Hero or villain?
Stallman is a fascinating figure in the world of computing, admired by many individuals and reviled by companies such as Microsoft which see a threat from software they can't make a profit from.
Stallman has failed to break the Microsoft/Apple dominance of the desktop computer market, not to mention Apple's dominance of tablets. But the free software movement he created did lead to the proliferation of Linux-based servers which are prevalent in data centres and power much of the Internet. This is perhaps ironic because Stallman expresses resentment about the credit given to the Linux kernel at the expense of his own GNU operating system.
Stallman says he is "somewhat" proud of the proliferation of free server software, "but I'm more concerned with the size of the problem that needs to be corrected than with how far we have already come."
Free software in data centres is nice, but "with the goal of giving users freedom, their own desktops, laptops and phones are the computers that affect their freedom most." The focus is mainly on software rather than hardware, but the movement insists on "hardware that comes with specs so that we can write free software to support it fully," he says. "It is unconscionable to offer hardware for sale and refuse to tell the purchaser how to use it. This ought to be illegal."
Before agreeing to an interview, Stallman demanded that this article use his preferred terminology, e.g. "free software" instead of "open source" and "GNU/Linux" instead of just "Linux." He also requested that the interview be recorded and that, if the recording were distributed online, that it be done so in a format that works with free software.
There are four essential software freedoms, Stallman explained. "Freedom Zero is the freedom to run the program as you wish. Freedom 1 is the freedom to study the source code, and change it so the program does your computing as you wish. Freedom 2 is the freedom to help others, that's the freedom to make and distribute exact copies when you wish. And Freedom 3 is the freedom to contribute to your community, which is the freedom to distribute copies of your modified versions when you wish."
Stallman came up with the term "copyleft" to indicate licences that ensure free software code cannot be redistributed in proprietary products.
The key to Stallman's philosophy is this: "Without those four freedoms, the owner controls the program and the programs control the users," he says. "So the program is simply an instrument of unjust power. The users deserve freedom to control their computing. A non-free program is a system of unjust power and shouldn't exist. The existence and use of non-free software is a social problem. It's an evil. And our aim is a world without that problem."
"That problem" wasn't caused by one company in particular, but Microsoft is usually the most frequently criticised by people like Stallman.
"They continue regarding us as their enemy," Stallman says. Ten years ago, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer famously called Linux a "cancer." Microsoft has softened its public tone since then, but Stallman is not impressed: "They have in some ways learned to be a bit more subtle but their goal is that people should use Windows and not a free operating system." After that thought, our phone connection was lost again.
Other than Microsoft, Stallman calls out "Apple and Adobe, and Oracle and lots of others that make proprietary software and pressure people to use it."
Google "does some good things and some bad," Stallman says. "It has released useful free software such as the WebM codec, and is moving YouTube to distribute that way. However, the new Google Art Project can only be used through proprietary software."
At odds with open source
Stallman is also at odds with some people in what is known as the open source community. Open source advocates clearly sprung out of the free software movement, and most open source software also counts as free software. But Stallman says that people who identify as open source advocates tend to view the access to source code as a practical convenience and ignore the ethical principles of software freedom. Various vendors have jumped on the open source bandwagon without embracing the principles that Stallman believes should be at the heart of free software.
"I don't want to make this seem too one-sided," Stallman says. "Certainly a lot of people who hold open source views have worked on useful programs that are free and also some of those companies have funded work on useful programs that are free. So that work is good. But at the same time, at a deeper level, the focus on open source leads people's attention away from the idea that they deserve freedom."
One of Stallman's targets is Linus Torvalds, creator of the Linux kernel and one of the most famous figures in the world of free software.
Stallman and his crew worked on the GNU operating system for most of the 1980s, but there was one missing piece: a kernel, which provides resources from the hardware to programs that run on the computer. This gap was filled by Torvalds in 1991 when he developed Linux, a Unix-like kernel.
Systems using the Linux kernel are usually called just "Linux," but Stallman has fought for years to get people to use his preferred term, "GNU/Linux."
Stallman "wanted to make sure GNU got proper credit," says Miguel de Icaza of Novell, who created the free software program GNOME but has been criticised by Stallman for partnering with Microsoft and selling proprietary software.
"When Linux came out, Richard didn't take it very seriously for a while, and he kept working on his own kernel. It was only when Linux took the spotlight that he felt, to some extent, his project had not been given enough credit. The problem is, what happened at the time was there was a new community that was created out of the blue that wasn't necessarily aligned with GNU."
The GNU kernel, called Hurd, is still "under active development," according to the project's website.
The legacy of Torvalds
Torvalds' contribution to free software will be widely celebrated this year during the 20th anniversary of the Linux kernel. But Stallman won't be one of his cheerleaders, and it's not just because of the naming dispute.
"I don't admire a person who says freedom is not important," Stallman says. "Torvalds set a bad example for the community by publicly using a non-free program for the maintenance of Linux (his kernel, which is his main contribution to the GNU/Linux system). I criticised him for this, and so did others. When he stopped, it was not by choice. More recently, he rejected the GPL version 3 for Linux because it protects the users' freedom from tivoization. His rejection of GPLv3 is why most Android phones are jails."
Even Red Hat and Novell, known widely as open source supporters, don't get a ringing endorsement. "Red Hat partly supports free software. Novell much less," he says, noting that Novell has a patent agreement with Microsoft.
Despite outward pessimism, Stallman does see a few positives spurred by his quest for software freedom. When he's not at home, which is most of the time, Stallman is roaming the world giving speeches and holding discussions about free software. Before traveling to Spain, Stallman stopped off in London to give a speech in which he called Windows "malware," and met with a couple of members of Parliament to explain free software issues. He often gets a better reception in Europe than at home.
"In the US, awareness of free software has been almost completely pushed under the rug by open source. As a result, you'd never find people in any government position who'd want to talk to me," he says.
Outside of North America, some governments are embracing free software. "I found out yesterday that in France, the state agencies are continuing to move to free software," he says. "There's no systematic policy requiring them to but they're doing so more and more. And in some countries, for instance in Ecuador, there is an explicit policy for state agencies to move to free software and any agency that wants to continue using non-free software has to apply for a temporary exception, permission to do so."
Although Stallman didn't mention it, the Russian government is requiring agencies to replace proprietary software with free alternatives by 2015 in a bid to improve both economics and security, according to The Wall Street Journal.
The personal is political
In addition to free software, Stallman is devoted to political issues, and writes a blog for The Huffington Post. In fact, he sees little distinction between the corporations threatening software freedom and "the scoundrels in Washington" who are beholden to corporate donations.
In the recent Wisconsin union protests, Stallman sees something of his own spirit.
"Sometimes freedom requires a sacrifice and most Americans are not willing to make any sacrifices for their freedom," he says. "But maybe the protesters in Wisconsin are starting to change that."
Corporations and mass media "have to a large extent convinced Americans... that they're not entitled to refuse businesses whatever businesses want. Well, we need a spirit of resistance in America. We need to recover the spirit of freedom with which we created the United States."