Free software: taking on dominant market forces
Richard Stallman is famous for his brushes with authority. In the 1970s at
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence
Laboratory, he reset the system passwords to null strings because he didn't
like restricted computer access. He went on to found the free software
movement and the GNU Project, which saw him author the General Public
License (GPL) that defined the four basic rights of computer users. A
million programmers now reputedly contribute to free software. And now,
after 15 years, GPL is ready for its next version, GPLv3. Stallman has
drafted it with legal counsel from Eben Moglen, professor of law and history
of law at Columbia University. Excerpts from an interview with Anand Sankar
on the sidelines of the 4th International GPLv3 Conference held at
- What are the main changes in GPLv3 and why were they necessary?
Various changes are proposed for various reasons, so there is no general
reason. There are different kinds of reasons. First of all some changes have
to do with fighting against software patents. GPLv3 has an explicit patents
licence and it has a limited kind of patent retaliation. Consider if Company
A is running a version of a GPL-covered program on which they have made
improvements and they get a software patent for the technique that it will
feature, and then someone else, B, makes similar improvements on that
program, then A can't sue B. If they do, then they lose the right to
continue maintaining that program. So it is a way in which we can prevent
treachery to the community.
We have made the results of GPL as uniform as possible, independent of
national copyright law variations. We have defined two new terms, propagate
and convey, instead of copy and distribute.
- The new version takes DRM (Digital Rights Management) head on. India might
also go ahead with an amendment to the Copyright Act of 1957. What
consequences will it have?
The media companies are trying to take total power over the public. They
want to publish books, movies and music in formats that are encrypted and
that are designed for the sole purpose of controlling the public. So their
idea is that nobody should be allowed to or able to make a player, except
with their approval.
The companies want to modify GPL-covered free software to restrict the user.
The next thing they want to do is ensure we users cannot change the program
And this brings them in direct conflict with GNU GPL, which says you are
free to change the program and redistribute it and the next person too has
freedom to make the changes he wants to make.
- Do you feel that the Kerala Government's decision to start using free
software in schools is something that the rest of the country will follow?
If you teach students to use proprietary software you are teaching them to
be helplessly dependent on a particular company. And that is not good for
society as a whole. So, the schools should not do it. What the Kerala
Government is doing is the right thing and all the other States in India
should be doing this.
- There are a lot of misconceptions about free software. What kind of an
economic model does an entrepreneur look at when he starts out with free
I want to ask you why that question is worth asking. First of all there are
many people who don't have to make money. Importantly even if a person has
to make a living, he doesn't have to make a living from everything he does.
Lots of people develop free software in their free time and there are people
who have to make a living and they do make a living.
To jump from, this person is not rich and therefore has to work, to, this
person can't write free software because he is not paid to write it, is an
There are over a million contributors to free software, a substantial
fraction is getting paid and a majority are volunteers.
I suspect the reason people bring up this question of economics as a
secondary detail is because they are labouring under the misconception that
the free software community is impossible, unless the developers are getting
- Catering to local needs is a stated goal of free software but GPL itself
has not been officially translated into local languages. Your comments.
We are trying to write the text in such a way that its results are as
uniform as possible in all countries. And for the same reason, uniformity of
results, we are not translating it. Every translation would be an
opportunity to make a mistake. And any mistake could be a disaster. Free
software must be written in English and the reason is it is the language
understood by programmers around the world. Obviously to have that in other
languages is a good thing. So, we have encouraged others to publish
translations that are clearly marked unofficial and we link to them from our
site. You can use it as a guide if you don't read English.
For more information on the GNU Project visit http://www.gnu.org/
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