Transcript of RMS at WSIS on “Is Free/Open Source Software the Answer?”

(Update: There is now a list of free software transcripts, including a section for RMS transcripts.)

Below is a transcript of Richard Stallman’s presentation, on a panel titled "Is Free/Open Source Software the Answer?", on the 18th of November at the 2005 World Summit of the Information Society (WSIS) in Tunisia. For more on WSIS, see Georg Greve’s The Vienna Conclusion.

A video of this presentation is available on 051118-WSIS.2005-Richard.Stallman.ogg

This transcript was made by Ciarán O’Riordan of FSFE. Richard Stallman is the president of FSF – a sister organisation of FSFE.

Presentation sections

  1. Beginning
  2. What is Free Software
  3. Like cooking
  4. Current status
  5. Importance of awareness
  6. Developing countries
  7. Colonial systems
  8. Schools and proprietary software
  9. Open source
  10. TCO and freedom


[Section: Beginning]

I’ve been fighting for freedom a long time. 22 years ago now, I announced the beginning of the free software movement – a social movement for freedom for computer users. Specifically, the freedom to cooperate and the freedom to control your own computer. The freedom for users to work together in a community, controlling the software that they use. This was impossible in 1983 because computers don’t do anything without an operating system, it’s just a piece of metal and silicon that is totally useless, but all the operating systems 22 years ago were proprietary software. Software that keeps users divided and helpless.

I was determined not to have to live that way in using computers, I don’t want to be helpless and I don’t want to be forbidden to share with you. So I decided I would do something about it. What can I do? I had no political party behind me, I couldn’t expect to convince governments or corporations to change any of their policies, but I did know how to write software. So I said I’m going to develop another operating system, with the help of whoever will join in, and together we will make it free software. We will respect your freedom and you will be able then to use computers in freedom with this operating system.


[Section: What is Free Software?]

What does this freedom mean? There are four essential freedoms that make the definition of free software, and they are:

  • Freedom 0: the freedom to run the programme however you wish.
  • Freedom 1: the freedom to help yourself. That’s the freedom to study the source code and change it to do what you wish.
  • Freedom 2: the freedom to help your neighbour. That’s the freedom to copy the programme and distribute the copies to others when you wish.
  • Freedom 3: the freedom to help your community. That’s the freedom to publish or distribute a modified version when you wish.

With all four freedoms, the programme is free software.

[Section: Like cooking]

But these freedoms should not be strange to you. At least, not if you cook, because people who cook enjoy the same four freedoms in using recipes.

The freedom to cook the recipe when you want. That’s freedom zero. The freedom to study the ingredients and how it’s done, and then change it. That’s freedom one. Cooks frequently change recipes. And then the freedom to copy it and hand copies to your friends. That’s freedom two. And then, freedom three is less frequently exercised because it’s more work, but if you cook your version of the recipes for a dinner with your friends, and a friend says "that was great, can I have the recipe?" you can write down your version of the recipe and make a copy for your friend.


The same four freedoms, and this is no coincidence, because programmes, like recipes, are works that you use for practical work. You use them to do something. When you use a work to do something, if you’re not in control of it, you’re not in control of your life. And if you can’t share with other people, you’re forbidden to be part of a community.

Imagine how angry everyone who cooks would be if some day the government says "From now on, if you share or change a recipe, we’re going to call you a pirate, we’re going to compare you with people who attack ships, and we’re going to put you in prison for years because that’s forbidden cooperation". Imagine the anger that there would be. That anger is at the basis of the free software movement too. We want to have freedom in using our computers.

So we developed the GNU operating system througout the 1980s and in 1992, the last missing piece was put in place. That last missing piece is the kernel called Linux. So Linux is not an operating system, it’s one essential component of the system which is the GNU system plus Linux: the GNU/Linux system.

[Section: Current status]

That system now is used on tens of millions of computers. Jon Hall estimated a hundred million a year or two ago. No one really knows because, y’see, we’re all free. Nobody can keep track of what we’re doing. That’s part of freedom, that nobody knows exactly what’s going on because you don’t have to tell anybody.


Today it’s possible to use a computer in freedom, but that doesn’t mean freedom is safe forever. Freedom is never safe forever. There’s always a danger that you’ll get somebody like a George Bush who wants to take it away. Even in the countries like the US which says "freedom is what we’re all about", that can be turned into mere lip service. Freedoms can be crushed.

For people to have freedom, we have to be prepared to defend freedom. In order to defend our freedom, we have to recognise what it means. That’s the first step. That’s why I’m here today, talking to you about free software and the freedoms that it represents. Freedoms for you. That way you will know what your freedom means, and then maybe, next year or next decade, you’ll help us defend those freedoms and they may continue.

[Section: Importance of awareness]

Many people focus on encouraging more users to switch to free software. That’s a useful thing to do. But that alone is not enough to bring us to freedoms that endure. If we gave everybody in the World free software today, but we failed to teach them about the four freedoms, then five years from now, would they still have free software?


Probably not, because if they don’t recognise their freedoms, they’ll let their freedoms fall. They’ll let freedom slip through their fingers because they won’t bother to close their hands if they don’t know why.

So along with developing free software, along with distributing it, teaching people to use it, encouraging people to try it and switch to it, we have to constantly be teaching these same people why it matters. That it’s not just about how to get powerful convenient software, and how to get it as cheap as possible. It’s about how you can live in freedom and be a good neighbour.

[Section: Developing countries]

So, how does this relate to the issues of development? Is free software better for development? Well, that’s an understatement. Free software is the only software whose use constitutes development – because the use of a non-free programme is not development, it’s electronic colonisation.


What does it mean if your society increases the use of non-free software? Well, that’s software which nobody in your city, unless you happen to live in just the right place in the World, nobody in your city is in a position to understand it, maintain it, adapt it, extend it, or do anything with it. It’s just like the old colonial system where the colonial power had all the industry. They made all the technology and the people in the colony, they just had to buy it, and they weren’t supposed to understand anything or make anything. They hardly even knew how to fix it. Imagine if you were buying cars, and they came from the US, and any time they broke you had to ship them back to the US because it’s a secret how they work inside and nobody in your country is allowed to learn how to fix them.

That’s what proprietary software is like. This is not sustainable development. It’s not appropriate technology. This is a technology of dependence, and dependence is exactly what that system is all about. It’s keeping people helpless.

[Section: Colonial systems]

Another feature of the old colonial system was: divide and rule. Set people against each other. Don’t allow them to cooperate because that makes it easier to keep all of them in subjection. Dividing people and subjugating them is not just a minor side aspect of proprietary software, that’s what makes it proprietary software. The licence says you’re forbidden to share it with anyone and you can’t get the source code, so you don’t know what’s inside it and you can’t control it. Divided, and subjugated. That’s the nature of proprietary software. So of course the system comes out looking like the colonial system.


Another feature you might remember from the colonial system was that the colonial power would recruit a local elite. A few local people, maybe the nobels, or whoever, or one tribe against another, or they would create tribes if there weren’t tribes, so that they can massacre each other decades later – so the local elite, they would get certain privileges, and in return, they would help keep everybody else down.

You can see that today. Some proprietary software companies actively recruit local elites. They set up a software development centre in your country, and the people who work there are part of the local elite, or they do some favour either for politicians secretly or for the government openly, but it doesn’t make any difference which one, either way, they’re buying influence in the government. Converting that government from a sovereign state into their local overseer of their empire whose job is to make sure everybody else becomes dependent on the same non-free software.

[Section: Schools and proprietary software]

They say to schools: "We will help you by giving you these gratis copies of our non-free software so that you can turn your students into addicts of our software" Why do I use the term addicts? Because they develop a dependency on this software and then after they graduate, you can be sure they are not going to be offered these gratis copies anymore because it’s only the first dose that’s gratis. Once you’re addicted, then you’re supposed to pay, and then also, of course, the companies that these graduates work for, those companies are not going to be offered gratis copies. So, essentially, what these software developers are doing is they’re recruiting the schools into agents to lead people into permanent lifelong dependency.


[Section: Open source]

These are things that the open source movement usually doesn’t talk about. That’s why I don’t support open source. Open source is a way of promoting software that usually is free but without mentioning these ideals. These issues of freedom. They’re left in the background.

Open source people usually talk only about practical values. Y’know, how do you get powerful, convenient software and how much will it cost? Well, free software probably allows you to save money too. If you’re not being forced to pay for permission to use it, you can probably save money, but I think that’s a secondary issue.

Even in poor countries, freedom is important. We should never start saying "Oh, they’re so poor, freedom for them doesn’t matter, all they need is some bread and circuses", which they had here [Tunisia] once upon a time, and "they shouldn’t even think about being free". I think freedom is important in every country in every society, whether it’s rich or poor.

Nonetheless, people who support open source often contribute to extending the free software community. Many of them develop free software and those are useful contributions. I’m not saying that what they’re doing is bad, I’m saying that by itself it is not enough, because it is weak.


[Section: TCO and freedom]

Y’see, when you say the goal is to have powerful, reliable, convenient software and get it cheap, then it becomes possible for the representatives of proprietary software to say "We claim that we’ll deliver you more powerful, reliable software, we claim that our total cost of ownership will be cheaper", and I think it’s usually bullshit. When Microsoft says this, it’s based on distorted facts. It’s weak, but when we say the goal is to live in in freedom and to be allowed to cooperate with other people in a community, they can’t say they’re going to offer us more of that, cheaper. They don’t offer that at all, they’re not even competing with us. They’re out of the running. Once you decide you want to live in freedom, they are out of the running.

So, we are trying to help you reach freedom in a community. They are trying to subjugate you, but they say that they’ll get you there faster. And maybe they would.

[End of transcript]

Ciarán O’Riordan,
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