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Liberating cyberspace - Interview with Richard M. Stallman, founder, Free Software Foundation, FRONTLINE

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By V. Sasi Kumar, FRONTLINE, Vol: 26, Issue: 04, Feb 14-27, 2009

Twentyfive years of Software Freedom: An interview with Richard Stallman
Dr. V. Sasi Kumar

 

Richard Mathew Stallman needs no introduction to the reading public in India. He has visited India several times during the last eight years or so, and has given lectures in many parts of the country. He started the GNU1 project in September 1983 to create software that gives users the freedom to use, share, modify and redistribute. Though he was alone in this task at the beginning, today there are tens of thousands of programmers world-wide helping to create such software. The GNU project has inspired a large number of projects for creating Free Software, and has led to the development of a wide variety of ap- plications from text editors to office suites, browsers, email clients, audio and video editors and even 3D animation tools. And this is beginning to challenge large companies that create proprietary software. GNU/Linux, formed from the kernel (core) Linux developed initially by Linus Torvalds and tools like compilers, editors, etc. developed under the GNU project, is the most popular Free Operating System and this is being increasingly adopted by governmental and other agencies in many developed and developing countries. In India, Free Software has been mandated for government purposes by the Government of Kerala in its ICT policy, and has become part of the syllabus of state schools. Several organisations in the country use Free Software, including LIC and Tamil Nadu’s ELCOT.

Stallman also developed the GNU General Public Licence (GPL), under which most Free Software is published, the Free Documentation Licence for software documentation and the Lesser GPL for certain types of software. In 1984, he left his job in the Artificial Intelligence Lab of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology fearing that the Institute may demand the copyright for his work. In 1985, he started the Free Software Foundation in Boston, USA, to promote Free Software. Today, it has its sister organisations in In- dia, Europe and Latin America. The philosophy of Free Software has led to movements to free various kinds of information from the severe restrictions imposed by copyright laws. These include Wikipedia (http://wikipedia.org), Creative Commons (http://www.creativecommons.org) and the Open Access movement in scientific publication (http://soros.org/openaccess). The new culture of co-operative production of goods of value, though the goods are vir- tual, is leading people to explore the possibility of an economy where production will increasingly become ‘peer-to-peer’ and could take over completely from the capitalist mode of production eventually.

Stallman was in India recently to participate in the International Free Software Free Society conference at Thiruvananthapuram in December 2008. This interview was done through email after his return.

Question: Twenty five years after you launched the GNU project, how do you see the progress it has made? What do you feel about its achievements and failures?

Stallman: The GNU Project has succeeded – we developed the free GNU operating system and made it work well enough for millions to use. Of course, not every specific programming project that we undertook was a success, but the overall project succeeded. It succeeded so well that it has inspired thousands of other projects to develop and release free software, which is why a GNU/Linux system distro today usually contains thousands of application programs.

However, the GNU Project was just the beginning of the free software movement’s mission. Our mission is the liberation of cyberspace. That won’t be finished until proprietary software disappears and all computer users are free. Read More

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