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Stallman to "We Developed a Free-Software Operating System So Users Could Live in Freedom."

Stallman to "We Developed a Free-Software Operating System So Users Could Live in Freedom."

[responding to the item last week announcing the initiative by Bruce Perens, James Anthill and others to develop what they are calling "UserLinux" - a single distro based on Debian GNU/Linux, free software activist Richard Stallman writes the following Letter to the Editors of]

Dear Editors,

James Anthill, who is helping to develop a version of the GNU/Linux operating system with added non-free software, says that "people always go for the path of least resistance". Ironically, there is no clearer counterexample to this supposed rule than the GNU system itself. The path of least resistance for the developers of GNU, in 1984, would have been to accept non-free software and use Unix. Instead we worked for years to develop a free software replacement, the GNU system. Today's GNU/Linux system comes from that effort.

True, some parts of the GNU/Linux system, such as the kernel, Linux, and the window system, X11, were motivated by other goals. But there would be no free system at all if we had followed the path of least resistance. We made a strenuous effort specifically to remove non-free software from our lives.

Perhaps the reason Anthill overlooked this contradiction is that he was thinking of the system as "Linux", as having been started in 1991 by Linus Torvalds. The practice of calling the system "Linux" can lead even experts to forget its history.

Since you have published a criticism of my views, I think it is proper for me to have a chance to state them properly. We developed a free-software operating system so users could live in freedom. But if you add a non-free program to the system, you lose some of your freedom. This defeats the purpose of developing the system in the first place. A non-free program is worse than no program, because no program doesn't trample your freedom, doesn't tempt you to give it up, but a non-free program does. In the long term, the only way we will ever secure our freedom is by rejecting the idea that a non-free program is "better than nothing".

On the other hand, Anthill could be right in saying that User"Linux" is a step forward from today's commercial GNU/Linux distros, which typically support many non-free programs. I'm all in favor of encouraging people to take a step towards freedom, large or small, even if the step does not arrive all the way there, provided we remember afterward to remind them that further steps are necessary to have freedom.

Richard Stallman
President, Free Software Foundation
Chief GNUisance of the GNU Project

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Most Recent Comments
Grover Righter 11/24/03 09:01:45 PM EST

The FSF/GNU Project has served (and continues to serve) the role of the Irish during the dark ages. That is – FSF/GNU preserved an ideal of software civilization that was all but wiped out by perverse greed (not commercialism, but rather its evil twin). For several years, I could find no compilers nearly as good as the ones from GNU.

FSF/GNU has contributed more usable and valuable software to the ‘public domain’ than one would have thought possible. I often disagree with Mr. Stallman, especially in his belief that all software must be free. Such an approach clearly seems to leave some ‘gaps’. In fact, I prefer the BSD license to the GPL for practical reasons. Having said this, I must also assert that Mr. Stallman, et al. retain one of the few consistent and principled stances in the current Un*x intellectual property mess.

Intellectual property (IP) could not have a worse representative than the SCO Group to promote its cause. Someone recently compared SCO defending IP to Larry Flynt defending free speech. Actually, of the two SCO Group is far worse. The company was formed as Caldera and had AS ITS PRIMARY MISSION to promote, advance and make available distributions of Linux. For the company to then purchase -some- of the Un*x IP rights (they don’t own the name “UNIX” for example) and turn on the industry they helped promote is the cheapest form of opportunism. Please note that opportunism is not the same as commercialism. The former is usually very short-term and entirely self serving; the latter must take into account the quid-pro-quo between buyer and seller over a long time horizon.

- Grover Righter (grover_righter at yahoo dot com)