ZDNet interviews 'free software' guru Richard Stallman

The president of the Free Software Foundation and founder of the free software movement speaks out against UCITA

When Richard Stallman founded the GNU (Gnu's Not Unix) Project in 1984, his aim was to create Unix-compatible tools that were free. Now, 16 years later, GNU software is a critical part of most Unix systems and forms the basis -- along with Linus Torvalds' Linux kernel -- of all Linux systems.

With the proposed Uniform Computer Information Transaction Act (UCITA) threatening the free software movement, ZDNet US' Robert Lemos caught up with Stallman, president of the Free Software Foundation, in India.

What will be the effect of UCITA on the free software movement?

Stallman: UCITA would make it harder for us to avoid liability for bugs that turn up in the free software we develop, while giving proprietary software developers a very easy way to avoid all liability for their products -- even for faults that they know about in advance. This is grossly unfair.

UCITA would also give proprietary software developers a way to prohibit reverse-engineering. They could then promulgate secret formats for distributing and storing data, and stop us from implementing free software to handle those formats. We would be unable to provide you with software to access your own data.

What will be the effect on GNU development? What about GNU/Linux?

Stallman: I don't expect UCITA to have any immediate effect on our software development. But in the long term, we will probably have trouble making our software handle the secret data formats, and support new hardware whose specifications are secret.

Microsoft already said it plans to use secret formats and protocols to block the development of GNU/Linux. The format of Word is already a secret, and it is only through reverse-engineering that people can figure out anything about it.

Will software be worse because of UCITA?

Stallman: That is the wrong question. The right question is: How will users of software be worse off because of UCITA? I've already explained the problems free software will face. We will face additional obstacles to doing a good job. For non-free software, developers will not face additional obstacles, but they will be able to restrict the users in onerous ways. So, even if the software is unchanged, the users will be worse off.

For example, the owners will be able to change the software licence at any time, restricting what you are allowed to do with a program. They will be able to send you email containing new conditions, and these new conditions will be legally binding on you, even if you never actually got the mail. If you do see the mail and you reject the new conditions, they will be able to demand that you stop using the program -- and even send your machine a message across the network to turn off the program without a moment's notice.

If there is so much opposition, why has the BSA, and others, had so much success in pushing the bill through?

Stallman: As far as I know, they have succeeded in one state. The term "so much success" seems to be an exaggeration. I don't know why they succeeded in Virginia; I can only guess. But here are some things, which are not unusual, which may have happened this time:

  • The supporters of UCITA are probably better organised and have more money to contribute to election campaigns.

  • The legislators probably have not actually read UCITA, and that enabled supporters of UCITA to mislead them about both what UCITA would do and why people oppose it.

  • The supporters of UCITA probably told the legislators that if Virginia passes UCITA and other states do not, some software companies will move to Virginia.

State legislators and governors often give an unreasonable amount of emphasis to winning business to their states from others. They often do this without regard to whether the country as a whole will benefit or suffer as a result. Business often uses this to manipulate states, to play one state against another, to get what it wants.

The joke, though, is on them, because only retail Internet sites would move to Virginia, and the total employment of these sites would be insignificant. The software development will remain where it is, in California, Washington, Bangalore or wherever.

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