The leader of the Free Software movement, Richard Stallman, is calling New Zealand’s copyright laws unjust and plans to use an upcoming tour of the country to rouse opposition to them.
Stallman, the founder of the GNU project and of the Free Software Foundation, says New Zealand’s copyright laws place restrictions on distributing certain free software packages. Specifically, these enable users to “escape from digital handcuffs (also known as Digital Restrictions Management or DRM)”, he says.
“New Zealand’s law does not go as far as the DMCA in the US, but it is unjust nonetheless,” he says.
“DRM is nearly always the result of a conspiracy of companies to restrict the technology available to the public. Such conspiracy should be a crime, and the executives responsible for it should be sentenced to prison.”
Stallman’s other mission here is to promote the Free Software Movement. The creator of the GPL licence, under which most free software is distributed, is at pains to correct misunderstandings of what the term “free software” means and to draw a distinction between it and the open source movement.
“Free software means software that respects the users’ freedom,” he says. “Free software means that people are free to cooperate and control their own computing.”
These freedoms include the user’s ability to run a program as they wish; to study the source code and to change it so the program does what they wish; the ability to “help your neighbour” by making and distributing exact copies; and, finally, the freedom to contribute to the community by making and distributing copies of modified programs.
When users have these freedoms, Stallman says, they control programs both individually and collectively.
“You don’t find malicious features in free software, because the users are in control,” he says.
“Non-free, proprietary software keeps the users divided and helpless: divided, because each user is forbidden to share it, and helpless, because the users don’t have the source code so they can’t even tell what it’s doing to them.
“To use proprietary software is to invite the developer to put his boot on your neck. It’s power that nobody should have.”
On all of these subjects, Stallman walks the talk. In 1983 he announced a plan to develop an operating system, called GNU, that would be 100% free software.
By 1992, GNU was mostly complete but lacked a kernel. At that time, a kernel called Linux was released as free software.
The combination of the two (“mostly GNU”, Stallman says, but with Linux as well), was the first available free operating system that could run on a PC. That combination is the GNU/Linux system.
Stallman says he expects to meet some academic, some GNU/Linux user groups and perhaps a business group as well on his New Zealand tour, his first time here since 1999. He has no plans to meet anyone in government, but says he would be glad to meet anyone that’s interested.
He also expects to see Ross Ihaka, developer of R, a GNU package for statistical programming.
“I don’t have any other specific plans, but I’d be happy to talk with any other free software developers about useful kinds of cooperation,” he says.
Stallman says the difference between free software and open source “is based on ethical values of freedom and social solidarity”.
“We reject non-free software, regardless of what practical advantages or disadvantages it may have, because one uses it at the price of one’s freedom,” he says.
He says the GNU/Linux system is powerful and reliable, as well as not requiring a licence fee.
“Many geeks who prefer not to think about ethical issues chose the GNU/Linux system for its practical advantages, and some of them also contributed to its development,” he says.
“However, they coined the term ‘open source’ in 1998 in order to talk about the same corpus of free software, more or less, but without alluding to ethical issues and values.
“I respect their right to their views, but people with their views would never have sought to produce a completely free operating system. The reason we have one is because of people who do care about freedom.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Stallman is also a sworn enemy of any kind of software patent.
“Software patents are like landmines for software developers,” he says. “Each software patent is a government-imposed monopoly on implementing some computational idea or technique. Any software developer — or computer user — that implements the technique can get sued for it. Thus, you as a developer or user can be sued by parties unknown to you over the ideas in the code that you wrote or the system that you set up.”
A large program combines thousands of ideas, he says. That means in a country that authorises software patents, a developer faces hundreds of potential lawsuits.
“The best solution to this problem is not to allow software patents. However, in countries that do, all developers and distributors are likely to be threatened as Red Hat was [by Firestar and DataTern, a dispute settled last month].
“That is why GPL version 3 requires companies that redistribute to get licences that cover all their downstream users.”
Stallman says patents are in the interests of “software megacorporations” that own half of all patents.
“The megacorporations cross-license with each other and can force anyone else except a patent troll to cross-license with them too. Thus, they avoid most of the harm, and patents give them a sort of control over their field.
“The US government generally works for the megacorporations, so it tries to bully other countries into allowing software patents. Governments that are inclined to bow down to the megacorporations give in. But they shouldn’t.”
Stallman arrives in New Zealand this Thursday and leaves on 21 August.
His speaking itinerary is here.