Amir Chaudhry

thoughts, comments & general ramblings

Richard Stallman on Free Software and your Freedom (lecture)

Lecture at Cambridge Computer Lab on 1 March 2011 - Sponsored by Software East (@markdalgarno)

[pls excuse the typos & poor grammar. I’m typing this on the fly and unlikely to edit it before posting. Caveat emptor]

[edit: It was a long talk and I missed some chunks. Overall, he spoke for just over 90mins. Longer than I was expecting]

Bio: Richard Stallman launched the development of the GNU operating system (see in 1984. GNU is free software: everyone has the freedom to copy it and redistribute it, as well as to make changes either large or small. The GNU/Linux system, basically the GNU operating system with Linux added, is used on tens of millions of computers today. Stallman has received the ACM Grace Hopper Award, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship, the Electrical Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award, and the Takeda Award for Social/Economic Betterment, as well as several honorary doctorates.
[taken from: see his website at]

Stallman enters room and hush descends immediately. Cue joke about slides and “definitely not PowerPoint”.

What is free software? It sw that respects your freedom. Think of free speech not free beer. A non free sw is digital colonization. It acts to divide and conquer people

A program is free if you have 4 freedoms
0 - To run it as you wish
1 - Have source to edit to run as you wish
2 - To share & distribute & help others, as you wish
3 - To distribute modified, copies if you wish

If sw does not obey these then it’s unethical. Notice that these are not about the technical issues. The difference is an ethical, social and political distinction. The use of propriety sw is a social problem and we should aim to eliminate the problem. ie eliminate propriety sw. Goal of free sw is to make all sw free so that users are free. If you use a program without freedom 2 then you end up in a moral dilemma. If someone says “Hey, great sw. Can I get a copy?”. In this case you should choose lesser of two evils, which is to violate the license and give your friend a copy. Being the lesser evil doesn’t mean it’s good though. When you’ve fully studied this dilemma what should you do? Option 1: don’t have any friends! That what the proprietary debs would have you do. Option 2: don’t have that sw in the first place so you don’t end up in the dilemma in the first place. Note on Piracy: They attack ships. With arms. Freedom 0 - Essential so you can control your computing. No one else should have that control. Only you. There are proprietary programs that have licenses that restrict your freedom of speech (ie website software that means you cannot publish stuff disparaging to sw vendor)

Freedom 1 - Being a victim of malicious sw is something that ppl are subject to all the time. For example back-doors, DRM, spyware, handcuffs. The sw is not there to serve you but is actually a prison guard. Eg in MSFT sw can install stuff on pc w/out user consent or knowledge. Once windows has installed then it’s no longer your machine. Apple is no better. They’ve even stolen the ability to install apps. They don’t even agree w free sw. Also a back-door by which Apple can delete sw installed on users machine. Even apps exist that detect Jailbreak and refuse to operate. All these are Malware. Products include: Apple iMoan, Apple iBad, Amazon Swindle - “Kindle was conceived to burn books.” (riffs on Amazon taking books off devices etc)

Even if devs of proprietary sw are good, they’re human and make errors. ie bugs. Without freedom 1 you are a prisoner. Freedom 1 isn’t enough. There too much sw and plenty of non-devs cannot edit it. That’s why we need Freedom 3. To contribute to your community and spread benefits. Without this freedom what a waste it would be for people to write changes over and over. Every user can take part in Freedom 0 and 2 since it doesn’t require any programming knowledge. Freedom 1 and 3 allow those who can to make improvements. With free software. Support is a free-market since everyone can study the code and master it. Hence people can get better support. Since support for proprietary sw is a monopoly, the support sucks.

The four freedoms together give us democracy. These are sufficient for people to have control over the sw. Without these the sw controls the ppl. Launched free software foundation in 1983. All operating systems were proprietary hence ppl immediately lost freedom when they had to install an OS. This was an injustice. As an OS developer, he could write the OS and then legally make it free. At the time, the free sw movement had no enemies at the time. Mostly because ppl thought the job was so big that it couldn’t get done. Following the basic design of UNIX made sense. Then I gave it a name which was a joke. [digs in bag]. GNU = Gnu Not Unix. (riffs on the name and pronunciation). History of Linux. Aside: What is a free sw license? Why do we need them?
Copyright law automatically limits anything that’s written so you have to explicitly grant the four freedoms. Even then there are distinctions. Eg copy-left licenses and non copy-left licenses. Specifically, user has to pass on the freedoms that have been passed on to him (copy-left). Torvalds made the Linux Kernel free under the GNU license.

The name matters. Linux does not have the same views on ‘free’ as GNU. Yet people using Linux think that most of the ideas came from Torvalds rather than GNU. Debate on Human Rights has continued for centuries. Yet the debate on free/proprietary sw has only gone on for about 20yrs. Therefore the debate on what human rights are applicable to sw have only involved the devs, who obviously have said “none”. Another problem. Now ppl have another term: Open-Source. The ideas that surround this didn’t include the ethical aspects of ‘free’. Easy to lose freedom if you don’t fight for it. There are now distros that contain proprietary sw and are no longer free. Free distros can be found at Why did all this happen?
Because the idea of freedom wasn’t important to people. They didn’t appreciate it. We have to teach ppl to value freedom and demand it. Our greatest scarcity in FSF is not ppl to write sw but ppl to fight for the idea of freedoms. Freedom is now different since JavaScript in browsers means that things get installed in browser without your knowledge. ‘Like’ buttons even track ppl that don’t use Facebook. Ppl need to be educated. Even SaaS is becoming pervasive and is worse than proprietary since the data goes elsewhere. There’s no remedy for this, other than not to use it. Only a minority of things like this but need to be aware (eg GoogleDocs). Free software and Education
Schools must only teach free software. It’s cheaper (but should be considered secondary benefit). Free stuff from proprietary vendors is simply a drug to get them hooked. Only free sw gives ppl the opportunity to learn from code of large Programs. Even deeper reason though. For goodwill and the moral imperative of sharing knowledge. Every school from nursery to university must practice this. The issue should always be an ethical one. Biggest obstacle to free sw is social inertia. Websites for more info: (against digital handcuffs)

[dresses up] St Ignuseus of emacs [riffs on emacs and free sw].


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Comment on original post: Nov 21, 2011 - human said... thank u so much, This is the same lecture of richard in benghazi-libya at november 2010 :) i hope to get this lecture in a audio file