Richard Matthew Stallman, often called the father of the free and open source movement, is the founder of the Free Software Foundation. He has launched the GNU project, aimed at creating a free Unix-like operating system. He is also the pioneer of the CopyLeft concept and is a social activist campaigning against software patents and copyrights. During his recent visit to India he spoke to Samir Sachdeva on issues close to his heart: promotion of ‘free and open source software’ (FOSS). Edited excerpts from the interaction:
How do you define free software?
Free software is one where the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. In simple terms it means (asks) if the program is exerting control over the user or the user controls the program. If the user has the freedom then I will term it as free software.
What are the four essential freedoms associated with a free software?
The four freedoms associated with a free software are the freedom to run the program, for any purpose; freedom to study how the program works, and change it so it does your computing as you wish; freedom to redistribute copies of the software and freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions to others.
How does it differ from proprietary software?
In proprietary software the knowledge is withheld and the source code is not available to the user whereas access to source code is precondition for open source.
Why is freedom to study so important?
If we don’t have the above freedom, we will not be sure of the contents of the software. The software may contain malicious code, spy software; digital handcuffs or is even capable of remote commands. An individual can study the source code and can find a bug in open software but in case of proprietary software one cannot read the source code let alone find a bug.
What can a government do in such cases?
If the user is a government agency, it can have a team to verify the source code. However, free software cannot guarantee that there is no bug. Microsoft has given a copy of source code to some governments but one cannot be sure if the source code is the same as available in a specific product.
Some states like Kerala and West Bengal have adopted free software. How do you see these developments in India?
I don’t follow them closely. I hear about things from time to time. I am in favour of that, it’s the right thing to do. Not just at the state level but at every level of government. As I have said before, governments should not tolerate proprietary software in their operations.
Can you give more examples of how proprietary software companies are getting hold of various computer systems?
These companies are distributing computers to children of certain ages and those computers have the Windows operating system in them. So, effectively these companies are manipulating the future. Some software companies donate free copies of their software and students become dependent. In case a student has some doubts in case of propriety software, a teacher may not be able to explain the same as the source code is secret to the teacher as well.
Is it then like a drug addiction?
Absolutely. In fact, Gates said so. In the 1990s he said that he wasn’t so bothered about the unauthorised copies of Windows because he said that pirated copies were like getting people addicted to Windows and he would find a way to make money from them somehow.
But Microsoft also said that it would share source codes with the government.
Microsoft said that they would let the governments look at the source code which they themselves claim was the source code corresponding to what the people were running. But we don’t know if something is left out in that source code. We can’t trust that.
If the governments had to ask for something from the proprietary software companies, what should it be?
Make it free. That is the only thing that does the job, nothing else is sufficient. So don’t think about the idea of asking them something else.
So do you suggest legislation or a policy for that?
I don’t know whether it needs to be a law or whether a policy is sufficient because it depends on the rest of the laws and the jurisdiction of a particular place.