Free-software pioneer says it's all about liberty

Friday , October 31, 2014 - 2:56 PM


OGDEN — When it comes to code that runs a computer or a program, Richard Stallman believes it should be free.

Not only at no cost to the user, but unshackled and independent. To Stallman, it is a matter of liberty, not price.

“We say free software as in ‘free speech’ not ‘free beer,’” Stallman said.

The computer programmer and activist shared his views, which earned him the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” during a presentation at Weber State University on Thursday.

At times, the Elizabeth Hall George S. Eccles Lecture Hall was standing room only during Stallman’s 90-minute presentation, "Free Software and Your Freedom.”

The lecture was part of the WSU College of Applied Science and Technology speaker series and was sponsored by the Technology Outreach Center.

The presentations’s organizer, Luke Fernandez WSU’s Program and Technology Development manager, Stallman helps people understand how the the adoption of software has political consequences.

According to Fernandez, Stallman’s talk served as a reminder that we're making moral choices when we use software and digital technology. Some uses of digital technology promote freedom while others degrade it. We should keep those implications in mind when we're using our digital devices.

Stallman launched the free-software movement in 1983 and started the development of the GNU operating system in 1984. The free GNU software is on millions of computers and is also part of the GNU/Linux operating system.

“Most people who have heard of my work think I have something to do with Linux and something to do with ‘open source,’” Stallman said.

But he said the developer of Linux built off of his software, and open source is a term used to blur the message of free software.

“If people think they know what we stand for and it’s ‘open source,’” Stallman said, “then they won’t think to continue to investigate.”

As a believer in the free software movement, he wanted to use his skills as a programmer to create a more open and informed society.

“I had a way to save people from the injustice of proprietary software,” Stallman said. “If you see somebody drowning and you can swim and there is no one else, you have a duty to save them.”

Software should respect a user’s freedom, he said.

“If you have a choice between developing a non-free program and doing nothing at all,” Stallman said, “you should do nothing at all. At least do no harm.”

As well as creating GNU (pronounced with a hard “G,”) he started the Free Software Foundation and pioneered the Copyleft software license, in order to promote his message.

“Developing a free program is a contribution to society,” Stallman said.

To be free, Stallman said, software must not restrain a user's ability to run, copy, distribute or even modify the software.

Proprietary software, such as Windows, Mac iOS, Android and others, does not follow his principles.

He considers them malware that gives power to the owner of the software, not the user.

Even programs that are gratis still send and receive data to and from users, with or without their knowledge. A book on an Amazon Kindle or a song on Spotify is never the property of the user to do with as they may, he said. When the user is finished with an item, the user cannot share it with a friend. Throughout the item’s use, users are tracked.

“Amazon’s views on private property are more extreme than the Soviet Union,” Stallman said. “All your books are belong to us.”

Most people do not know they have a basic human right to software, he said.

“It never occurred to them that they have a different choice,” Stallman said. “We believe they should be inalienable rights, not able to be taken away from them.”

In order to make the message come to fruition, more people need to learn to write and read code, he said. Those who cannot, can help as well.

“If you aren’t a programmer,” Stallman said, “it doesn’t mean we don’t need you. You could be an organizer or a speaker. If you can write good English, you can write manuals.”

By promoting these issues, people will be able to become a part of a democratic society.

For more information about Stallman and the free software movement, visit

In addition to Stallman’s presentation, the Technology Outreach Center is sponsoring two additional talks.

The next one, will be on Nov. 11th at 2 p.m. in the Special Collections Room of the library we have a panel discussion titled “Intellectually Right or Intellectually Wrong: A Discussion on the Benefits and Social Costs of Intellectual Property.”

Another will be on Nov. 18 at 1 p.m. in Room 404 of the Shepherd Union Building. This will be a presentation by Mark Ripke, one of the lead engineers of Boeing, titled “Build Something Better: Boeing Salt Lake”

Contact Jesus Lopez Jr. at 801-625-4239 or Follow him on Twitter at @jesuslopezSE and like him on Facebook at

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