Interview with Richard Stallman and Brian Gough, of the GNU Project

Alexandre Oliva e João Fernando Costa Júnior

Published (in Portuguese) on the 13th issue (April, 2010), first anniversary of Revista Espírito Livre.

In this anniversary issue of Revista Espírito Livre, the interview is with Richard Stallman and Brian Gough, both from the GNU Project. The conversation is conducted by Alexandre Oliva, Revista Espírito Livre columnist and Free Software Foundation Latin America member.

Revista Espírito Livre: Why did the world need a, erhm, gnu :-) operating system back in the '80s?

Richard M. Stallman: The world needed a free software operating system, because there wasn't any. So I decided to write one. Then I made technical decisions: decided to follow the design of Unix to make it portable, to make it upward-compatible with Unix so that Unix users could switch easily, and to support only 32-bit machines or bigger, to avoid the extra work of supporting a small address space.

REL: What roles do/did you play in the GNU project, and for how long?

RMS: I launched the GNU Project in 1983 and have been its leader (Chief GNUisance) ever since. However, recently I've involved the GNU Advisory Committee in some of the decisions, and I hope it will take over more the task of leading GNU in the future.

Brian J. Gough: My main coding role is as maintainer of GNU's numerical library, GSL, which I started contributing to as a developer in 1996.

More recently, I've been an organiser of several "GNU Hackers Meetings" that we have been holding in Europe in the past few years and in the USA this year at the FSF's LibrePlanet conference. These meetings are a chance for GNU contributors to get together and discuss their work in person---as well as looking ahead to see how we can respond to new threats to freedom.

Last year, I became a member of the GNU Advisory Committee which holds regular conference calls to help coordinate some of the day-to-day issues within the GNU Project, such as organising these meetings, so I spend a lot of time on that these days.

REL: The GNU GPL is regarded as one of the most important contributions of the GNU project, but GNU encompasses much more: a wholy Free operating system. What is GNU up to these days, and what have GNU developers been proud of in the past few years?

BJG: Technically the GNU Project is today focused on improving its existing software like GCC and Emacs, to keep them up-to-date with new developments, and on those areas where we need completely new programs -- the "High Priority Projects" such as Gnash, the GNU Project's replacement for Flash, GNU PDF, which aims to be a complete implementation of the PDF standard for both reading and writing. GNUstep is now achieving a high level of compatibility with the Openstep framework (Cocoa) and will help people to escape from the proprietary MacOS platform.

We are also finding new areas where free software can be improved -- for example, the GNU Project has recently launched a new accessibility initiative to ensure that users with disabilities have the same freedom as other users of free software. Currently many free programs are not accessible, and we want to make a major effort in this area over the coming years. Ultimately we want every GNU program to be accessible and every developer to have accessibility in mind when working on a program.

Looking back over the past few years, the work of the GNU Classpath and GCJ teams is a notable example of the value of working for freedom and replacing non-free software that people accept because it is available at no cost. When Java was finally released as free software by Sun in 2006, it was under the same license as GNU Classpath and we now have a complete free Java environment on GNU/Linux systems (under the name IcedTea). GNU Classpath was one of the FSF high-priority projects for this reason, because of the problem of free Java programs relying on non-free Java implementations, which RMS drew attention to back in 2004.

You mentioned GPLv2 and of course there was a major update to the GNU GPL (General Public License) to GPL version 3 in 2007, following an extensive worldwide public consultation process involving numerous free software projects, companies and legal experts. The update made the license easier for developers to use and removed unnecessary incompatibilities with other similar free software licenses. It also gave new protection to free software projects from software patents and attempts by manufacturers to circumvent the freedoms of the license using locked-down devices and DRM (Digital Restrictions Management). At that time some people saw little need for these additional protections, but we're now seeing a new generation of proprietary computing devices that are completely locked-down and use DRM to restrict users, so I think those protections of the GPLv3 will prove to be far-sighted and are now more important than ever. I'd encourage everyone writing free software to update to the GPLv3 if they have not done so already.

Looking to the future we want to ensure that everyone has freedom when they are using the internet. RMS recently spoke about the dangers of "Software as a Service" at the FSF LibrePlanet conference. If we use proprietary web services to perform tasks that we could do on our own computers with free software we are giving up our freedom--this is something we must avoid.

For tasks like word-processing, we can simply use free software on our own computers. For computing tasks that require a server, we need alternatives. One way is to have sufficient free software so that people can run their own personal servers at home or within their own organisation.

There are some new GNU projects starting to provide such software, like GNU FM for music sharing and GNU Social for social networking -- they are looking for additional volunteers. The license for these is the GNU AGPL (Affero General Public Licence) -- it is similar to the GPL but if someone runs a program under the AGPL on a webserver and lets others use it, they must also allow them to download the source code. The microblogging site (now known as is another example of a popular service under the AGPL where you can download and run the server yourself.

The GNU Project and FSF have actually been providing free services using the AGPL for a long time through the Savannah project hosting service, which is under the AGPL. There are currently over 3,200 free software projects using Savannah and about 50,000 users. Savannah uses only free software and there is a download link on each page where any user can download the complete source for the site. There are also opportunities for volunteers to help with the development of Savannah and handling support requests.

REL: In spite of all this, a number of people suggest that the project is no longer relevant, because they perceive GNU as development tools and GNU GPL.

RMS: When people are only aware of a small part of what we've done, and think it's not much, the problem is in their ignorance rather than our achievements. No matter what good we might do, it won't win support for us if people attribute it to someone else.

REL: Sure, but letting this misperception spread harms GNU and the Free Software Movement. What do you recommend to try and set it right?

RMS: Besides explaining this point to people as part of explaining the subject of free software, we should lend our time, effort, and names to the activities that give credit to GNU. There are plenty of those which can use our help, so we won't be short of useful things to do.

REL: Linux and of most GNU/Linux distros include non-Free Software, which means they don't understand or don't share the Free Software philosophy and goals. What do GNU and the FSF do about this problem?

RMS: We recommend only the distros which have a firm policy not to steer the user towards nonfree software, and we explain the ethical reason for it.

BJG: The GNU website has a list of guidelines that a distribution ought to follow to be called free and we encourage people to use the distributions that follow it (the guidelines are on the website at along with a list of distributions).

The guidelines are quite straightforward--the main point is that there should be a clear policy to only distribute free software, and that this should be applied consistently to every package, without exceptions for any "special cases".

Some distributions do have a free-software-only policy but don't enforce it fully, by ignoring the non-free firmware "blobs" in some Linux kernel device drivers. That's a shame, because it would be easy for them to give their users a 100% free distribution by using the Linux-libre version of the kernel which does not contain them.

REL: How does one become a GNU developer?

BJG: There are many ways to contribute to GNU and being a developer is one of them. Writing documentation, contributing translations, testing, and helping on, the GNU hosting site, are also important. There's a webpage which explains different ways to get involved at

For anyone who is very dedicated, there is a list of high priority projects at The list is gradually being reduced -- recently two Brazilians, Rodrigo Rodrigues da Silva and Felipe Sanches, have made good progress on one long outstanding item, a library to convert files saved in the proprietary format of AutoCAD to free formats. This is essential to allowing people to move to free CAD software, due to the widespread use of AutoCAD files in that field.

REL: Thank you both for your time and dedication to GNU and to Software Freedom. Any final words to our readers?

BJG: We are organising regional meetings of GNU contributors around the world, and I've heard Rodrigo and Felipe are hosting one at the FISL conference (21-24 July) in Porto Alegre. So I'd encourage anyone interested in contributing to GNU to join them this summer -- details of the event will be posted on our meeting page at

RMS: Thousands of people have worked to make it possible today for users to use a computer and have control over what it does. In 1983 that was nearly impossible, because first you'd have to write a free operating system. We did that, and we have reached the point where rejecting nonfree software and SaaS is generally feasible with some effort. But we would like to make it easy and painless all the time, and we have some ways to go to get there. So thanks for helping us do it.