Free software comes with moral price

Preaching the virtues of free software for two decades has not dimmed the enthusiasm of Richard Stallman, as audiences across Australia discovered last week.

The inventor of the world famous GNU operating system had come to Australia to present at the Builder Conference, but that event was cancelled. Instead, the Australian Computer Society took advantage of his presence to arrange a speaking tour that took in Melbourne, Sydney, Canberra and Brisbane.

In a presentation to computer science students at the University of Technology Sydney, Stallman gave an overview of the free software movement (free as in freedom, not price). He spoke about the Free Software Foundation (FSF) which he founded in the 1985 to raise funds for the free software movement, and why the GNU project came about, including that famous component of GNU -- the Linux kernel.

An idealist from way back, Stallman has always believed that software should be free and readily shared amongst "neighbours". He described how the basis of any computer was the operating system. Rather than use a computer with a proprietary operating system, and betray his beliefs, Stallman had seen a way to put his software-writing skills to good use.

"I just had to write a free operating system so everyone had a way to use computers... Nobody else would do it if I did not," he said.

At that time in the early '80s free software had no enemies, he said. However, writing a new OS was a big job. "I didn't know if we could finish the job. At least it was worth trying to do. It was better not to do anything than to build proprietary software," he joked.

Stallman intentionally followed the design of Unix because it was familiar to users. Otherwise, they would not use it, he reasoned. As a result, his creation was designed to be upwardly compatible with Unix. The next thing was to give it a name -- ideally a funny name. He tried a four-letter word to work with Unix but in the end settled on GNU, which is a recursive acronym for "GNU's Not Unix". A gnu is an Ox-like animal.

By 1991 Stallman was missing one piece of the GNU operating system -- the kernel. Initially, Linux was not free software, but Linus Torvalds changed the license for it in 1992 and it was then possible to fit Linux into the GNU system to make it complete.

"Linux was the step that carried us across the finish line," said Stallman. "Before that, people had to use another operating system." The goal Stallman had set out to reach almost a decade earlier was achieved in 1993. "It was now possible to use a PC with free software."

Despite the success of the Linux kernel, it has also been a sore point for Stallman -- namely that people often get confused and think the whole GNU system is Linux. "It is not right that people credit GNU to Linus Torvalds," he said. "This confusion has been a terrible blow for the free software movement".

"It still is GNU, no matter how many people call it Linux by mistake."

Free to choose

So just what is free software? Free software, Stallman said, "respects the freedom of the person using it". This differs to proprietary software which he says keeps users "divided and helpless".

With free software, a user has control over his or her computer, he expained: a program was only free if users were free to run it as they wish; free to help themselves (study the source code and change it to do what they wish); and free to help a neighbour (can make copies and distribute them).

Although acknowledging that the sharing of proprietary software was not necessarily a good thing, he said doing evil to someone who deserved it was a lesser evil. "The only thing worse than the copying of unauthorised copy of a proprietary program is the authorised copy of that program," he joked.

"The most important resource of society is the spirit of goodwill. To share, to help your neighbour. This makes for a liveable society and not a dog-eat-dog jungle. Even religion promotes this willingness to help your neighbour," he said.

He added that software companies were running a campaign of terror: "I believe we shall bring the campaign of terror to an end".

Stallman said the nature of free software had many virtues. He said the reason, in his opinion, why software today was so bad is because there was a monopoly. "The existence of a free software market does not imply good service. It means you are not stuck with somebody," he said.

"We don't keep you helpless in front of our mistakes. If you don't like any code, you can change it. We respect your freedom and don't try to dominate you and keep you helpless."

Stallman ended his presentation on a satirical note, talking about the "church" to which he belonged -- the church of Emacs. Emacs is the "extensible, customisable, self-documenting real-time display editor" which Stallman wrote for the GNU project in the 1980s.

Donning a saintly outfit, and a halo, he said: "The Church of Emacs has certain advantages compared to other Churches. For instance, to be a saint in the Church of Emacs does not require celibacy. So if you are searching for a Church to be holy in, you might consider ours. But it does involve making a moral commitment to live the life of moral purity. You will exorcise any proprietary operating system that is possessing any of the systems under your direct control..."

On that point, Stallman had the last word. And the audience realised: Stallman was born to preach the free software gospel.

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