Richard Poynder Interviews Richard Stallman

From: Stevan Harnad <>
Date: Tue, 21 Mar 2006 18:47:11 +0000

Richard Poynder has done another penetrating and informative interview
this time of Richard Stallman, founder of the GNU Project, the Free
Software Foundation, and Copyleft:

Richard Stallman is a remarkable person and has made and continues to
make invaluable contributions to freeing software to be creatively
developed and used without proprietary restrictions.

It is important to understand what it is that Stallman stands for,
in order to see that it is not the same thing as Open Access (OA)
(although of course it is fully compatible with and in harmony with OA):

What Stallman means by "free" is free to use, develop and distribute.
His main target is software code (though he has a more general view
about all forms of property). Stallman opposes anything that prevents
software from being further developed, improved upon, and distributed.
(N.B. He does not oppose the *selling* of software; he opposes the hiding
of the code, and the outlawing of its re-use and revision.)

Please note, though, that he states very clearly in the Interview that
he understands that scholarly/scientific articles are not like computer
code, meant to be modified and redistributed by others. This is a
profound and fundamental difference, and if you don't grasp it, you
invite all kinds of confusion and misunderstanding:

The right analogy between research findings and software is at the
level of the *content* of the research findings, not the form (i.e.,
not the code, not the text). The text is proprietary, but the content
is for everyone's use, and re-use (with proper citation to the source).
Software code, in contrast, has no content. It is the code itself that
Stallman is talking about modifying and redistributing.

The one small point of commonality (as opposed to mere analogy, at the
content level) is the question of mirroring rights for OA texts:
Stallman thinks it is not enough to put OA content in one's own IR; he
thinks you have to make sure to formally grant explicit mirroring (and,
presumably, caching and harvesting) rights with it too.

I don't agree with Stallman on this one tiny point; I think all the rest
of the uses pretty much come with the web/OA territory right now; I'll
start worrying about it if/when google ever needs a license to harvest
freely accessible web content. Right now, too much OA content is still
missing, and worries about having to renegotiate rights are part of
what keeps it missing. So let's forget about that for now.

The disanalogy with the Free Software is, of course, that whereas the
*publisher* charging for access to the text is fine, the *author*
also wants to provide toll-free access to his own final draft, in order
to maximize its usage and impact: The authors of peer-reviewed journal
articles are not interested in royalty revenue (whereas some authors of
software code might be) because any toll-barrier at all preventing a
would-be user from having access to their work costs the author in terms
of lost research impact, research progress, and even further research
grant income and other possible rewards.

I think this disanalogy is easy to understand, but it too needs to be
made and kept quite explicit in everyone's mind.

I close with just a logical point on the question of "free"
in the sense of free-of-charge and "free" in the GNU sense of
free-to-revise/redistribute: Is it not a bug if a hacker (i.e., a
programmer, in Stallman's good sense, the original meaning of "hacker")
can write software code, sell it (in the hope of making an honest living),
but the very first customer who buys it can make a trivial revision (or
none at all) and then give the code away to one and all (or even make a
tiny improvement, relative to the total work that went into the original)
and start selling it at a competing cut-rate price?

I just pose this as a kind of koan for the putative free/free distinction
(I'm sure others have thought of it too, and there may even be an
answer, but I cannot intuit it offhand); and if the distinction does
not survive it, then what has to go: the freedom to sell or the freedom
to revise/redistribute?

I ask this only in a spirit of genuine puzzlement, because I really
admire what Richard Stallman advocates and stands for.

One could also ask whether Richard Stallman's sense of "freedom" really
scales up, beyond software, to all forms of human product, as he seems
to believe. How many people could earn an honest living from their
creative work that way?

    Richard Stallman AmSci Postings:

    Re: Garfield: "Acknowledged Self-Archiving is Not Prior
    Publication" (Tue Sep 10 2002 - 00:34:39 BST)

    Re: PostGutenberg Copyrights and Wrongs for Give-Away Research
    (Tue Jul 23 2002 - 05:01:11 BST)

    Re: PostGutenberg Copyrights and Wrongs for Give-Away Research
    (Sun Jul 21 2002 - 21:15:17 BST)

    Re: Ingenta to offer OAI eprint service
    (Sat Jul 20 2002 - 01:35:08 BST)

    Re: Association for Computer Machinery Copyright/Self-Archiving
    Policy (Tue Mar 19 2002 - 08:43:38 GMT)

    Re: Copyright FAQ for refereed journal authors
    (Fri Oct 15 1999 - 21:59:43 BST)

    Re: Copyright FAQ for refereed journal authors (Thu Oct 14 1999 -
    16:44:57 BST)

    (See also replies, and google search "amsci stallman")

Stevan Harnad
Received on Wed Mar 22 2006 - 17:51:34 GMT

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