You launched the GNU Project in September 1983 to create a free Unix-like operating system, and have been the project's lead architect and organizer since then. Why did you start it in the first place? Back then it was already clear that software was becoming proprietary?
Stallman: In 1983, all operating systems were proprietary, non-free software. It was impossible to buy a computer and use it in freedom. Proprietary software keeps the users divided and helpless, by forbidding them to share it and denying them the source code to change it. The only way I could use computers in freedom was to develop another operating system and make it free software. I announced the plan in September 1983, and began development of the GNU system in January 1984.
On Feb. 3, 1976, Bill Gates wrote his famous "open letter to hobbyists" where he stated that software should be paid [for] just like hardware. Did you read that manifesto at the time? What was your impression back then?
Stallman: I never heard of it at the time. I was not a hobbyist, I was a system developer employed at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab. I had little interest in 16-bit microcomputers, because the lab's PDP-10, with a memory equivalent to 2.5 megabytes, was much more fun. Pascal is both weak and inelegant compared with Lisp, our high-level language, and for things that had to be fast, assembler language was more flexible.
I don't know how I would have reacted at that time if I had seen that memo. My experience at the AI lab had taught me to appreciate the spirit of sharing and free software, but I had not yet come to the conclusion that non-free (proprietary) software was an injustice. In 1976 I did not use any non-free software. It was only in 1977, when Emacs was ported to the non-free Twenex time-sharing system that I started to experience the nastiness of proprietary software. After that, I needed time to recognize this as an ethical and political issue.
What do you think about intellectual property?
Stallman: I am careful not to use that confusing term in my thoughts, because it does not refer to a coherent thing, although it misleadingly appears to. The term lumps together laws that raise totally different issues, as if they were one subject.
Copyrights exist, and I have opinions about copyright law. Patents also exist, but patent law is almost completely different from copyright law. My opinions about patent law are also completely different from my opinions about copyright law. Trademark law exists too and it has nothing at all in common with copyright law or patent law. If you want to think clearly about any of these laws, the first step is firmly insisting on treating them as three different subjects.
If you say something about "intellectual property," you are trying to generalize about three laws that are totally different. Whatever you say will be a foolish over-generalization, because that term only leads to such. I've decided to avoid that pitfall by never using the term. [see here for more explanation.]
What's more important to you, GNU's huge user base or its large developer base?
Stallman: I appreciate them both, but neither is what matters most. We didn't develop GNU just to make it a technical triumph, or just to have a success. Our goal was to win freedom, for ourselves and for you.
What's important about GNU is that it provides a way to use computers in freedom. But this achievement is precarious. There are hundreds of GNU/Linux distros, and nearly all include some non-free software.
In 1992, GNU/Linux made it possible for the first time to use a PC and keep your freedom. By 2000, ironically, every version of GNU/Linux included non-free software and thus invited users to surrender their freedom by installing some. Today, I am glad to say, the Ututo and gNewSense distributions are 100 percent free software.