Patents, Protests, Plebiscites, and Protecting your freedom

Lunch with Richard Stallman


When he attended a rally in Munich this month, Richard Stallman took time out of his busy schedule to talk with our News Editor, Britta Wülfing. The conversation covered everything from Software as a Service, to patents, protests, international politics, and protecting your freedom.

Linux Pro: Let's talk about Software as a Service. I know you don't like the term Cloud Computing, but you used it before.

Stallman: I only used it once, in September, and I shouldn't have done this. Then I later found out that I should have said Software as a Service, because cloud computing is a vague, nebulous term that includes all sorts of different things which are too different to be useful to talk about together. I don't think there's anything useful to say about such a broad range of activities, not in terms of political and ethical issues. It's like "what is your political opinion of business?“ But... all business – how could you have a political opinion on that. Or "all computing where data goes around on the web" is too broad.

So software as a service means that you're doing a computation by sending your data to somebody else's computer so he can run a program that does the computation and send you the results. So it's entirely or primarily your computation on your data. This is something that you should never use. Because if you do, you're computing with somebody else's computation program then you don't control it. It's the same problem you get from using proprietary software, which is why you should never use proprietary software. But the way the problem arises is different. If you run proprietary software, you have a copy of the program, but you control what it does. But with software as a service you don't even have a copy of the program, or at least you're not using your copy of the program. But if you're using free software, and if you use your copy, then you're in control. But if you're using somebody else's copy, you never have control, not even if it's a free program. Not even if it's a release of your program.

Linux Pro: Didn't the FSF edit the Franklin Street Declaration last year in August specially on that issue?

Richard Stallman, FSF founder, in an interview with Linux Pro Magazine

Stallman: The version that was published before represents the version of a certain working group. It's not the position of the FSF. We're working on it further, to really make it our position, but I don't believe we published it yet. But it's a good point starting from there, and our position is going to state "don't use software as a service."

Linux Pro: Not at all?

Stallman: Not at all. Ever... But there are other things that services can do which may be perfectly fine along the line. Just ask: Who's computing is this? And is somebody denied the control of his computing? So let's just have a look at a web shop. If you're buying something on the web shop it's joint computing. The information doesn't belong solely to the web shop or solely to the buyer, it's a mutual one. They can't both expect ot have total control over this. One of them has got to trust the other. But it's a joint computation. So my objection towards software as a service doesn't apply to the web shop.

Look at most web sites. What they do is they publish information. You connect to the site to look at the information that is published there. So the data belongs much more to the one who is publishing the data then to the one who's looking at the data. And the fact that you're connecting to the server, I cannot see anything wrong with this.

Now consider a joint activity where people together create information, like for example Wikipedia. If you 're adding a Wikipedia page, it's not your computing, it's Wikipedia's computing. So I say, the party that deserves control over that computing is not you, it's Wikipedia. And Wikipedia does have control over it, because it uses its own servers, software that is free and it has control over it.

These are cases of various kinds of service, where I don't see a problem.

Linux Pro: I understand your concerns talking about cloud computing, looking at so many scenarios.

Stallman: Yes, and there is another one. Where people say "you pay something and you can store your data here,“ with servers in a big distance. If you encrypt your data, and use checksums so you can tell if somebody changed your data, then the only thing he could do to hurt you is lose your data. So that is always possible, so if it's not sensitive in some way and you're confident that he's not malicious, then I guess it's okay to use that service. But make sure you encrypt the data yourself, and don't use a non-free encryption program supplied to you gratis by the site.

Then there's another case. Suppose somebody rents you the use of a computer part time, and lets you run whatever software you want. There you still control the computing, because you decide what software you run. From what I gather, Amazon is doing something that almost gets there, but doesn't, because they don't let you specify your own system. They offer you various GNU/Linux distributions to choose from, but all the ones they offer are distributions that steer the user towards proprietary software. They don't include any of the 100 percent free software distros.

Linux Pro: They offer Red Hat, what about that? Is that not 100 percent free software?

Stallman: No.

Linux Pro: They claim it to be.

Stallman: I don't know what they say. I'd be surprised if they said anything about free software at all. We talk with the people who make Fedora. They almost removed all the non-free software, but they did not remove the non-free firmware from the Linux kernel itself.

Linux Pro: But wouldn't that be difficult?

Stallman: It's not difficult at all. It's just a choice whether you do it. The reason it's not difficult is we've already done the work. We have a Linux Libre where we have removed the non-free firmware. So if you want a free version GNU/Linux distro you do have to get it from us.

Linux Pro: "From us" means the FSF?

Stallman: Us is FSF in America. That does this.

Linux Pro: What about Debian?

Stallman: Debian has voted in November that they would not remove all the non-free firmware.

Linux Pro: The reason they gave were the hardware drivers. So if they removed it, the choice of hardware would get smaller.

Stallman: Yes. If it needed this kind of firmware, it won't work.

Linux Pro: So that would mean a smaller audience for the distro.

Stallman: That's right. So what? Is the goal freedom or is the goal to have something that runs on a wide range of computers? If you distribute a non-free program or if you pretend a non-free program is a solution, then you're denying that it is a problem. The most important point of the free software movement is: Proprietary software is a problem. We cannot present it as a solution, it would deny the fundamental point, which is the reason for everything we do.

It's self-defeating in the long term – in the short term, you can say this is more successful, more people can run it, maybe that's true. But if you look at the effect when you're trying to teach the people on freedom, the answer is it undermines the effort, because we speak loudest by example. In effect you're saying that non-free software is good for something. And we're saying non-free software is bad, bad as in evil. So get rid of it.

Linux Pro: Today you're here for the software patent demo in Munich. Is there a recent development in software patents in Europe that made you come all the way to Germany?

Stallman: I came here because FFII (Foundation for Free Information Infrastructure) invited me. When it comes to software patents in Europe, I've done many things with FFII to fight software patents in Europe, and I continue doing so. But I'm a little disappointed on the main organizers of this protest. They gave us only five minutes to talk about software patents, the rest was for another important matter, the patent on farm animals.

Linux Pro: In your speech you've used very harsh words towards the European Patent Office. You called them "corrupt“ and "malicious.“ On what grounds did you choose these words?

Stallman: Yes. They are working for patent holders, they are getting their money from patent holders, and they try to slip patents into every area of life. For me corruption of an organization is not limited to a case when somebody is taking a bribe secretly and private, but the organization itself takes money from certain parties and then begins serving those parties in a way that harms the society. That also means corruption. Corruption is very common in nominally democratic governed states.

RMS in discussion with European Patent Office personal in Munich, Germany.

Linux Pro: In the papers they hand out they try to explain that they just follow the rules made by the government.

Stallman: It's what they claim, and I think it's a bullshit claim. I recommend getting rid of the European Patent Office, if that's what it takes to get rid of software patents. Maybe you can do it without getting rid of the Patent Office, in which case – okay. But people shouldn't feel there's anything sacred about having a European Patent Office.

The validity of a patent depends on various things. The European Patent Office was set up to make all these decisions in a centralized way. Perhaps they should be allowed to make some of these decisions, but the question whether it's a patentable veal should go back to the countries. And each country should be allowed to decide whether patents can be valid in any given field.

Linux Pro: Today the European Law is standing above the German Law. So if the European Union should decide that they'd be patenting software, it wouldn't matter much what the German government says.

Stallman: Given that the European Union is so undemocratic, I would say that the state of affairs that you just cited constitutes a danger in itself. What I'm suggesting is they change the European law. That would change the disposition back to the individual states.

Linux Pro: But that's something that surely will not happen, actually they are working to make the European Union stronger.

Stallman: That's obviously totally harmful. The European Union is too undemocratic already.

Linux Pro: Why do you think so?

Stallman: From what I learned about the processes when I was helping people fight the software patent directive. I saw how little the parliament gets to decide, the way the voting system works. If they want to reject something by the council of ministers, more than half of the total membership has to vote against it. But that's hard to do, which means that the council of ministers can normally change the directive however it wants, and it's very hard for the parliament to resist that. Well, in the case of the software directive we know why two countries approved it. In Denmark, Microsoft had bought a small Danish company with 2000 employees. And Microsoft has told the minister, if Denmark doesn't vote for software patents in the council of ministers, we will move that company somewhere else. In other words: Microsoft blackmailed.

Linux Pro: Do you have proof?

Stallman: It was written about in Danish newspapers. Microsoft denied it, of course, that's what they would say. So Denmark changed the position. And then Poland was blocking the directive, and we had a "Thank Poland“ campaign. And a group of European mega-corporations, I recall one of them was Ericsson, they said to the Polish government "We're spending a lot of money here... and if Poland doesn't change its policy, we will stop.“ And Poland changed its position. In other words: It's very easy for a company to blackmail or buy one of the states of Europe by the simple threat of taking away some of its business.

Linux Pro: But exactly the same could happen within a country.

Stallman: Right, and that's part of my point. I know, but that's different if a parliament would be voting. The Danish parliament didn't vote on this; it was a minister's decision. So I guess it's harder to buy or blackmail a parliament in a country than to buy or blackmail the executive. But, the other point is, if that directive had passed, changing it would have been impossible. Because that part of the European Commission that is in charge of that only wants to increase the amount of monopoly power that there is. And the result: No directive to reduce it would ever have a chance.

So what I'm proposing is, the decisions by individual countries wouldn't have to be made by the law, and they would be changeable. This way we get back democracy again, where citizens of the country didn't like the decisions that were made, they could put pressure on the parliament to abolish the decision.

Linux Pro: I'm skeptical that the population of the countries would bring up that much energy – take software patents, for example. Although nearly everybody would be endangered by them, people are not interested.

Stallman: You're right in being skeptical. Because that's the general problem that representative democracy has today, which is why with so many issues politicians often ignore us. This would be better, but not necessarily guarantee solving the problem. But I think also the competition between countries in that case would encourage every country to want to remove restrictions on its own software developers.

But what I would recommend: the parliament should write and approve directives which then pass to a plebiscite. You can't rely on the European Commission, which, after all is hardly responsible to anybody, so randomly you get some departments which have a sense of mission which serves the public, and others which just work to increase power of corporations. So what you really get and you can't influence either, I suggest taking that out of the process of running directives. But, taking it back to the parliament is not enough. A one-chamber house would find it too easy to pass a lot of directives. So if you have to go for a plebiscite, this is probably gonna reduce the number of directives, which is probably a good thing.

Linux Pro: There's a big load of work behind a plebiscite.

Stallman: It's not that big a thing. In Switzerland they have it many, many times a year. On many sorts of things they have plebiscites.

Linux Pro: But if you look at the few plebiscites we have in Germany, in a limited area, they are hardly finding much interest.

Stallman: I'm not trying to argue about what your country is doing now, but Switzerland shows that is feasible. The European Union is rich, and the extent of having section elections, suppose four times a year, with various subjects to vote on, that would be entirely feasible. What is democracy worth? Minor difficulties like this are insignificant. The real question is: Is this a way to get a better democracy? I don't know if it's the best way, but it's the way I thought of.

The point is, the European Commission is not responsible to the public. It's too easy for companies to influence by blackmailing individual states. The amount of money you'd need to move to blackmail states is not that much. Many people who vote are harder for mega-corporations to buy. By getting rid of the European Commission in those directives you make it easier to reverse a bad directive. The European Commission can't be influenced by democracy, which is the ultimate obstacle.

Linux Pro: Let's talk once more of today's way of protesting against patents. If you have followed the lawsuit Microsoft has against TomTom , you may have noted that Jim Zemlin has called out to developers to stop using FAT filesystems.

Stallman: I followed that case, they settled the suit. There was no decision. Now, we don't know what that settlement says.

Linux Pro: TomTom agreed to take the mentioned part of software out of their product; they agreed to pay Microsoft some money.

Stallman: I've heard a rumor that Microsoft paid TomTom a big lump sum, because TomTom wasn't doing well. And because TomTom was offered money, it didn't try to invalidate the patents. According to a patent lawyer I spoke to, the patents are pretty weak and probably could have been knocked out.

Linux Pro: A couple of months ago there was a court's decistion in the U.S.A. which got known as " re Bilski .“ Do you think that will have an effect on software patents in U.S.A?

Stallman: Well, I'm not really sure how that will be interpreted, but it looks like it should be interpreted like "no software patents.“

Linux Pro: Do you think that the new U.S. government will change anything about patents and copyright?

Stallman: I don't know whether they will change anything about that. Obama is generally on the side of the copyright mega-corporations. In terms of leading war on file sharing, Obama is even worse than Bush. Obama has appointed five RIAA lawyers, record company lawyers, who are in one way or another involved with suing teenagers for hundreds and thousands of dollars, to important justice department positions. So basically he's working for them on that issue.

Linux Pro: Sounds like bad news.

Stallman: But patents are a totally different issue, and involve different corporations. So I have no idea where he stands on patents.

Linux Pro: There have been reports that he's considering bringing free software to the government.

Stallman: Not that I heard of – I've not heard anything that he shows interest in free software. He did ask somebody to write a report about open source, which is not the same thing. And the person he asked was the former head of Sun, I believe it was Scott McNealy, somebody who is not even a champion of open source.

Linux Pro: So now from first hand, how would you differentiate between Open Source and Free Software?

Stallman: Open Source is a development methodology. Free software is a social movement for user's freedom. So philosophically they are worlds apart. As it happens, nearly all open source programs are free, and nearly all free programs are open source. These two criteria are written very differently, but it's no accident that they define more or less the same set, because the definition of open source evolved from our definition of free software. So basically, although we're talking about mostly the same sets of software, the ideas that they say about them are very different. So when it comes to the activity of software developers, if a certain group of people decides to develop a program and they get open sourced, it's probably going to be free software. And if another group decides to develop free software, it may be open sourced. The two groups can even work together on the practical aspects of developing software, and if they use a license that fits both criteria, they don't need to think about those two camps. But as philosophies they are as different as you can find, because they are based on different values.

The open source people say: "If you use this development methodology, usually the software will be technically better. What we say is: "If you're using non-free programs, you are giving up your freedom, so never do that." They say: "Well, probably it won't be so convenient."

We say: "It's bad. Defend your freedom. Value your freedom. Protect your freedom."

Richard Stallman insists on the name GNU/Linux instead of Linux, to clarify the origin, history and purpose of the operating system. For the same reason he wants to differentiate between free and open software. His credo: "Names convey meanings; our choice of names determines the meaning of what we say".

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