Free as in Freedom

Richard Stallman and the Free Software Revolution


  • On Amazon
  • ISBN: 978-0983159216
  • My Rating: 6/10

Free as in Freedom is the biography of Richard Stallman, a software freedom activist, programmer, and founder of the Free Software Foundation.

My impressions of Free as in Freedom are mixed. On the one hand it offers interesting insights into the life and the work of a fascinating person I respect but not always agree with. On the other hand I didn't like the writing style, and the book felt more like a collection of articles.

My notes

For Want of a Printer

I fear the Greeks. Even when they bring gifts.


For a hacker, writing a software program that worked was only the beginning. A hacker would try to display his cleverness (and impress other hackers) by tackling an additional challenge: to make the program particularly fast, small, powerful, elegant, or somehow impressive in a clever way.

If a program or software fix was good enough to solve your problems, it was good enough to solve somebody else's problems. Why not share it out of a simple desire for good karma?

The machine worked fine, barring the paper jams, but the ability to modify software according to personal taste or community need had been taken away. From the viewpoint of the software industry, the printer software represented a change in business tactics. Software had become such a valuable asset that companies no longer accepted the need to publicize source code, especially when publication meant giving potential competitors a chance to duplicate something cheaply. From Stallman's viewpoint, the printer was a Trojan Horse.

Refusing another's request for source code, Stallman decided, was not only a betrayal of the scientific mission that had nurtured software development since the end of World War II, it was a violation of the Golden Rule, the baseline moral dictate to do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

2001: A Hacker's Odyssey

The real question, they [free software activists such as Stallman] say, isn't whether free or proprietary software will succeed more, it's which one is more ethical.

Dressed in an aqua-colored T-shirt and brown polyester pants, Stallman looks like a desert hermit who just stepped out of a Salvation Army dressing room.

"I do free software. Open source is a different movement."

Richard is the perfect example of somebody who, by acting locally, started thinking globally about problems concerning the unavailability of source code. He has developed a coherent philosophy that has forced all of us to reexamine our ideas of how software is produced, of what intellectual property means, and of what the software community actually represents.

Edmond Schonberg, computer science professor at NYU

"Imagine what it would be like if recipes were packaged inside black boxes", Stallman says [...]. "You couldn't see what ingredients they're using, let alone change them, and imagine if you made a copy for a friend. They would call you a pirate and try to put you in prison for years. That world would create tremendous outrage from all the people who are used to sharing recipes. But that is exactly what the world of proprietary software is like. A world in which common decency towards other people is prohibited or prevented."

All those personal eccentricities that lots of people see as obstacles to getting to know Stallman really 'are' Stallman: Richard's strong sense of personal frustration, his enormous sense of principled ethical commitment, his inability to compromise, especially on issues he considers fundamental. These are all the very reasons Richard did what he did when he did.

Eben Moglen

"Stubbornness is my strong suit. Most people who attempt to do anything of any great difficulty eventually get discouraged and give up. I never gave up."

"We hackers always look for a funny or naughty name for a program, because naming a program is half the fun of writing the program."

A Portrait of the Hacker as a Young Man

"If I wanted to read, and my mother told me to go to the kitchen and eat or go to sleep, I wasn't going to listen. I saw no reason why I couldn't read. No reason why she should be able to tell me what to do, period. Essentially, what I had read about, ideas such as democracy and individual freedom, I applied to myself. I didn't see any reason to exclude children from these principles."

"I was weird", Stallman says, summing up his early years succintly in a 1999 interview. "After a certain age, the only friends I had were teachers." Stallman was not ashamed of his weird characteristics, distinguishing them from the social ineptness that he did regard as a failing. However, both contributed together to his social exclusion.

Impeach God

Promising four years worth of math in two semesters, the course favored only the truly devout. [...] Starting with 75 students, the class quickly melted down to 20 by the end of the second semester. Of that 20, says Harbater, "only 10 really knew what they were doing." Of that 10, 8 would go on to become future mathematics professors, 1 would go on to teach physics. "The other one", emphasizes Harbater, "was Richard Stallman."

For Stallman, success in the classroom was balanced by the same lack of success in the social arena.

"I was always in favor of immortality. How else would we be able to see what the world is like 200 years from now?"

Despite a demonstrated willingness to point out the intellectual weaknesses of his peers and professors in the classroom, Stallman hated and feared the notion of head-to-head competition – so why not just avoid it? "It's the same reason I never liked chess", says Stallman. "Whenever I'd play, I would become so consumed by the fear of making a single mistake and losing that I would start making stupid mistakes very early in the game. The fear became a self-fulfilling prophecy." He avoided the problem by not playing chess.

"I'll hire somebody when I meet him if I see he's good. Why wait? Stuffy people who insist on putting bureaucracy into everything really miss the point. If a person is good, he shouldn't have to go through a long, detailed hiring process; he should be sitting at a computer writing code."

Hackers spoke openly about changing the world through software, and Stallman learned the instinctual hacker disdain for any obstacle that prevented a hacker from fulfilling this noble cause. Chief among these obstacles were poor software, academic bureaucracy, and selfish behavior.

"It was actually a very beautiful thing to see a sunrise, 'cause that's such a calm time of day. It's a wonderful time of day to get ready to go to bed. It's so nice to walk home with the light just brightening and the birds starting to chirp; you can get a real feeling of gentle satisfaction, of tranquility about the work that you have done that night."

In voicing his opposition to computer security, Stallman drew on many of the key ideas that had shaped his early life: hunger for knowledge, distaste for authority, and frustration over prejudice and secret rules that rendered some people outcasts. He would also draw on the ethical concepts that would shape his adult life: responsibility to the community, trust, and the hacker spirit of direct action.

In the early 80s, Stallman went further and joined the MIT Folk Dance Performing Group. Dancing for audiences, dressed in an imitation of the traditional garb of a Balkan peasant, he found being in front of an audience fun, and discovered an aptitude for being on stage which later helped him in public speaking.

"Back then everybody was arguing about whether a god existed", Stallman recalls. "'Impeach God' approached the subject from a completely different viewpoint. If a god was so powerful as to create the world and yet did nothing to correct the problems in it, why would we ever want to worship such a god? Wouldn't it be more just to put it on trial?"

Puddle of Freedom

Ask anyone who's spent more than a minute in Richard Stallman's presence, and you'll get the same recollection: forget the long hair. Forget the quirky demeanor. The first thing you notice is the gaze. One look into Stallman's green eyes, and you know you're in the presence of a true believer.

Watch the Stallman gaze for an extended period of time, and you will begin to notice a subtle change. What appears at first to be an attempt to intimidate or hypnotize reveals itself upon second and third viewing as a frustrated attempt to build and maintain contact. If his personality has a touch or "shadow" of autism or Asperger's Syndrome, a possibility that Stallman has entertained from time to time, his eyes certainly confirm the diagnosis.

Stallman has a tendency to block out all external stimuli while working. Watching his eyes lock onto the screen and his fingers dance, one quickly gets the sense of two old friends locked in deep conversation.

[...] Stallman is a committed epicure when it comes to food. One of the fringe benefits of being a traveling missionary for the free software cause is the ability to sample delicious food from around the world. "Visit almost any major city in the world, and chances are Richard knows the best restaurant in town", says Ney [Tim Ney, former executive director of the Free Software Foundation].

"In India many people are interested in free software, because they see it as a way to build their computing infrastructure without spending a lot of money", Stallman says. "In Chine, the concept has been much slower to catch on. Comparing free software to free speech is harder to do when you don't have any free speech."

I believe [being an outcast] did help me [to avoid bowing to popular views]", Stallman says [...]. "I have never understood what peer pressure does to other people. I think the reason is that I was so hopelessly rejected that for me, there wasn't anything to gain by trying to follow any of the fads. It wouldn't have made any difference. I'd still be just as rejected, so I didn't try."

When it comes to copyrighted works, Stallman says he divides the world into three categories. The first category involves "functional" works – e.g. software programs, dictionaries, and textbooks. The second category involves works that might best be described as "testimonial" – e.g. scientific papers and historical documents. Such works serve a purpose that would be undermined if subsequent readers or authors were free to modify the work at will. It also includes works of personal expression – e.g. diaries, journals, and autobiographies. To modify such documents would be to alter a person's recollections or point of view, which Stallman considers ethically unjustifiable. The third category includes works of art and entertainment. Of the three categories, the first should give users the unlimited right to make modified versions, while the second and third should regulate that right according to the will of the original author. Regardless of category, however, the freedom to copy and redistribute noncommercially should remain unabridged at all times, Stallman insists.

"It's clear that private occasional redistribution must be permitted, because only a police state can stop that", Stallman says. "It's antisocial to come between people and their friends."

"I hesitate to exaggerate the importance of this little puddle of freedom", he says. "Because the more well-known and conventional areas of working for freedom and a better society are tremendously important. I wouldn't say that free software is as important as they are. It's the responsibility I undertook, because it dropped in my lap and I saw a way I could do something about it. But, for example, to end police brutality, to end the war on drugs, to end the kinds of racism we still have, to help everyone have a comfortable life, to protect the rights of people who do abortions, to protect us from theocracy, these are tremendously important issues, far more important than what I do. I just wish I knew how to do something about them."

The Emacs Commune

"With physics and math, I could never figure out a way to contribute", says Stallman [...]. "I would have been proud to advance either one of those fields, but I could never see a way to do that. I didn't know where to start. With software, I saw right away how to write things that would run and be useful. The pleasure of that knowledge led me to want to do it more."

When it came to hacking, Stallman was a natural. A childhood's worth of late-night study sessions gave him the ability to work long hours with little sleep. As a social outcast since age 10, he had little difficulty working alone. And as a mathematician with a built-in gift for logic and foresight, Stallman possessed the ability to circumvent design barriers that left most hackers spinning their wheels.

One of the motivating factors behind hackers' inbred aversion to centralization was the power held by early system operators in dictating which jobs held top priority.

A Stark Moral Choice

An Atheist, Stallman rejects notions such as fate, karma, or a divine calling in life. Nevertheless, he does feel that the decision to shun proprietary software and build an operating system to help others do the same was a natural one. After all, it was Stallman's own personal combination of stubbornness, foresight, and coding virtuosity that led him to consider a fork in the road most others didn't know existed.

He decided to denounce software that would require him to compromise his ethical beliefs, and devote his life to the creation of programs that would make it easier for him and others to escape from it.

St. Ignucius

"Most of the time when people consider the question of what rules society should have for using software, the people considering it are from software companies, and they consider the question from a self-serving perspective", says Stallman, opening his speech. "What rules can we impose on everybody else so they have to pay us lots of money? I had the good fortune in the 1970s to be part of a community of programmers who shared software. And because of this I always like to look at the same issue from a different direction to ask: what kind of rules make possible a good society that is good for the people who are in it? And therefore I reach completely different answers."

Pointing to software patents' tendency to put areas of software functionality off limits, Stallman contrasts what the free software idea and the open source idea imply about such cases. "It's not because we don't have the talent to make better software", says Stallman. "It's because we don't have the right. Somebody has prohibited us from serving the public. So what's going to happen when users encounter these gaps in free software? Well, if they have been persuaded by the open source movement that these freedoms are good because they lead to more-powerful reliable software, they're likely to say, 'You didn't deliver what you promised. This software's not more powerful. It's missing this feature. You lied to me.' But if they have come to agree with the free software movement, that the freedom is important in itself, then they will say, 'How dare those people stop me from having this feature and my freedom too.' And with that kind of response, we may survive the hits that we're going to take as these patents explode."

"I would always choose a less advanced free program rather than a more advanced nonfree program, because I won't give up my freedom for something like that. My rule is, if I can't share it with you, I won't take it."

"The only reason to look at patents is to see the bad news of what you can't do."

The GNU General Public License

Stallman concluded that use of copyright was not necessarily unethical. What was bad about software copyright was the way it was typically used, and designed to be used: to deny the user essential freedoms. Most authors imagined no other way to use it. But copyright could be used in a different way: to make a program free and assure its continued freedom.

As hacks go, the GPL stands as one of Stallman's best. It created a system of communal ownership within the normally proprietary confines of copyright law. More importantly, it demonstrated the intellectual similarity between legal code and software code. Implicit within the GPL's preamble was a profound message: instead of viewing copyright law with suspicion, hackers should view it as a dangerous system that could be hacked.

"Don't think free as in free beer; think free as in free speech."


Linux, by filling the GNU system's last gap, had achieved the GNU Project's goal of producing a Unix-like free software operating system. However, most of the users did not recognize what had happened: they thought the whole system was Linux, and that Torvalds had done it all. Most of them installed distributions that came with nonfree software; with Torvalds as their ethical guide, they saw no principled reason to reject it. Still, a precarious freedom was available for those that appreciated it.

Open Source

During a discussion on the growing market dominance of Microsoft Windows or some similar topic, Torvalds admitted to being a fan of Microsoft's PowerPoint slideshow software program. From the perspective of old-line software purists, it was like bragging about one's slaves at an abolitionist conference. From the perspective of Torvalds and his growing band of followers, it was simply common sense. Why shun convenient proprietary software programs just to make a point? They didn't agree with the point anyway. When freedom requires a sacrifice, those who don't care about freedom see the sacrifice as self-denial, rather than as a way to obtain something important. Being a hacker wasn't about self-denial, it was about getting the job done, and "the job", for them, was defined in practical terms.

[...] the dividing line separating Linux developers from GNU developers was largely generational. Many Linux hackers, like Torvalds, had grown up in a world of proprietary software. They had begun contributing to free software without perceiving any injustice in nonfree software. For most of them, nothing was at stake beyond convenience. Unless a program was technically inferior, they saw little reason to reject it on licensing issues alone. Some day hackers might develop a free software alternative to PowerPoint. Until then, why criticize PowerPoint or Microsoft; why not use it?

[...] using the Internet as his "petri dish" and the harsh scrutiny of the hacker community as a form of natural selection, Torvalds had created an evolutionary model free of central planning.

Since the free software movement lacks the corporate and media recognition of open source, most users of GNU/Linux do not hear that it exists, let alone what its views are. They have heard the ideas and values of open source, and they never imagine that Stallman might have different ones. Thus he receives messages thanking him for his advocacy of "open source", and explains in response that he has never been a supporter of that, using the occasion to inform the sender about free software.

One of Stallman's primary character traits is the fact he doesn't budge. He'll wait up to a decade for people to come around to his point of view if that's what it takes.

Ian Murdock

You always know that he's going to be consistent in his views. Most people aren't like that. Whether you agree with him or not, you really have to respect that.

Ian Murdock

A Brief Journey through Hacker Hell

Few things irritate the hacker mind more than inefficiency.

If, as Jean Paul Sartre once opined, hell is other people, hacker hell is duplicating other people's stupid mistakes, and it's no exaggeration to say that Stallman's entire life has been an attempt to save mankind from these fiery depths.

Imperfect systems infuriate hackers. This is one reason why hackers generally hate driving cars – the system of randomly programmed red lights and oddly laid out one-way streets causes delays which are so goddamn unnecessary that the impulse is to rearrange signs, open up traffic-light control boxes ... redesign the entire system.

Steven Levy

Continuing the Fight

While Stallman was never the sole person in the world releasing free software, he nevertheless can take sole credit for building the free software movement's ethical framework. Whether or not other modern programmers feel comfortable working inside that framework is immaterial. The fact that they even have a choice at all is Stallman's greatest legacy.

"I've never been able to work out detailed plans of what the future was going to be like", says Stallman, offering his own premature epitaph. "I just said 'I'm going to fight. Who knows where I'll get?'"

Epilogue from Sam Williams: Crushing Loneliness

Writing the biography of a living person is a bit like producing a play. The drama in front of the curtain often pales in comparison to the drama backstage.

[RMS: I have built my career on saying no to things others accept without much question, but if I sometimes seem or am disagreeable, it is not through specific intention.]