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Interview with Richard Stallman on GPLv3 and More, by Sean Daly
Tuesday, April 03 2007 @ 01:01 PM EDT

Sean Daly met up with Richard Stallman in Brussels, where Stallman just gave a speech on the GPLv3 draft. Mr. Stallman was kind enough to do an interview for Groklaw right afterward, which we appreciate, especially because Sean tells me rms was so exhausted before his speech that he pushed the chair away and did it standing up, to make sure he stayed awake.

In the interview, Stallman addresses some interesting topics:

  • corporate input in the GPLv3 process
  • the difficulty of free software in medical devices
  • the coexistence of GPLv2 with GPLv3 code
  • MS distributing vouchers for SUSE GPL'd code
  • that Gnash will soon be compatible with YouTube
  • How nonprogrammers can make contributions to FOSS

This is part of Groklaw's reporting of the GPLv3 process, and of course the views expressed in the interview are Mr. Stallman's. Groklaw is not political, as you know. So please remember our comments policy.

We have an Ogg audio file of the interview, for those who wish to listen instead, and we also have a transcript, thanks to the prodigious Ciarán O'Riordan. So you can choose either or both.

Also, I wanted to let you know that ibiblio is doing some maintenance again tonight, so we'll be offline again unavoidably for a bit starting sometime around 7 or 7:30 tonight Eastern. They don't know how long it will last, but hopefully not long. And some are saying that putting the Questions on GPLv3 article at the top is confusing, and the newer articles are being overlooked. So from now until the cutoff for adding questions, I'll keep that article second on the list. Happy?

: )


Interview with Richard Stallman, by Sean Daly
Brussels, Belgium, April 1, 2007
Conducted after Stallman's Speech on GPLv3 Draft3

Q: First of all I'd to thank you for spending a few minutes with us at Groklaw. Let's get right into it. Some have criticised the time that the GPLv3 draft process is taking. If I understand correctly, there will be a fourth draft --

Richard Stallman: That's a silly thing to say. I mean, we're doing the best we can.

Q: You -- There's no way that it's a symptom of some fundamental problems with the process?

Richard Stallman: I don't understand. Things take time. I just don't -- it seems like a silly outlook to criticise people for taking too long on job that's not straightforward. If people are supposed to dig a ditch, you know how long that's going to take, so if they don't get it done on time, you can say they're slacking. That doesn't apply to tasks like this one.

Q: OK. The methods of soliciting feedback from the community, the public consultations, the commenting module, the international meetings, the A, B, C, D committees... These are really a completely new way of getting input from different sources. Would you say that this process is working? Would you have any advice to share with other projects?

Richard Stallman: Well, I don't think that much about the process, and I'm not the one who manages that process. Part of the goal of the process is so that I won't have to look at lots of comments from people but rather to think about the issues that are raised by their comments. So it's working to that extent. And therefore, I don't have to be involved in this process except at the level of looking at the issues that pop up. So I'm the wrong one to talk about the management of the process. I can only say that it seems to be doing a good job. We're getting a lot of comment. We're not getting that much useful comment through the website. We thought we would get a lot of it. We're not even getting that much not-useful comment. We've got a lot of useful comment through our discussion committees.


Q: Very well. Free software has achieved considerable success since -- in the sixteen years since the GPLv2 was published. GNU/Linux is big business now. Leaving aside Novell for the moment, have you experienced corporate pressure to influence the GPLv3 language?

Richard Stallman: Yes. And in some cases we've done what they wanted, and in other cases we've refused.

Q: Are there any specific cases you would want to talk about?

Richard Stallman: No.


Q: All right. Let's talk about license proliferation. I know this has been a concern of yours for some time. Do you think the situation's improving? Is the GPLv3 helping in that regard?

Richard Stallman: I have no way of telling. GPLv3 is not in use yet, and the only way we'll see whether it had an effect on license proliferation is after some years have gone by. Right now all we would be saying is a guess about the future.

Q: OK, well, we'll check back in a few years. Let's talk about Digital Restrictions Management. Many developers seem to feel that there are justified uses, mission-critical medical devices, heavy industrial equipement, vehicles, communication devices. How does the GPLv3 try to square the circle with respect to guaranteeing freedom while addressing those concerns?

Richard Stallman: Well, I don't always agree with them, in many cases. You can -- there may be ways you could modify something and make it illegal, and it may even be illegal for a good reason, but that doesn't mean that the device should be tivoized, so that people can't modify it, period. So, I mostly don't agree with them. In the case of medical devices, maybe I may partly agree. It may be valid to have some kinds of limits on the ability to modify medical devices. But it shouldn't just be forbidden. You know, just as doctors shouldn't be able to force you to take a medical treatment, but it might be appropriate to have doctors involved in whether you can get a medical treatment. So, what should be done in the case of software that acts as medicine is a complicated question. Right now, for it to be simply proprietary or completely tivoized can't be right, but some intermediate thing might be right.

Q: All right. Now, do you think that the DRM clause could become a stumbling block for --

Richard Stallman: There is no DRM clause.

Q: There's no DRM clause. Well, what I'm trying to say is the way DRM is referred to...

Richard Stallman: Sorry, you mean, are you talking -- what part of GPL version three are you talking about? I don't recognise this.

Q: Well, I may be speaking about the previous draft, not the newest draft.

Richard Stallman: Well, I think draft two didn't talk about DRM either, except in the section 3 which doesn't actually limit anything about the software but just prevents certain nasty laws from applying. Many people think of the prohibition of tivoization as the DRM clause, and will talk about the DRM clause, but what they really mean is the part that says you can't tivoize. But it doesn't really talk about DRM... So, the most important thing to say about it is to clear up that misunderstanding.

Q: All right. Now, I've heard described what is called an Application Service Provider - an "ASP loophole"...

Richard Stallman: Well, I think that term is misleading. I don't think that there is a loophole in GPL version 2 concerning running modified versions on a server. However, there are people who would like to release programs that are free and that require server operators to make their modifications available. So that's what the Affero GPL is designed to do. And, so we're arranging for compatibility between GPL version 3 and the Affero GPL. So we're going to do the job that those developers want, but I don't think it's right to talk about it in terms of a loophole.

Q: Very well.


Richard Stallman: The main job of the GPL is to make sure that every user has freedom, and there's no loophole in that relating to ASPs in GPL version 2.

Q: Let's talk about embedded devices. I think we can all agree what a general-purpose computer is, but free software is on the move into embedded devices of all kinds, which leads to tivoization --

Richard Stallman: No, it doesn't, actually. Those are two... they're not connected. It's a mistake to think that they're connected. For instance, Microsoft's Palladium scheme was designed to be applied to general-purpose computers. In general, Treacherous Computing is applied to general-purpose computers. So, it's not the case that these issues are particular to embedded devices.

Q: There would be no justification for having one license more oriented towards general computers --


Richard Stallman: That's ridiculous. That's -- even if there were some difference between embedded uses and general-purpose computer uses, it wouldn't make any sense to have two licenses. You could imagine conceivably having different conditions for the two cases in one license, but to have two licenses would just be ridiculous, then you would be deciding to release your software for one or for the other. Why would anyone want that?

Q: OK. I'd like to talk about Novell-Microsoft. Novell has stated that the still-secret patent protection clauses were put in at Microsoft's request.

Richard Stallman: Well, maybe it was. Who knows, of course. I don't see that it matters.

Q: Well, they seem to have underestimated the community's anger at this deal.

Richard Stallman: Well, I'm glad the community has been more angry than was anticipated, but I really don't see why it would matter when two companies are making a deal which one asked for any particular component of the deal.

Q: Well, the impression I --

Richard Stallman: What's important is that there is a deal, and what the deal does overall. That's what matters. Who had which intentions, doesn't directly matter. And in fact, there's no reason why we should get any feeling of comfort from believing that Microsoft convinced a company to agree to a deal like this.

Q: I'm not sure I would be comfortable with it myself, but the impression I had was that Novell did not scrutinize that aspect as closely as they could have.

Richard Stallman: Well, I hope that companies will start to scrutinize such things in their deals.

Q: Now, I know that you don't want to predict the future, and you've explained to me why in the past. That said, I'm sure you still study scenarios in order to craft the most bulletproof license language. If in fact the Linux kernel decides to remain v2-only, what do you think might happen then, what would be the result?

Richard Stallman: Well, that would be rather unfortunate for those that use Linux, the kernel. Because they might get it tivoized, say. And deals like the Microsoft-Novell deal might make them scared to use it unless they get it from particular companies which would threaten its use as free software. These are the threats that GPLv3 aims to protect us from, and programs that don't advance to GPLv3 won't get the benefit of this, and their users won't get the benefit of this. That's the only problem it will cause. The presence of programs under GPLv2 and other programs under GPLv3 won't cause any specific problem, just as, there are still a few programs under GPLv1 but that doesn't cause any particular problem. There are programs under lots of other licenses as well and that doesn't cause a particular problem. In any GNU/Linux distribution you'll find programs with lots of different licenses. Now, the fact that these licenses are incompatible, which in many cases they are, causes inconvenience in special cases when you want to merge them. Two different copyleft licenses are inevitably incompatible. There's no way to avoid that. So GPL version 2 and GPL version 3 are going to be incompatible and that will cause a certain amount of inconvenience for particular things where you'd like to merge them. But it won't cause -- the presence of them both in the system won't cause any problem.


Q: Very well. On the Microsoft side the ink was still drying on the Novell deal when Mr. Ballmer implied again that GNU/Linux infringes Microsoft patents. Are such threats credible?

Richard Stallman: Well, every large program infringes lots of patents. Microsoft has lots of patents. Most large programs, I would expect, infringe some Microsoft patents. This just goes to show why software patents shouldn't exist.

Q: Yet the code has been available for study since the Day 1...

Richard Stallman: So what? I mean, you say "yet" as if there were some... as if to imply there is a connection, and maybe there is, I just don't follow it. The implied connection I do not follow. What connection do you think there is? Maybe I could comment on it if I understood what you're getting at, but I don't.

Q: Well, what I'm getting at is, I hear lots of threats from Microsoft but I don't hear any specificity about what infringes.

Richard Stallman: I don't know why. I'm not intimate with the executives of Microsoft. I've never even spoken with them. You might well note this peculiar combination of circumstances in their conduct, but I don't understand it.


Q: Now, Microsoft has been distributing GPL'd code such as the GCC for several years now in the Interix and the Services for Unix (and 2nd and 3rd references) modules, although I tried recently and I didn't actually find any source code on the Microsoft site.

Richard Stallman: Well, if they're violating the GPL we'd like to know it. They should be saying where it is. And, so -- I'm serious, please... I think we looked at this before and I think they were complying before, but maybe they aren't today. So please send a message to license-violation at and say where you found these binaries.

Q: OK. Perhaps the Novell deal raises a new question. If Microsoft is distributing coupons that are usable only, redeemable only for GPL'd software, isn't that equivalent to distributing GPL'd software?

Richard Stallman: I believe it is. And it doesn't matter whether they're redeemable "only" for GPL'd software. If they're redeemable for something which includes GPL covered software then they're at least procuring distribution. I'm not a lawyer and I'm not sure whether they are themselves distributing or not, but I think that if they started to do that, they might be violating GPL version 2 even. But I'm not an expert on that.

Q: OK. On a different subject, the fight for software freedom has focused these past few years on file formats. We've seen how interoperability is simplified with standards-built software, yet we have a YouTube, for example, which is an enormous success yet which only allows proprietary or patent-encumbered formats, blocking the upload of free formats such as Theora. And, of course, Microsoft managed to get the ECMA industry group to approve their Office file formats for fast-track ISO adoption after OpenDocument Format became an ISO standard. Adobe as well, 13 years after bringing PDF to market, recently sought and obtained ISO certification. What do you think the community can do to encourage the use of non-patent encumbered or proprietary file formats?

Richard Stallman: I should point out that there is free software to deal with PDF. So, for the most part, that seems to be a free format although I'm told that some of the latest versions of PDF have some features that free software doesn't support, but most PDF files don't seem to use them, so it isn't really a problem in practice.

Q: It's the key advantage of ISO certification, is that the format becomes a usable standard.

Richard Stallman: Well, I don't know if it makes much difference actually. I don't see how it directly matters. To me this is a practical thing. PDF, whether certified or not, has been supported, more or less, by free software for a long time. I look at PDF files regularly with free software, and I did before it got this ISO certification. I'm not sure to what extent the ISO certification directly affects anything. On the other hand, for instance, ISO certification of Microsoft's patented and impossible to implement new version of Word format won't change anything, I know. People have argued that it's simply not feasible for anybody other than Microsoft to implement that format. Not technically feasible, even aside from the fact that in many countries free software is not allowed to implement it. Microsoft's patent license is such that, they offer a gratis patent license, but it's conditions are such that free software is excluded.


Q: What about video formats?

Richard Stallman: The popularity of Flash has been a big problem for our community, and we've been urging people not to use Flash for anything. However, we've just about solved that problem and we're soon going to release a version of Gnash which can even handle YouTube.

Q: Well that will be a great step forward. One more question. I think I speak for many of us who use or appreciate free software yet are not cut out to be coders. For those who want to help out with the movement, in your opinion, what fields other than programming could be most useful? Lawyers? Lobbyists?

Richard Stallman: There are a tremendous number of things that people could do that aren't programming. People tend to assume that the only way to help the free software movement is to write software. Well sure, we would like more people to write free software but there are lots of other things to do such as organizing activism. Become a speaker. Write articles. Write letters to the editor whenever you see a newspaper or magazine praise non-free software, by judging it according to shallow criteria, only caring what job it would do and what's the price and not caring whether it respects your freedom. Well, write a letter to the editor. Do this every time you see one. If you write one once a week, from time to time they'll get published and it'll do some good. Join the FSF. That way you'll contribute some money to our work. Participate in our anti-DRM campaign Just go there and sign up. Join in a protest. There are many ways you can help. Write documentation. We really need more free documentation of free software. If you're good at writing English, that's a great way to contribute. Perhaps even more useful than writing source code. If you are in a school, then you can organise with other people in the school and pressure for the school to move to the exclusive use of free software. Look at for a long list of suggestions for how you can help. This is a campaign for freedom, and nowadays we have to campaign against unjust laws and proposals to impose additional unjust laws that forbid free software. To block those we need political activity and we have to do it despite the fact that democracy is very badly ill. For businesses to have special political influence means that democracy is ill. The purpose of democracy is to make sure that wealthy people cannot have influence proportional to their wealth. And if they do have more influence than you or I, that means democracy is failing. The laws that they obtain in this way have no moral authority, but they have the capability of doing harm.

Q: One final question. We're seeing more and more devices, and I'm thinking specifically of games consoles -- I know that my kids have one in the house -- where there is no --

Richard Stallman: I wouldn't. You have to learn how to say no to your kids.

Q: That's true, that's true, I wouldn't deny it. Now, there is no free software at all for devices like this [correction: Yellow Dog supports some console(s)].

Richard Stallman: That's why there is no possible ethical way you could use one, and so you shouldn't have it.

Q: All right, I think I'll take the kids out on the bike more often.

Richard Stallman: That would be much better for them.

Q: OK, thank you very much Mr. Stallman.

Richard Stallman: Happy hacking!


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