GNU @ 25 Special
I was entirely away on that special GNU day, so here is my interview which is being posted on this belated anniversary.
For information about the anniversary, see the message from FSF Europe or Linux Magazine.
The GNU Project celebrated its 25th birthday on September 27, 2008. With its GCC compiler and bash shell, GNU was ever at the forefront of today’s Linux distribution. To kick off the celebration, British humorist Stephen Fry appears in a video in defense of free software.
Now, here is the older article:
When Richard Stallman announced the GNU Project back in 1983, he planted the seeds of what rapidly evolved and recently became a revolution that transforms entire nations. The Free Software Foundation, which was also created by Richard Stallman and now sponsors the GNU Project, has probably become a center of attention to those who are affected by the most widely-used software license, the GNU GPL.
We discussed some of the more recent developments with Richard Stallman, whose passion for freedom in computing remains intense. The following Q & A explores the goals of free software, progress that has been made, and ways to maintain or instill freedom in software that we use.
Q: In the past few years we have come to find a number of countries which decided to embrace Free software as a matter of policy.
Many people attribute such milestones to your travels around the globe.
Richard Matthew Stallman: They may be focusing too much on me personally and giving insufficient credit to the rest of the movement. In Ecuador, I personally won the support of President Correa, but that’s the only such case I remember. In other countries, other people did most the persuasive work. For instance, the activists of FSF India persuaded the government of Kerala to begin the migration to free software; I could not have done that.
Q: How do you balance the need to preach to groups and individuals,
including world leaders, and other important activities such as writing
the GNU General Public License version 3 (GPLv3)?
RMS: It is only occasionally that I have a large project such as GPLv3.
Most of my work consists trying to spread awareness of the ideas of
free software, and I do it mostly by answering emails such as yours.
The basic idea of the Free Software Movement is that the social
conditions for use of software are vitally important — more important
even than the software’s technical characteristics. A free program
respects your freedom and the social solidarity of your community
with four essential freedoms:
0. The freedom to run the program as you wish.
1. The freedom to study the program’s source code and then change it
so the program does what you wish.
2. The freedom to distribute exact copies to others, when you wish.
3. The freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to
others, when you wish.
Everyone knows how to exercise freedoms 0 and 2. If you don’t know
how to program, then you don’t know how to exercise freedoms 1 and 3;
but when programmers do so, you can install their modified versions if
you wish, so you get the benefits. You can also ask or pay
programmers to make the changes you would like to use.
Q: Because software does not have a long history, your sources
of inspiration appear not to include people whose life legacy is
associated with software. Would you say that the nature of their impact
has motivated you to address ethical and moral issues that are not
necessarily related to software?
RMS: I was taught ideals of human rights growing up in the United States in
the 60s, and then was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement and the
Antiwar Movement. So I have cared about issues of freedom since
before I began programming. Later I started working at the MIT
Artificial Intelligence Lab and experienced the free software way of
life. Then I took an unusual step: I connected the free software
community’s way of life with the ideals of freedom I had learned.
The result was the Free Software Movement, a movement to give computer
users the freedom to cooperate and to control their own computing.
“I, as a software developer, had a responsibility to fight to end unethical practices in software development. ”
However, my focus on this particular issue of freedom doesn’t mean I’ve lost interest in others freedom issues. It’s simply that this issue dropped in my lap: I, as a software developer, had a responsibility to fight to end unethical practices in software development. If I did not do so, I would be a victim of them, and very likely at the same time a perpetrator.
In the past decade, I’ve tried to use the limited fame I’ve gained
from the GNU system and the free software movement as a platform to
take action on some other human rights and environmental issues, in
stallman.org. I’m not one of the leaders on those issues but I’m glad
I can help.
Q: Some of the more ubiquitous GNU/Linux distributions are ones
which incorporate proprietary drivers and other proprietary
software. When and where (in the system) is it acceptable to make
short-term compromises in order to create a userbase large enough to
make Free software compelling for the entire industry to support? Is a
so-called “critical mass” needed at all?
RMS: The central idea of the Free Software Movement is that you deserve the
four freedoms, and that taking them away from you is wrong. If we
were to grant legitimacy to certain non-free software merely because
it is convenient, that would contract the central idea. It would be
hypocritical, and it would defeat the whole point. You cannot advance
the cause of freedom by legitimizing the denial of freedom.
The people that put non-free software into GNU/Linux distributions do
so precisely because they are not concerned with users’ freedom. They
are not supporters of the Free Software Movement, and they usually
don’t speak about “free software” at all. Instead they talk about
“open source”, a term coined in 1998 to duck the ethical issues of
freedom and social solidarity and focus only on practical convenience.
See http://www.gnu.org/philosophy/open-source-misses-the-point.html for
Q: There are ongoing efforts and even complete projects that
mimic Microsoft technologies and bring their functionality to GNU/Linux.
How would you say one should handle the need to interact with peers who
rely on Microsoft technologies while at the same time maintaining one’s
RMS: I am all in favor of implementing in free software the languages, file
formats and protocols popularized by non-free software, when we can do
so. However, in many cases these formats and protocols are secret,
which means we must do difficult reverse engineering, or patented,
which means that implementing them is prohibited. These legal
obstacles to the development of free software are among the biggest
threats we face.
Q: Recently, with various software patent deals, Microsoft has
attempted to marginalize GNU/Linux by adding price and liability to
certain distributions of it. What do you think would be the effect of
embracing such distributions?
RMS: A meaningful discussion of software patents has to start by explaining
what software patents are, and what they do.
A patent is an artificial government-imposed monopoly on implementing
a certain method or technique. If the method or technique can be
implemented by software, so that the patent prohibits the distribution
and use of certain programs, we call it a software patent.
A large program implements thousands of methods and techniques
together. Each one of them is an idea that might be patented, and
thus represents a possible lawsuit against the program’s developers
and its users. Thus, software patents make software development a
dangerous activity. They are an absurd system and ought to be
Free software is vulnerable to software patents, just like proprietary
software and custom software (most of the software industry develops
I intend to do everything possible to stop Microsoft (or anyone) from
converting free software into proprietary software through the use of
software patents. Microsoft’s deal with Novell tried to do that,
and we designed version 3 of the GNU GPL to thwart that scheme.
Q: Microsoft encourages developers to build Web sites that
incorporate Silverlight. For GNU/Linux to be able view Silverlight
objects, Moonlight, which is built on top of Mono, needs to be
downloaded from Novell’s Web site. Would you advise GNU/Linux users to
install Moonlight and accept such changes in the World Wide Web?
RMS: Moonlight is free software, so I don’t see anything bad about
installing Moonlight as such. It seems that the reason it needs to be
downloaded from Novell’s web site is that it isn’t ready to be
included in any GNU/Linux distros. However, I don’t know what
Moonlight actually does.
What I can say in general is that we should continue to demand that
web sites use standard (and unpatented) formats and protocols, and put
pressure on those that don’t.
Q: What about Adobe Flash and its equivalent viewers, such as gnash, which is Free software?
RMS: Flash illustrates the problems that arise when web sites use nonstandard
proprietary formats. I am glad that Gnash, our free Flash player is
making progress, but we had to wait years for this.
People who don’t value their freedom are likely to lose it. This is
just as true in computing as in other areas of life, and Flash is an
example. Flash is inherently a problem because it requires a non-free
plug-in. But how did the problem grow to a significant size? This
happened because many web users installed the Flash plug-in without
first checking whether it was free software. Their foolish disregard
for their own freedom made them vulnerable.
The development of Gnash means we may be able to put an end to this
particular outbreak of non-freedom. But if people don’t learn to stop
installing non-free plug-ins, the web will be vulnerable to other
outbreaks in the future. It is a lot less work to avoid these
problems than to fix them. We need to teach people to refuse to
install non-free plug-ins; we need to teach people to care more about
their long-term interest of freedom than their immediate desire to
view a particular site.
Q: Research shows that the GPLv3 is gaining acceptance. In the mailing lists of the Linux kernel, a hypothetical scenario was described where Linus Torvalds et al might consider upgrading their kernel’s license to the GPLv3. This scenario involved Sun’s OpenSolaris (project ‘Indiana’) and its choice of a license. What would you say is the greatest advantage for a kernel — any kernel for that matter — in adopting the GPLv3?
RMS: Kernels (and other programs) don’t really matter — people do. So the
issue here is how moving Linux to GPLv3 would affect the users of
Linux, including the users of the combined GNU/Linux system.
The most relevant aspect of GPL version 3 is the prohibition on
tivoization. Tivoization is the practice of building machines that
come with free software preinstalled, and that are designed to shut
down if you install a modified version of the free software. In
effect, tivoization turns freedom 1 (the freedom to modify the program
to make it do what you wish) into a theoretical fiction.
As long as Linux continues to be distributed under GPL version 2,
manufacturers will be allowed to tivoize it and thus stop users from
changing it and controlling their own computing. This is why Linux
needs to move to GPLv3.
Q: Simon Phipps (of Sun Microsystems) has spoken about the GPLv3 on numerous occasions and he even inquired to see what Bob Sutor, Vice President of Open Source and Standards at IBM, thought about it. If Sun decided to embrace the GPLv3 for its software, including OpenSolaris, would you be willing to endorse OpenSolaris?
RMS: OpenSolaris is already free software, and I can endorse it as such.
If Sun releases it under GPLv3, that will be even better; however,
when choosing between free programs, the main factor is practical.
Q: Linus Torvalds once referred to you as “the great
philosopher” and he also argued that we should think of him as the
engineer. He is clearly very focused on what he does so well. Do you
believe that there are dangers that he is not aware of?
RMS: I am sure he is aware of the dangers. The problem is that there are some
he doesn’t care about. For instance, he seems not to care about the danger
to your freedom posed by tivoization.
Q: If you were allowed to have only one piece of software,
what would it be, assuming that underlying components like an operating
system were already provided?
RMS: There’s a confusion in the question, because all the programs I use
are part of the GNU/Linux operating system. Even the games I
sometimes play are included in the gNewSense distribution which I use.
But if the question is which single user-interactive program is most
important to me, that is GNU Emacs. I spend most of my day using
Emacs to edit files, to read mail, to send mail, to compile, to search
files, and many other things. Of course, GNU Emacs is included in
gNewSense, and in most of the GNU/Linux distributions. I developed
GNU Emacs initially in 1984-5, specifically for the GNU system. █
Originally published in Datamation in 2007 and reached the front page of Digg
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Google: Do Know Evil?
A reader from India sent us a pointer to this headsup on a Google patent application. Google seems to be breaking the law in India by filing an application for a software patent. Microsoft has violated these rules for quite a while, even in South Africa.
NEW DELHI: World’s most visited Internet search site Google has filed a patent application in the country for its recently developed social network site based on user preferences and format performance data.
CNET drew attention to this soft patent from Google. Here is the abstract.
A method of initiating a telecommunication session for a communication device include submitting to one or more telecommunication carriers a proposal for a telecommunication session, receiving from at least one of the one or more of telecommunication carriers a bid to carry the telecommunications session, and automatically selecting one of the telecommunications carriers from the carriers submitting a bid, and initiating the telecommunication session through the selected telecommunication carrier.
For what it’s worth, IBM is part of this problem and it refuses to remark on the need for a real solution. It also has a history of using its patents aggressively, just like Microsoft. Its targets do not include Free software projects though.
Microsoft: Do Evil
Earlier this year, Bruce Perens explained the role of Novell in Microsoft’s very latest (and very predatory, being a last resort) strategy against GNU/Linux. It revolves around software patents, so here are the interesting portions of what Perens wrote:
Microsoft remains a problem, as the bastion of the old way of thinking about software, and as the epitome of the old school of dirty corporate fighting. Their current strategy seems to be to poison us with money, most recently by making patent agreements with a number of Linux distributions. These agreements go against the spirit of the software licenses used by our developers, and were perhaps intended to dissuade developers from contributing their work. To this end, Microsoft poured more money into Novell last year than Novell’s annual profit – indeed Novell would have had no annual profit without Microsoft.
But Microsoft’s continuing attempts at patent-based FUD, for all they cost, don’t seem to be effective. They’ve not caught the big fish with their agreements, but only the third-ranking Novell and a handful of also-ran distributions that few knew were still in business. These companies have offended their own enterprise customers, who hate the idea of patent FUD directed at their own operations. They are viewed with suspicion by many Open Source developers, although some have been too quick to forgive.
It’s already known that Microsoft has company/ies to carry out its controversial tasks. This leads to a broader issue and The Huffington Post called it a growing bubble, so it’s bound to explode at some stage, just like those subprime mortgages.
The brainchild of former Microsoft CTO, Nathan Myrhvold, Intellectual Ventures has reportedly amassed $5 billion in capital and a portfolio of over 20,000 acquired patents — and it’s looking for more. From the perspective of the tech sector, Intellectual Ventures combines two questionable business models, the patent troll and the pyramid scheme, in a form that evokes Wall St.’s cleverness in designing glitzy vehicles for esoteric assets.
IV does not create or market products, so it is invulnerable to the patents of others. It looks like a patent troll, because it makes money from “being infringed.” But IV has a new twist: The companies that settle not only pay license fees but are induced to invest in IV, thereby providing the capital to acquire more patents, set up new licensing funds, and pursue other companies.
There you have it: Arbitrage in exotic assets. A system that values legal instruments over real products. And a context-dependent and uncertain value for the legal instrument itself. No better than mortgage-backed derivatives. And maybe a lot worse.
Glyn Moody has pinned an article in Linux Journal. He suggests a comparison between the mortgage-caused crisis and the patent crisis which has been brewing when he writes:
The solution to the subprime patents problem is get rid of them, and to move from a business model based on code contamination and lawsuits (hello SCO) to one of code sharing and collaboration. There’s no halfway house, because open source and software patents are inherently incompatible. But what’s really interesting in this is that just as there are close similarities between the problems of subprime patents and subprime mortgages, so there may be important parallels between how we should deal with them.
Open Source: Do No Evil
Here is another review (among several others that were mentioned here before) of the book Intellectual Property and Open Source. It’s like writing a book about water and sand getting wed, but the perspective (
lwn.net) makes it noteworthy.
Free software inevitably runs into the body of law known collectively as “intellectual property.” Many developers do their best to avoid the legal side of things whenever possible; others seem to like nothing better than extended debates on the topic. Regardless of one’s own feelings in the matter, the fact remains that the legal system exists, it affects our lives, and that we can only be better off if we understand it. To that end, O’Reilly has published Intellectual Property and Open Source by Van Lindberg.
Congress: The Evil Within
As long as the congress is pressured to pass the very same “Intellectual property bill” that the Department of Justice criticised the other day, there’s little hope for change until the system implodes or explodes. Then, it’ll be time for an emergency “rescue plan”, which will surely be rejected by many and cost everyone dearly.
Intellectual property bill passes in the House
The bipartisan legislation passed in the House 341-41, with dissenters on both sides of the aisle. The measure has received wide support from the business community, including from groups like the Recording Industry Association of America and the AFL-CIO, but it is opposed by public interest groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and Public Knowledge.
This is a government that’s ‘on sale’. It’s corporcracy, not a democracy, and it’s facilitated by a twisted legal system that was made to favour large monopolies. For shame. █
“Did you know that there are more than 34,750 registered lobbyists in Washington, D.C., for just 435 representatives and 100 senators? That’s 64 lobbyists for each congressperson.”
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Yesterday we posted a couple of updates on the OOXML and ODF situation. OOXML’s inertia seems to be coming mainly from abuse and manipulation, whereas ODF is naturally adopted at the highest of levels and scopes, including entire countries.
A response has arrived from the British government suggesting that many substantiated suspicions about National Archives may have been in vain. Glyn Moody commented on it.
PDF is an international standard (ISO 32000-1: 2008) and is supported by all major browsers, either natively or via freely available plug-ins. The National Archives does not currently plan to convert any records to Microsoft Office Open XML format.
Alex Brown, the man who lobbied for Microsoft’s OOXML in the British public sector [1, 2], is once again interfering with ODF and trying to have its reputation mucked.
Pamela Jones, seeing what he wrote over the weekend, wrote: “Well. Now they admit it. What a mess. And how this entry reveals the scheme. They want us, I gather, to mark on a curve when judging OOXML. If ODF can be painted as not properly maintained, then OOXML doesn’t look so bad. If one can subtly hint that ODF should just fade away, people may opt for this “standard” no one can use. No wonder they were trying to get ODF placed in their hands. The better to make it fade away, I trust. How hilarious that they have only a few weeks to fix it all. There is a God! The punishment fits the crime. May they enjoy their work to the full. They earned it.”
Later she followed up with this short article.
If you saw Alex Brown’s offensive suggestion that some think ODF should just “fade away” in News Picks, it no doubt made your blood boil. Here’s where you can put some of that energy, if you are so inclined: Rob Weir has announced the new technical committee, ODF Interoperability and Conformance TC, and he’s asking for individuals and projects to please sign up to help out.
Further to yesterday’s strong criticism of ISO, Charles had this to say:
In short, national standards bodies voted on a text they never read, and the result was an astounding yes prompted by pressures of various kinds. The rest is history: The appeals that never got answered properly, the dubious voting procedure, the letter of protest sent by four countries to the ISO… Once again, this chapter is full of darkness, lack of transparence and maneuvers in dark alleys. Once again, the ISO has not hesitated once to dive in the mess and proudly follows what it believes is the reasonable way; so reasonable, in fact, that if told to define the Law of Gravity the ISO would now claim that any physical body falls on the ground if released from above not because of Gravity, but because it is reasonable.
Microsoft cannot ever be trusted on the issue of standards. Its entire business model builds upon stubborn lock-in and even the World Wide Web is negatively affected by it. We wrote about Microsoft and SVG a few weeks back (even the founder of the Web complained about it) and here comes an article from Bruce Byfield, who echoes the very same concern:
No matter which vector graphics program you use, you should note that saving graphics to .SVG format can cause problems when you go to use them. For one thing, Internet Explorer does not support the format, which prevents it from being used extensively in Web graphics, though it is ideally suited for them.
To Microsoft, this was most likely a business decision. No technical barrier stood in its way all these days. █
“It’s a Simple Matter of [Microsoft’s] Commercial Interests!“
–Microsoft on OOXML
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And Microsoft lets go off unflattering intelligence
Microsoft’s friends at IDC are a serious issue that was discussed here many times before. This post is not a repetition of older evidence but an addition of new examples, one of which is to be found in this article.
Gillen [of IDC] also debunked one oft-touted advantage of open source: access to the source code. In practice, most companies lack the expertise to modify the code so this doesn’t really help, he said. Therefore, The only advantage of open source software is reduced vendor lock-in, Gillen concluded.
This is the most classic Microsoft FUD. Oracle uses it too and Gillen should know better. He probably does. Without going into the technical details of the flawed arguments, it’s worth remembering other recent cases where IDC attacked Free software. Examples include the IDC/BSA tag-team act to make Europe Free software-hostile and the recent suggestion that GNU/Linux has just 13% in servers.
“IDC was routinely hired by Microsoft to perform anti-GNU/Linux studies.”Last year, Peter Galli and Al Gillen tried to give readers the impression that “Linux is [was] Losing to windows.” They spoke about servers in a pseudo (i.e. manufactured) debate.
It was the typical type of lie from eWeek (now bankrupt), where they cited the counting of preinstalls and revenue only. Peter Galli was more recently hired by Microsoft (seems like a ‘reward’ for his work), having spread such lies without any criticism or balancing act.
IDC was routinely hired by Microsoft to perform anti-GNU/Linux studies. In some well-documented court cases, it was also found that they not only counted the wrong thing (on purpose), but they and hid sponsorships or ‘massaged’ the results by bad tweaking of the candidate platforms. Ugly practices, no doubt.
A lot of people just parroted IDC’s latest disinformation, which claimed GNU/Linux had mastered only 13% of servers. They deliberately measured the wrong thing without disclaimers or moderation, as pointed out in this podcast from last year. That who pays the bill also calls the shots and sets the rules. The Linux Foundation proved it. These analysts ‘take turns’, depending on who puts money on the table.
Here is a recent article that questions those figures from IDC, but can it actually deliver the truth?
Let’s take a look at the Linux market. Linux has many things going for it, yet it makes up just 13.4 percent of total server revenue. (Don’t forget, many servers run Linux but don’t generate revenue for vendors.)
This article from last week sheds some light on Microsoft’s reality (Microsoft harvests a lot of data that it keeps private).
“Forty percent of servers run Windows, 60 percent run Linux,” he [Steve Ballmer] said. “How are we doing? Forty is less than 60, so I don’t like it. … We have some work to do.”
Groklaw wrote this about it too: “Remember all the “Get the Facts” nonsense about Windows beating Linux in servers? Here is the truth at last, from Ballmer himself, and it’s exactly what we told you back then too: Linux is 60 percent, Windows only 40, and you heard it from the horse’s mouth.”
So there we have it. IDC says 13% (going by Microsoft’s definitions that keep them happy), but at times of frustration Microsoft concedes the truth. In a similar vein, Microsoft lies about and daemonises any competition which it dislikes by describing it as dangerous, monopolistic, or evil. One example of this is Google, which even Yahoo! has begun defending from Microsoft’s lies.
Yahoo joins Google in defending ad deal
“Here’s the bottom line,” Decker wrote late last week. “Yahoo will use this agreement to help us become a stronger competitor in all aspects of online advertising; and Yahoo is not exiting the sponsored search business. We plan to remain a strong player in sponsored search.”
Early on, she takes issue with a statistic thrown around by Microsoft that the deal gives Google 90 percent share of the search-ad market, a statistic that derives from combining the two companies’ individual share. “That’s just plain wrong,” she said. “It’s important to note that the agreement is non-exclusive and gives us the option to ‘backfill’ with Google ads if and when we see fit. The reason we structured the deal this way–rather than a more typical exclusive deal with revenue commitments to us and traffic commitments to Google–was precisely to avoid the issues the critics are raising.”
Microsoft has already tried a variety of other dirty tricks to obstruct Yahoo! and Google collaborations. Here is why, based on the words of a Microsoft fan.
August U.S. search share data shows ugly declines for Microsoft in 2008.
Microsoft also bemoans the dominance of VMware, not just GNU/Linux (on servers and supercomputers). It’s all just Microsoft’s means of being portrayed as an heroic knight fighting to restore competition. How hypocritical.
Here is a new example involving VMware. Microsoft speaks about an “opportunity to democratize virtualization.” The slog against VMware and the bundling are not even being mentioned, but the source of the article should not surprise. █
“Analysts sell out – that’s their business model… But they are very concerned that they never look like they are selling out, so that makes them very prickly to work with.”
–Microsoft, internal document
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