Free Software Trip 3: Talk by RMS.

Date: 22nd January 2019


3. Talk by RMS

I woke up early, dressed up and went to the event location which was at an indoor basketball court inside the RVCE campus, about 40 steps from the guest house. I met Abhas sir and a member from his team and went inside to get settled in.

A quick Introduction about FSF and GNU and RMS

Richard M. Stallman (RMS) founded the Free Software movement in 1983 when he announced he would develop the GNU operating system, a Unix-like operating system meant to consist entirely of free software.

Fun Fact: GNU is a recursive acronym which stands for GNU’s Not Unix.

He has been the GNU project’s leader ever since. In October 1985 he started the Free Software Foundation.

Since the mid-1990s, RMS has spent most of his time in political advocacy for free software, and spreading the ethical ideas of the movement, as well as campaigning against both software patents and dangerous extension of copyright laws. Before that, Richard developed a number of widely used programs that are components of GNU, including the original Emacs, the GNU Compiler Collection, the GNU symbolic debugger (gdb), GNU Emacs, and various others. These are tools which shaped almost all the modern software we all use.

But the most importantly, RMS pioneered the concept of copyleft, and is the main author of the GNU General Public License (GPL), the most widely used free software license.

My First Impressions of RMS

As I came out looking for Renuka Prasad Sir , he came in with RMS himself. I had actually seen him face-to-face! He seemed like such a jolly person and he smiled at me going in.

For such an accomplished person he seemed to be so humble and casual, cracking jokes all the way. When the projector was not working with the GNU/Linux laptop due to issues with drivers and someone booted a Windows one, he cracked a joke about Windows being good for at-least one things. :P

One cool thing about the event was that there were an assortment of stickers related to GNU/Linux, FSF etc distributed gratis, one for each. I took a little bit more than I was supposed to (Pic above). Greedy, I know :P.

While the talk was going to start, I interacted with a few students beside me about the softwares and distros we use and our projects. It was great to have a decent conversation with someone who could actually understand my nerdspeak. :P

Also during the introductions I was mentioned by the speaker from , thanking me for attending the event, coming from Mumbai. I am the one who is supposed to thank them for having me here!!

But when the talk started I zoned in and grasped every world RMS was saying. I hadn’t payed attention to a lecture like that in years…

One of the reasons why the talk was so engrossing was the way RMS chose to deliver his content. He made the talk very entertaining with a barrage of jokes on the companies selling proprietary softwares and sometimes also at himself.

He was open to cracking self-deprecating jokes, and while preaching his aversion towards Proprietary software and OSes like Windows and MacOs (which he called ‘Monster OS’ :P) it did not seem like fanatical hate-speak at all as one might expect. It was, on the other hand, a pot-bellied, good-natured, jolly old man trying to convince us to stop using softwares harmful to us by means of good humour and a strange but warming charm.

RMS had this quality of peace and mirth around him that I had noticed even outside. Maybe that’s what people who named him Saint Ignucius noticed too. A moniker he wore on his sleeve by actually wearing a clergy cloak and a halo, after which he went on to give his “sermon” ! It was hilarious to watch :)

He mentioned this idea that “power corrupts”, in one way or the other, and hence he never wanted the power and gave it instead to users. I might be biased, but I think it shows in his nature. Only people with clear consciences have that kind of merry attitude.

Towards the end he auctioned a Baby GNU (Gnu is also an animal, similar to a Buffalo) where the money would go to Free Software Foundation.

The talk in pointers

I’ll list below the most important points of the talk:

a. What does Free Software mean?

“Free software” means software that respects users’ freedom and community. Roughly, it means that the users have the freedom to run, copy, distribute, study, change and improve the software. Thus, “free software” is a matter of liberty, not price.

To understand the concept, you should think of “free” as in “free speech,” not as in “free beer”. It is sometimes called “libre software”, borrowing the French or Spanish word for “free” as in freedom or or “swatantra software” (as RMS said in Hindi) , to show it do not mean the software is gratis.

b. Difference between Free Software and Open Source Software ?

RMS was very insistent on making it clear that Free Software is not the same as Open Source.

Open source is a software development methodology where as Free software is a social movement. Free software is about user freedom whereas Open source is about making software better.

The acronym FLOSS (Free, Libre and Open Source Software) is a term used to show neutrality, which RMS didn’t personally like, but can be used if you don’t just care about freedom and are willing to accept some restrictions in exchange for better features.

c. It is GNU/Linux, not just Linux

Linux is actually just a kernel developed by Mr. Linus Torwalds and the rest of the operating system was actually made by GNU. Hence its inconsiderate to just say Linux, as GNU deserves credit for its contributions too. The correct term is hence GNU/Linux.

d. The 4 Essential Freedoms

The numbering starts from “0” , in true hacker sense…

According to RMS free software guarantees the following 4 freedoms:

Also, there should be not be any kind of “lists” of people who have access to the software. It should be available to all.

If any one of them is not met, the software is NOT free. More details can be found here.

e. Examples of Companies violating users rights

f. Insisting on choosing values over practical advantages

RMS insists that it is imperative to choose Freedom over fancy features in softwares which try to exploit you.

“If you are not paying for a product, then the real product is you. Unless its Free Software :P”.

Conclusion and Reflections on the event

I asked RMS a few questions and doubts to which he patiently replied, even though he was tired by then. He did the same for many only after which he left for lunch.

After the event I sat back and interacted with a lot of students and then went to a short lunch. I actually got to sit beside RMS and had lunch. I found a couple students there too and we had a spirited discussion about Go, Python, multi-processing and my BE project.

There was a cultural musical presentation. The Karnatic music reminded me of my childhood when my mom used to play it in the mornings everyday. I could sing along to the songs like “Maha Ganapathim”, “Krishna Nee Begane” and “Brochevaarevarura”. It put a smile on my face…

I also got to interact with many people who had free software businesses, who were part of Free-Software organisations and professors from various colleges. I asked them as many doubts as I possibly could and exchanged contact information to ask some more :P.

I even had a detailed chat where I asked Mr. Shivanand, Abhas sir’s partner, how he convinces businesses to choose free software over established proprietary ones. I liked talking to him, he was very articulate and patient in his explaination.

The whole event was a very enlightening experience. I got to finally understand why it is important to use Free Software. I decided that as soon as I reach home, I will start to make a list of proprietary tools I use and slowly replace them with free alternatives.

After I did make that list I realised how dependent I am on proprietary tools and how they are limiting my learning and capability to learn important skills. I set out to make the migration soon after.

I will write about this in a future post.


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© Abhishek Balam 2019

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