Richard Stallman: Free Software and Beyond

Conference by Richard M. Stallman at the First International Conference Free Knowledge, Free Technology – Education for a free information society in Barcelona (Spain), 15 July 2008, on the production and sharing of free educational and training materials about Free Software.

Richard M. Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation
Free Software and Beyond

Free Software is about giving freedom to the user and respecting the work done by the community of programmers.

The analogy with cooking recipes is clearly the best way to help people understand the four freedoms of Free Software.

Electronic book readers are evil

The key to promote Free Software is not software in itself, the possibility to be able to “cook”, but: as long as software is needed to do more and more things because of the pervasiveness of the Digital Economy, then we’re talking not about the freedom to run some software, but the freedom to perform a lot of activities.

For instance, e-Books, DRM, etc. attempt against the possibility to lend books, or give them to your sons and grandsons, because electronic book readers are not made on free software, hence they subjugate the user to the retailers’ will. Buying such devices is like stating you don’t want to share your books so you should advice your friends that, if they buy these devices, you won’t be friends anymore, because they don’t want to share books in a community of readers.

So, the problem is not software in itself, but changing (to worse) the model of society we’re living in to another one more closed, selfish, commoditized, etc.

Free content for a free life

Practical, useful, functional works should be free

  • Software should be free
  • Recipes should be free
  • Reference works, like encyclopedias, should be free
  • Educational works
  • Font types

You have to control the tools you use to live, to shape your life. If you don’t, you’re not free.

There’s some content that can perfectly not be free. Opinion works are one of those, as it is important not to be misrepresented. But, sharing should be made possible for each and every kind of work. And this includes music sharing.

Copyright should only cover commercial use, modification of originals.

When a work embodies practical knowledge you’re going to use for your life, it should be free and it should be free to be modified. It’s not the case of art. Art should be shareable, but not modifiable.

Teaching free software vs. teaching gratis software

We should teach values, not some specific software: (a) because it’s values schools are expected to be teaching, (b) to avoid dependency from specific companies.

Thus, schools should only bring free software to classes. And free textbooks.

[now RMS transforms himself into Saint IGNUcius and things become really weird: he disguises himself, he auctions a book from the stage for 120€…]


Q: What’s exactly the definition of “practical”? RMS: Well, it’s not easy to define, and we should be working on it, but it’s the concept that matters.

RMS: You shouldn’t use anyone else’s (web)server to compute with your data, because you’re losing control of your data and what is done with it.

Q: about free hardware. RMS: let’s not mix physical things with their designs. So, objects cannot be free because they cannot be copied, literally copied. It’s their designs that can be copied, but this is again a matter of intellectual property rights, not ownership of physical things.

RMS: it’s good that medicines are produced under a controlled environment (i.e. patents and proprietary labs) because people can die if there are errors in them. My comment: wasn’t free software supposed to be better than proprietary one because given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow? (see answer below).

RMS: What we know about proprietary software is that it is a good way to concentrate wealth. So, it’s not that jobs will be lost, but some rich people will end being it: the question is whether we want to swap some billionaires for more jobs.

Stephen Downes: should we make it compulsory to share our software at classrooms? does this apply or extrapolate to educational resources? RMS: sharing should be a fundamental value to be taught at schools, so yes, sharing software should be compulsory, and same applies to content.

Stephen Downes: the problem is that the boundaries of what a classroom is are blurring, so where’s the redline? should, then, sharing software (and content) be made compulsory to everyone and everywhere in society and the world? If not, if we’re to keep some freedom not to share, where’s the line that separates classroom from the rest? Can we sell free works? Can schools sell free works when there’s an unbalance of power between the school and the student? RMS: no, the schools have no excuse to sell copies, because the works are free.

RMS: (back on the issue about some processes being controlled at closed labs) have nothing to do, it’s orthogonal, with the free software issue. Security is not about being free or not — Stallman stresses here the difference between Free Software and Open Source Software, between the ethics and philosophy of the former and the technicalities of the latter. Security and Linus’s Law are related to Open Source Software, not about it being free or not.


Free Knowledge, Free Technology. Education for a free information society (2008)