Richard Stallman talk

Last Thursday, in an event organised with Manchester Free Software and sponsored by the BCS and the IET, we had Richard Stallman give a talk on free software at the University of Manchester.

Initially, we hadn’t expected many people to attend the talk, perhaps a hundred or so, and as a result a small room was booked for the event. However, my publicity spread both further and faster than I expected, with people from as far away as York and Birmingham saying that they were going to make the trip to listen to Stallman speak. Thankfully, a larger lecture theatre was booked in time, and even then there were people sitting on the stairs and standing at the back.

Stallman’s speech was generally informative and entertaining, and I particularly liked his Church of Emacs sketch (though as a vi(m) user, I naturally disagreed as to the One True Editor). There were lots of questions afterwards too, most of which Stallman answered very well, but in some places it was clear that he wasn’t aware of the area he was talking about (e.g. some of his comments about “intellectual property” were off the mark). The distinction he tried to draw between creative and technical works (you should be able to edit textbooks and software, but not novels, seemed to be the general point) was a bit flimsy, and fell apart completely when someone asked where computer games fitted into the picture. However, the discussion was interesting, if a little heated at points where Stallman clearly had missed the point of a question.

The only low point of the night was when I got up at the end of the speech to thank Stallman for his “enlightening” talk and ask if anyone had any questions, at which point he completely ignored me, and I ended up looking like a bit of a muppet in front of 300 people. I couldn’t believe he was so rude, but it seemed as if he genuinely wasn’t aware of the people around him—I got the same feeling when meeting him at the car and the fact that he didn’t say thank you at any point for the amount of work which had been put into organising the event.

Overall, I think the event was a success, and the people I spoke to afterwards seem to have enjoyed it, so it was probably worth all the hassle to get it happening. I don’t think I would invite Stallman again though, he’s great when he’s standing up and speaking but an absolute nightmare to accommodate with his huge list of requirements and lack of consideration for other people (e.g. only arriving five minutes before the speech was due to start due to changing his travel plans at the last minute).

A tip of the hat goes to Paul Robinson for putting Stallman up for the night (he will only stay in hotels as a “last resort”) and Dave Crossland for driving him up from Cambridge, plus all the people who forwarded on the publicity that I sent out which resulted in over 300 people turning up.

8 thoughts on “Richard Stallman talk

  1. I’m glad you found the talk interesting. I’m curious though, in what way did you find his comments about IP off the mark? He does a whole other lecture about copyright and he’s seemed to be pretty well informed in the past. His comments about computer games were drowned out by the crowd, so I think that’s why they didn’t sound so convincing – actually the same could be said for all of his comments about copyright at the end. But the idea that a game is comprised of different elements, both art and software that should be licensed slightly differently sounds reasonable to me (at least I think that’s what he’s trying to say).

  2. With the IP stuff, I’m not sure he really understood the benefits of copyright, or at least he didn’t explain them, plus of course he came at it from a US approach (I particularly dislike this in the FSF). I think when he started debating things with Sarah he started to show a lack of knowledge there, though it probably wasn’t picked up on by most people.

    I also disagree with his comments about IP not being the “correct” term to use – I think he’s lost that battle (if there ever was one) in the same way as he’s lost the GNU/Linux vs Linux one, and he should move on to something more productive than telling people “you’re using the wrong word!”.

    On arts vs software, is software not a form of art, and therefore is it not ethical to skip one of the freedoms – i.e. that to modify the source code – when I redistribute software? I think the main problem with his answer to computer games was that it seemed a bit flimsy – someone asked a good question and to just say “ah, well, you could just separate them” really didn’t sound convincing.

  3. I was interested to ask a question about computer games myself, actually – how a world where all software were free would deal with cheating in MMOs and FPSes where validating everything server-side is impractical.

  4. Server-side handling of data is bad anyway according to RMS, as you can’t modify the software which is running on the server and therefore don’t have the four basic freedoms.

  5. Thanks for this interesting post with your impressions. I also thought Richard was a bit rude at that moment you mentioned, but I didn’t think that you looked like a muppet, only that Richard wasn’t very polite and didn’t know about protocols.
    I would have liked to ask if he recommends using Free Software in airplanes…

  6. Cool, thanks. I’m afraid I can’t read Spanish, but I’m sure it’s interesting for those who can. 🙂

Comments are closed.