By Richard Stallman
Founder, Free Software Foundation
To pay so much attention to Bill Gates’ retirement is missing the point.
What really matters is not Gates, nor Microsoft, but the unethical
system of restrictions that Microsoft, like many other software
companies, imposes on its customers.
That statement may surprise you, since most people interested in
computers have strong feelings about Microsoft. Businessmen and their
tame politicians admire its success in building an empire over so many
Many outside the computer field credit Microsoft for advances which it
only took advantage of, such as making computers cheap and fast, and
convenient graphical user interfaces.
Gates’ philanthropy for health care for poor countries has won some
people’s good opinion. The LA Times reported that his foundation spends
five to 10% of its money annually and invests the rest, sometimes in
companies it suggests cause environmental degradation and illness in the
same poor countries.
Many computerists specially hate Gates and Microsoft. They have plenty
Microsoft persistently engages in anti-competitive behaviour, and has
been convicted three times. George W Bush, who let Microsoft off the
hook for the second US conviction, was invited to Microsoft headquarters
to solicit funds for the 2000 election.
Many users hate the “Microsoft tax”, the retail contracts that make you
pay for Windows on your computer even if you won’t use it.
In some countries you can get a refund, but the effort required is daunting.
There’s also the Digital Restrictions Management: software features
designed to “stop” you from accessing your files freely. Increased
restriction of users seems to be the main advance of Vista.
Then there are the gratuitous incompatibilities and obstacles to
interoperation with other software. This is why the EU required
Microsoft to publish interface specifications.
This year Microsoft packed standards committees with its supporters to
procure ISO approval of its unwieldy, unimplementable and patented “open
standard” for documents. The EU is now investigating this.
These actions are intolerable, of course, but they are not isolated
events. They are systematic symptoms of a deeper wrong which most people
don’t recognise: proprietary software.
Microsoft’s software is distributed under licenses that keep users
divided and helpless. The users are divided because they are forbidden
to share copies with anyone else. The users are helpless because they
don’t have the source code that programmers can read and change.
If you’re a programmer and you want to change the software, for yourself
or for someone else, you can’t.
If you’re a business and you want to pay a programmer to make the
software suit your needs better, you can’t. If you copy it to share with
your friend, which is simple good-neighbourliness, they call you a “pirate”.
Microsoft would have us believe that helping your neighbour is the moral
equivalent of attacking a ship.
The most important thing that Microsoft has done is to promote this
unjust social system.
Gates is personally identified with it, due to his infamous open letter
which rebuked microcomputer users for sharing copies of his software.
It said, in effect, “If you don’t let me keep you divided and helpless,
I won’t write the software and you won’t have any. Surrender to me, or
But Gates didn’t invent proprietary software, and thousands of other
companies do the same thing. It’s wrong, no matter who does it.
Microsoft, Apple, Adobe, and the rest, offer you software that gives
them power over you. A change in executives or companies is not
important. What we need to change is this system.
That’s what the free software movement is all about. “Free” refers to
freedom: we write and publish software that users are free to share and
We do this systematically, for freedom’s sake; some of us paid, many as
volunteers. We already have complete free operating systems, including
Our aim is to deliver a complete range of useful free software, so that
no computer user will be tempted to cede her freedom to get software.
In 1984, when I started the free software movement, I was hardly aware
of Gates’ letter. But I’d heard similar demands from others, and I had a
response: “If your software would keep us divided and helpless, please
don’t write it. We are better off without it. We will find other ways to
use our computers, and preserve our freedom.”
In 1992, when the GNU operating system was completed by the kernel,
Linux, you had to be a wizard to run it. Today GNU/Linux is
user-friendly: in parts of Spain and India, it’s standard in schools.
Tens of millions use it, around the world. You can use it too.
Gates may be gone, but the walls and bars of proprietary software he
helped create remain, for now.
Dismantling them is up to us.
Richard Stallman is the founder of the Free Software Foundation. You can
copy and redistribute this article under the Creative Commons Noderivs
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