The saint of free software

In the rush to make free software business-friendly, is Richard Stallman being written out of history?


Andrew Leonard
July 30, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

When Richard Stallman gave Bill Gates the finger in front of Stanford's computer science building, I got nervous. No, it wasn't the real Bill Gates -- it was just his name, engraved in giant letters over the main entrance to the 2-year-old, Gates-funded building. But it didn't seem like a Stanford thing to do. The campus is immaculately manicured, dotted with picture-postcard palm trees and squeaky-clean students. It's just not a flipping-the-bird kind of place.

It didn't strike me as a Richard Stallman kind of place, either. Stallman is a legendary hacker, the founder of the free software movement, a MacArthur "genius grant" recipient and a programmer capable of prodigious exploits. But on this day in Palo Alto he looked unkempt and off-kilter. I had already spent a good part of the afternoon watching in bemused silence as he painstakingly examined his long, stringy brown hair for split ends. I was also mesmerized by his piercing green eyes, radiating the power of an Old Testament prophet. I feared his wrath.

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We had come to Stanford in search of a place where Stallman could download his e-mail. Two hours away from catching a long flight to New Zealand -- partly for vacation, partly to continue proselytizing his free software "mission" -- Stallman was jonesing for one last connection to the Net. Being Richard Stallman, he figured he could just drop in on the computer science department at Stanford. He hadn't visited for several years, but he was good friends with equally legendary Stanford professor John McCarthy -- the man who invented the Lisp programming language and coined the term "artificial intelligence." Stallman himself programmed the multipurpose Emacs editing tool, a kind of nuclear-powered Swiss Army knife favored by top-notch programmers and computer scientists. Surely some Emacs acolyte would be delighted to help the one and only Richard Stallman grab his e-mail.

First we tried to sneak in through a side door of the Gates building. Over a lunch of ribs, duck, trout and popcorn shrimp at Palo Alto's MacArthur Park restaurant, Stallman had told me that he didn't despise Bill Gates as much as other free software guerrilla fighters do. But he clearly wasn't eager to legitimize Gates' stature by walking submissively through his totemic gate. Free software and Microsoft don't mix. There had to be a better way.

Except there wasn't. The path to McCarthy's office from the side door entrance was obscure. We sucked in our guts and headed for the main gate.

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"Hey," Stallman called out to a graduate student opening the door in front of us, "is it the tradition here to give Bill the finger whenever you go through these doors?"

The student looked over his shoulder, twitched a nervous smile and disappeared inside. Stallman shrugged -- and right there on the spot decided to start his own protest movement. As we entered the building, out came what the ancient Romans used to call the "digit impudicus." Stallman flashed me a sly grin. I glanced around, looking for security.

Over the course of about half an hour in the building, Stallman encouraged three other people to join his campaign. No one signed on unreservedly, but two recognized him right away -- one from a conference some six years earlier and another from his picture in a recent Forbes magazine article celebrating the surprising commercial success of the free software (or, as it is now more commonly called, "open source") movement.

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Would the movement to deride Gates have as much success? Stallman didn't know and didn't care. As he pointed out to me repeatedly through the course of our afternoon together, he doesn't do things because they are socially acceptable or strategically appropriate. Success is not his measure for accomplishment. He does what he does because he thinks it is the morally correct, or simply fun, thing to do. And he brooks no compromise.

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Stallman's tendency toward intransigence has made him a controversial figure in the rapidly expanding and ever-more-high-profile world of free software -- software for which the source code is freely accessible to all computer users. The expanding market shares boasted by the Apache Web server and the GNU-Linux operating system have encouraged a whole new generation of hackers to plunge into the business world and preach that theirs is the best way to create superior software products -- less buggy, more stable and more flexible than their proprietary competitors.

But Stallman just doesn't care about pragmatic arguments -- he declares he would prefer to use a free software program even if it wasn't the best solution for his needs. Freedom, for Stallman, is a fundamental moral good -- the freedom for computer users to share and cooperate, to copy and change code as they please.

His stance makes some factions of the burgeoning "open source" community uncomfortable -- so uncomfortable, in fact, that the very choice of the name "open source" demonstrates an attempt to distance those factions from the unsavory radicalism of Richard Stallman. Never mind that Stallman started the free
software movement,
or that thousands of lines of code that he personally authored are an integral part of what most people today call "Linux." To the new generation, Stallman is an embarrassment and a hindrance who must, at all costs, be trundled into a back room before he scares off the investors.

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As I drove Stallman to the airport, I asked him if he was gratified by the fact that, whatever you call it -- free software or open source -- there's no denying that the campaign he began at MIT some 15 years ago is one of the hottest stories in computing today. He sighed. He is somewhat pleased, he said, but he is even more anxious. He feels that he is being shoved aside -- "that certain people are trying to rewrite history and deny me my place in the movement."

The last chapter of "Hackers," Steven Levy's definitive history of the rise of the personal computer, is titled "The Last True Hacker." It tells the sad story of Richard Stallman, a young, supremely talented programmer who flourished during the glory days of hacking at MIT. Back then, in the 1970s, everyone shared everything, from Chinese food to the latest code tweak. Anything proprietary was greeted with disgust and scorn.

As the '70s became the '80s, however, the hacker heyday came to an end. One after another, talented MIT programmers left academe for the warm embrace of the commercial world. The worst blow came with the creation of Symbolics, a company devoted to creating "artificial intelligence" machines. Symbolics eviscerated MIT's artificial intelligence laboratory, where Stallman worked. To Stallman, it seemed like the end of an era, a recipe for despair.

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"I'm the last survivor of a dead culture," he told Levy. "And I don't really belong in the world anymore. And in some ways I feel I ought to be dead."

But being Richard Stallman, he refused to crumple in the face of his own anxiety. Symbolics, says Stallman, spurred him to create the Free Software Foundation and dedicate his life to the construction of GNU (GNU's Not Unix), a Unix-like operating system that would be protected from grasping proprietary hands by a new kind of software license.

"When I saw the prospect of living the way the rest of the world was living," said Stallman, "I decided no way, that's disgusting, I'd be ashamed of myself. If I contributed to the upkeep of that other proprietary software way of life, I'd feel I was making the world ugly for pay."

All GNU programs are protected under the principle of "copyleft." A copylefted program may be copied, it may be changed, it may be modified in any way a programmer pleases, and it can even be sold -- as long as the source code to all changes and modifications is also made accessible to all computer users.

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"I decided, let's try and build something new to replace what was lost," said Stallman. "Part of what I wanted was to make another hacker community with the same virtue as the previous one, and that virtue, to me, was the freedom to cooperate. You have a certain way of life when you have freedom in a free society. In a totalitarian, non-free society, every aspect of how you deal with people is shaped by your fear. In proprietary society, your dealings with other people are shaped by fear of the information police, currently in its incarnation of the Software Publishers Association."

Stallman turned out to be anything but the "last" hacker -- in part, as Steven Levy argues, as a result of the spread of the personal computer, but also in part due to Stallman's own efforts. The GNU project, in particular, inspired countless young hackers to devote their talents to writing free software. And eventually, along came Linus Torvalds, who undertook the all-important task of writing the "kernel" -- the heart of code that connects all the different pieces of computer hardware and software -- for a GNU-type operating system.

The Linux kernel made the GNU system complete. Stallman and his fellow FSF hackers are still working on their own much-delayed kernel, HURD, since, as Stallman said, "We've put so much work into it we might as well finish it." But the job that Stallman set out to accomplish is done. The core parts of the "GNU system" have been assembled.

There's just one problem -- the near universal tendency, by the press, by hackers, by free software enthusiasts, to refer to "Linux" as if the term represents the entire system. Linux is just the kernel; the system includes hundreds of other software tools and utilities, many of which were created by GNU hackers.

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The evolving semantics of free software are a huge sore point for Stallman. In response, he painstakingly corrects anyone in his presence who utters the word "Linux" when referring to the whole operating system. The proper usage, says Stallman, is "GNU-Linux." (This sounds like "guh-noo li-nooks.")

Stallman's tireless defense of the GNU legacy has launched many a Usenet flame war and contributed to his image as someone obsessed with unimportant details -- to the detriment of the greater goals of the free software/open source community. For many open source advocates, arguing about terminology distracts from the main fight -- the battle to topple Microsoft.

But Stallman's motives are hardly petty -- though he does acknowledge that one of his goals is to ensure that all the GNU programmers get credit for the work they've done.

"The reason I care especially," said Stallman, "is that there is a philosophy associated with the GNU project, and this philosophy is actually the reason why there is a system -- and that is that free software is not just convenient and not just reliable ... More important than convenience and reliability is freedom -- the freedom to cooperate. What I'm concerned about is not individual people or companies so much as the kind of way of life that we have. That's why I think it's a distraction to think about fighting Microsoft."

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There are factions within the free software community who are careful to employ the GNU-Linux terminology, but in large part Stallman's protests have been ignored. The word "Linux" rules the headlines, and it is gathering momentum. I asked Stallman if he saw any chance of winning his battle.

"It's a mistake to ask that question," said Stallman, fixing upon me a baleful look. "Because that makes it sound like there is one winner and one loser and it's an all-or-nothing thing. You're leading yourself into confusion mentally if you formulate it that way. As I see it, I'm sure to have a certain amount of success. And the question facing you or anyone else is, what are you going to do? Instead of worrying about what somebody else is going to do, which is not under your control, the important thing is, what are you going to decide about what is under your control?"

Stallman came to the Bay Area to attend the "Open Source Developer's Day" on Aug. 21 -- a convocation of programmers and free software enthusiasts organized by the computer book publishing company O'Reilly & Associates. Stallman hadn't been invited to the first such gathering of "open source" leaders, a "free software summit" held in April to coincide with Netscape's decision to release the source code to its browser. But the omission drew wide criticism, and this time around, says Stallman, the organizers dared not ignore him again.

They did, however, ask him to support "unity," said Stallman. They should have known better. To ask Stallman to mince words or keep his mouth shut is to fundamentally misunderstand what the man is all about. Instead of giving lip service to the theme of the conference -- the idea that the gathering represented the "coming together" of all the multiple elements within the open source community -- Stallman ended up criticizing the core business of the conference organizer. He claimed that the manuals and technical books published by O'Reilly & Associates were doing a disservice to the free software cause. Free software needs free manuals, said Stallman.

"Tim O'Reilly spoke for quite a while earlier in the day about why it wasn't their responsibility that their manuals weren't free and about why their manuals were a good thing even though they are not free," explained Stallman. "What I said was, if you can't write a free manual, please write no manual. Because it will be easier for us to find someone else to write a free manual if your non-free one isn't making a lot of people think the job is done."

When Stallman starts talking about free manuals, people look sidelong at him, as if to say -- oh, so this is the communist I've been hearing so much about. It's precisely this kind of talk that makes the open source advocates most antsy. How can the case be made for free software in a commercial marketplace when crazy radicals like Richard Stallman are declaring that everything should be free?

Except that Stallman isn't demanding that everything should be free. He has no problem with people selling free software or selling manuals that are also available for free, or providing contract support or any other software related service for a fee. What he urges is that all software information remain accessible. And in his view, manuals are software -- they are part of the program, and need to be freely available and free for modification as the software changes.

"Software should come with documentation," said Stallman. "So manuals are absolutely essential. A free software package has to offer free documentation, because otherwise the documentation can't go to everyone who gets the package. If we don't have a good free manual for a program we are missing something, there's a gap in the system."

Stallman highlights an interesting contradiction. O'Reilly & Associates has been a huge supporter of the concept of open source. It is also justly renowned for the quality of its publications. But the quality is the problem.

"If they were incompetent, it wouldn't be an issue," said Stallman. "But it's hard for us to get free manuals written with all those O'Reilly manuals out there."

Free manuals, flipping off Bill, correcting listeners and colleagues every time they use the word "Linux" sloppily -- all this from a man whose appearance flashes back to the height of the '60s counterculture. No wonder he makes his free software fellows nervous: He's unpredictable, uncontrollable and incorrigible.

And it would be a mistake to attempt to control Richard Stallman -- even if that were possible. His incorrigibility is part of what makes free software special.

I asked Stallman if he had paid attention to the uproar in the "Linux community" in mid-August -- when a couple of entrepreneurs announced the creation of a "Linux Standards Association" that would charge admission for entry and raised a firestorm of protest.

"I was glad to see that there was so much strong reaction against it," said Stallman, "because what I saw is that even though most of those people were calling their system 'Linux,' to a certain extent they had absorbed some of the GNU philosophy. They didn't just say that the way we are running our own community is more productive and develops better software. They cared about the way of life for its own sake."

That sense of caring is a major source of free software's strength. There's no questioning that the case for free software is bolstered by the wide perception that GNU-Linux systems crash less often than Windows-based systems, or the fact that Apache is the Web server of choice for demanding system administrators. Pragmatic benchmarks help.

But that's only half the story. It is the intersection of the pragmatic with the ideological that makes free software compelling, that inspires the devotion of volunteers and the passion of advocates. Any attempt to write Richard Stallman out of the history of the movement threatens to eviscerate it, to sap the very emotion that gives it its strength.

Right now, Richard Stallman, no matter how unkempt, could probably walk into any computer science department anywhere in the world and find someone to help him download his e-mail. Among computing's old guard he's still famous, still respected as the author of Emacs and recognized for his accomplishments as the founder of the Free Software Foundation.

I, for one, hope that there is always a place in the computing universe for Richard Stallman. As I drove away from the San Francisco Airport, I thought about Stallman's oft-expressed anxiety, and his fear that "certain people" are striving to deny him his place in the cause he began. At the beginning of the day, I might have dismissed the assertion as paranoia. But by the time I dropped him off, I believed him.

Unkempt and off-kilter though he may be, Stallman embodies the fervor and the faith that make free software worth embracing. If the pragmatists of the open source cause sacrifice him to make free software safe for business, it seems to me, they risk losing their movement's soul.


Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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