not everyone, even on Linux.com, will be familiar with it. So I provide both, hoping that by using the most generally accepted phrase, people will know what I'm talking about, and that by using Stallman's that people will get his point instead of puzzling over it.

That's it. No hidden attacks, just an attempt at clarity. Sorry to disappoint to you.

- Bruce Byfield ("nanday")

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Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 213.139.166.137] on September 26, 2008 09:57 PM
What is so wrong with commercial software? Linux and open source movement needs commercial software to succeed beyond hacker community, Simply there needs to be profits that companies are interested. Iam strongly against software patents, but if someone has developed a great application that helps someone else to make profits, he should be able to sell it for some money. Developers need a living too, it just has to be fair.

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Re: Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: PerlCoder on September 26, 2008 11:32 PM
"Commercial" software isn't bad, persay. It's "proprietary" software that FOSS advocates have a problem with. In other words, people can, and should, use software for money-making purposes. They just shouldn't be able to restrict the freedom of others to distribute that software once its been made available, nor restrict the freedom of others to modify the code or build on it.

Software code is not a tangible piece of property like a car that can only be owned by one person. Software is a form of knowledge -- a set of ideas -- (like Einstein's theory of relativity) that can be easily shared by a million people without any additional cost to the developer. Just because one person or company developed a software idea, does that mean everyone else in the world should be obliged to obey any restrictions that the original developer imagines about how, when, and where that idea can be used? Or that every person and company that every benefits from a software idea should be obliged to pay a certain fee to the original developer?

Also, IMHO, developers could make a lot of money programming in a pure open-source environment. I just think that the business model would change a little. But then, I'm a programmer, not a business man. :)

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Re(1): Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 74.67.59.0] on September 27, 2008 10:24 PM
i really have to disagree. no disrespect here. no flaming. i am a big supporter of open source software. i am a user of it and occasional contibuting entity. i think the bottom line is that open or closed should be a choice. code is not tangible. then again, neither is a manuscript. i oppose software patents entirely. i think a developer should release their code or not as a matter of whim. sometimes an idea is just too good to give away. sometimes an idea is too good to keep hidden. it really should be a choice. i think the thing we have to watch out for are closed platforms, places where that freedom is removed. much love for linux, but most free code [in any sense] in the world runs on ms platforms. they have a closed source but largely open platform.

you are right that software can be shared, like any information, with no additional cost to the developer. the thing people do not seem to consider is recouping that initial cost. i am not saying it is impossible, but some groups cannot take that risk. i like id software's model: they release code as they replace it. i think most everyone should do it.

you asked if we should be obliged to follow the developer's perrogative on where and when and how ideas are used? no, we should follow their opinion on where the fruit of their labor is used. i say this as one who has rewritten or entirely passed on ideas where the developer and i disagreed on how i should use the product.

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Re: Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 78.86.139.134] on September 27, 2008 07:07 PM
Developers can certainly make a living with Free Software, and there are a great many who do. The "problem" is that Free Software development and payment is different to a lot of proprietary development and payment. In a proprietary business a programmer will get paid to work on a piece of software, which loses money for the company. When the software gets to a state that is release-worthy the company releases it for payment only and hopes that its investment pays off so the sales bring in more than was spent on the programmer's salary.

In a Free Software business (Collabora, Fluendo, RedHat, Canonical, etc.) programmers get paid to create new software and expand and stabilise the features of existing software so that whoever is paying them ends up with a good piece of Free Software which they can use for whatever purpose (eg. a Web server). There might not be huge fortunes to be made for programmers with this style of development and payment, but their business is much more stable and consistent (a small proprietary company can go bankrupt if their software doesn't make enough money to offset the massive payments they used to make it). Since the payment was made to MAKE the software/feature, once it has been made there is no more cost involved to share it (distribution via the Web is cheap), thus the sharing and no-cost nature of Free Software doesn't impact the business since they don't work in terms of sales.

An advantage to the non-programmer with Free Software companies is that good, useful stuff gets made. If something is desired enough to be payed for then programmers will be able to get paid for making it, if something is cool but not particularly profitable then some people might make it in their spare time as volunteers. If something is not desired enough to pay for and not really wanted enough to volunteer for (like all of those thousands of games which are exactly the same but have a different player character), then they won't get made. HUGE amounts of effort are wasted making throw-away programs in the hope that it makes slightly more than it costs, this effort could be diverted to businesses making new things which people and businesses want (since all of the current stuff would be Free Software, and thus no-cost due to the tiny cost of distribution).

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Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on September 27, 2008 02:49 PM
Unfortunately, Stallman notes, "People who support human rights or a better society for most people don't realize that there's even an issue of supporting free software. And this is partly because open source has been so successful in hiding our existence. In the US, the propaganda that denies any solution to problems other than business solutions is very strong. It only thinks in terms of profit, and takes for granted that everything must yield to that."

I struggle with this all the time. People who are interested in social issues tend not to even understand software enough to grasp the concept of open source and free software as in freedom. It is hard even to explain to them the concept of free and open file formats. Even in the government they don't seem to think anything is wrong with distributing documents solely in Microsoft Office formats and are shocked when you say you don't have Microsoft Office. But they seem to understand accessibility in terms of physical disabilities. I even get greater shock when I explain I am producing books that I give away for free and do that with free software. They can't understand why I don't want to make money off of them. If they know a little about computers they always say, what happens when they stop supporting it as if free/open source software is the same as freeware. They seem surprised when I say I create and view PDFs without any Adobe software. When I say I am a designer, they just assume I use Dreamweaver and Photoshop. I explain to them that for my uses, they don't add any value and cost hundreds of dollars a piece. My mom still confuses Windows, Word, and Works. My mom is still looking for a program that can open *any* file format. She calls NeoOffice the "little ship" program.

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Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Benjamin Huot on September 27, 2008 02:53 PM
"then maybe you prefer being TOLD what computer to use, how it should look like, and how to use it; in other words, a mac."

I use a Mac because that is what I have chosen as well as Linux. I even use a lot of free software on the Mac as well like LaTeX. There is absolutely no one telling me to use a Mac or LaTeX. Most people I know would recommend Windows.

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Thanks RMS!

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 90.193.228.31] on September 27, 2008 08:07 PM
TFA mentions emacs but not gcc. If its not the GPL then surely gcc must be RMS's most significant contribution to Free Software- certainly moreso than emacs. Most important and fundamental free software apps are wrote in C or C++ and almost without exception are/were compiled using gcc. Lots of free software devs will use vim, kate, nano or emacs but nearly all of them will depend on gcc for doing the compiling and Stallman has played a significant role in gcc's creation and development.

As of 2008 I can certainly do everything I need to with a computer with ease and entirely with free software. The number of tasks that can't be handled well entirely with free software is very small now and things are improving so quickly in all areas of free software now. The range and quality of free software now is just unbelievable really. Its very exciting and hard to keep up with.

I'd like to thank RMS for his tireless work in promoting freedom and free software- in this field RMS stands alone. Who is gong to take up his mantle when he's gone?

Happy 25th and thank you GNU!

danboid

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Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 67.213.71.77] on September 27, 2008 08:09 PM
I'm not sure I understand why using a mix of proprietary and open source software is such a problem. First off, in some cases, the proprietary solutions just happen to be superior and I'd rather not frustrate myself by fighting with limited functionality just because it's open source.

Second, I thought this whole concept of FREEDOM was supposed to be just that; freedom to do what I please with a piece of software...including hooking proprietary video drivers into the kernal if that's what I choose to do.

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Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 76.115.21.52] on September 27, 2008 08:47 PM
"As of 2008 I can certainly do everything I need to with a computer with ease and entirely with free software. The number of tasks that can't be handled well entirely with free software is very small now and things are improving so quickly in all areas of free software now. The range and quality of free software now is just unbelievable really. Its very exciting and hard to keep up with."

I totally agree. The apps are there for most uses.

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RMS is an Ideologist

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 88.66.95.3] on September 28, 2008 05:55 AM
Mr Stallman clearly is a great software engineer, but his social views are inspired by marxist zeal.
The US and Europe are free societies, meaning that you are free to give away your work or charge for your work. Mr Stallman thinks it offending that some people choose the latter approach. I fail to see why it is wrong for software engineers to want to make a decent living and pay for a family by developing software. I strongly suspect Mr Stallman would solve this problem by a huge socialist subsidisation bureaucracy.
Why doesn't he call his thing "Communist Software Manifesto" ?

Moderate people can just take the middle way of using less Microsoft products, if they feel offended by that company. Also, they can contribute financially and with their work to interesting projects of all kinds, including textbooks. But moderate people hate to be forced by radicals into their purist ways of life !

Frank Gerlach (frankgerlach@gmail.com)

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Re: RMS is an Ideologist

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 193.166.94.185] on September 28, 2008 12:24 PM
"The US and Europe are free societies, meaning that you are free to give away your work or charge for your work. Mr Stallman thinks it offending that some people choose the latter approach. I fail to see why it is wrong for software engineers to want to make a decent living and pay for a family by developing software."

I think you haven't yet quite understood what Richard Stallman means with "free software". To him, free software is not about the price -- you can also charge money for free software, and it still remains free. And non-free software doesn't become free software simply by giving it away without any charge.

The crucial difference between free and non-free software is that free software comes with the source code, so you can modify the program to suit your needs if you want to (or, if you're not a programmer, you can pay a real programmer to modify it for you). But non-free software comes without the source code, so you can buy the non-free program but you're no allowed to modify it. Also, quite often you're not even allowed to give copies of non-free programs to your friends, although you've paid good money for it. But with free software you know that you're always allowed to give copies to your friends.

So is it really communism to expect that you can modify the software programs you've bought, or that you can give copies to your friends? I don't think so.

Richard Stallman gives a clear definition of free software in this essay:
http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/free-sw.html

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Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 24.4.226.128] on September 30, 2008 03:10 AM
Richard Stallman truly deserves a Noble Prize. Greatest Hacker of all times.

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Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 80.88.36.195] on September 30, 2008 11:55 AM
How can anybody use the concepts of freedom and GPL in the same sentence? The GPL is after all page after page of restrictions. Long live the public domain! Long live real freedom!

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Re: Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 64.223.175.46] on September 30, 2008 01:00 PM
The so-called "public domain" is insufficient to ensure the freedoms are preserved, even when the work is changed or added to.

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Re(1): Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 80.88.36.195] on September 30, 2008 02:04 PM
Once it is in the public domain, it stays in the public domain, free from any viral licensing restrictions (like those that make up the GPL).

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Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 81.234.246.116] on September 30, 2008 05:52 PM
Stallman is the best.

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Re: Richard Stallman looks back at 25 years of the GNU project

Posted by: Anonymous [ip: 88.2.100.57] on October 03, 2008 07:54 PM
Stallman has given us a lot!

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