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Wednesday, 3 April, 2002, 10:29 GMT 11:29 UK
Why software should be free
Richard Stallman interviewed by BBC News Online, BBC
Stallman: Free software is defined by freedom
Richard Stallman is a pioneer of the free software movement. His vision is of software that has no secrets, that people can share freely. He told BBC News Online's Alfred Hermida why free software could replace proprietary programs.

Richard Stallman: Free software means that you the user are free to study what the program does, change it to suit your needs, distribute copies to other people and publish improved versions. And if you are not a programmer, you can engage someone else to do it for you.

Alfred Hermida: We're not talking here of software that is free of commercial value; you can sell this software?

RS: Those are two different questions. Free software today has tremendous value to commerce and as a separate matter you can sell it. That's part of the freedom. You can make copies and sell it. Everyone has the freedom to do that.

AH: How does this empower the user?

Today free software has a general reputation to be powerful and reliable

Richard Stallman
RS: It means that you can see what the program does. So if you are concerned it might have a back door, you can check what it really does. And you can study it to learn how you do those jobs. You can study it to see precisely what it does.

If you are a business user, anytime you want the program changed, you can change it to suit your needs. It means the whole community does this and together we make the software better. That's why today free software has a general reputation to be powerful and reliable. Systems will stay up for months without crashing.

AH: So you can customise it to meet your needs?

RS: They get the benefits of your improvements and you get the benefits of theirs. Fundamentally it means that when your friend says 'hey, that looks nice, can I have a copy?', you can openly and lawfully make a copy for your friend. You are not reduced to doing that as an underground activity in fear.

Drain on resources

AH: What implications does this have for developing countries; countries that are starting to build up a computer industry, places like in India?

RS: Free software is defined by freedom. One consequence of this is that if people don't have a lot of money, they can redistribute copies to each other.

India can't afford to remain stuck in the trap of using Windows

Richard Stallman
They can get copies and use them lawfully, without having money that they can't afford being squeezed out of them with threat campaigns. For a country that doesn't have a lot of money, using free software is tremendously important.

India can't afford to remain stuck in the trap of using Windows because that will mean a continuing and increasing drain on their money to various American companies. They can't afford that, so they should make it a national priority to bring an end to their use of non-free software.

AH: It strikes me that there's also an educational aspect in that if we have Indian programmers working with free software, they can look into it, find out how it works and build on that.

RS: Everyone around the world who wants to learn about programming has this benefit because to learn to write software well, you have to read a lot of software and write a lot of software.

The only way you can learn what makes a program clear is by reading programs and seeing what makes them unclear and then you know you shouldn't do that.

As a beginner you can't write such programs on your own. With the free software that we have today you can read existing programs that people really use. What's more, you can improve them because you are not at the stage that you could write a whole program, but you could write an improvement that adds a certain feature.

By doing that you can learn, you can develop the skills to write such programs and maintain them. That's how I learnt.

Locking in users

AH: If free software is so appealing how come a lot of people use proprietary systems?

Proprietary software is an anti-social system and I hope to see that system come to an end

Richard Stallman
RS: Inertia. Our first free operating system became available in 1992 at which point Microsoft already had a quasi-monopoly and when society has inertia, it tends to have a lot of resistance to switching.

In addition some of these proprietary software companies are very clever at locking the users in, deliberately making it difficult for them to switch. But in fact people are switching in our direction.

AH: If we look to the future, proprietary software is the predominant force in the computer industry. What's the role for free software in this environment?

RS: We're going to replace them. To have freedom to live as part of a community, to have the freedom to treat other people decently, you must replace your propriety software with free software, software that lets you have those freedoms.

Proprietary software is software that takes away those freedoms, divides people and keeps them helpless. Proprietary software is an anti-social system and I hope to see that system come to an end.

AH: Do you see it as a David versus Goliath battle?

RS: A little bit. But I am not so much interested in focusing on whether it is heroic, as on winning the battle. We're fighting for people's freedoms.

We need you to help. it's not just a few of us, there are tens of thousands of people contributing to free software and there are many people helping us to spread the word.

See also:

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25 Mar 01 | Business
Life gets serious for Linux
16 Feb 00 | Business
Linux - Microsoft's new nightmare
08 Jan 02 | Sci/Tech
Linux takes on MS in China
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