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A Profile of the Mad Prophet of Free Software

A Profile of the Mad Prophet of Free Software

Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software, by Sam Williams.
Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly & Associates, 2002. 225 pages. $22.95

Richard Stallman is easily the most controversial figure associated with Linux and the open source movement. And the controversy begins with this very terminology. Stallman, fairly or not, believes the operating system is and should be called GNU/Linux, and the movement that he is a part of is not favoring "open source" but "free software."

For those of you just getting acquainted, Stallman is the founder of the Free Software Foundation and the GNU Project, the creator of the GNU C Compiler, and the emacs text editor. He is also the father of the GNU General Public License. He is firm in his belief that proprietary and restrictive software licenses, and the non-disclosure agreements that underpin them, are Evil and counterproductive. Information may or may not want to be free, but software programs are made to be shared with users.

Free as in Freedom is the first book-length attempt to review Stallman's life, though since its subject hasn't turned 50 yet, it should not be the last. Sam Williams relies on interviews with his subject, his mother and contemporaries, a few speeches, along with the great volume of Stallman's writings available on the Web. The book is an easy introduction to Stallman's career and ideas, but at this length cannot go into great depth.

The book begins with Stallman's recounting of The Tale of the Xerox Printer, which could be considered the creation myth of the free software movement and, indirectly, the GNU Project. The year was 1980, Stallman was working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Lab, and the lab's state-of-the-art network printer was jammed again after he sent a job to print overnight.

Hackers at the AI Lab had solved this particular problem with the old printer by programming the printer to send out a "Printer Jammed, Fix Me!" message to everyone on the network. Presumably the person or persons who wanted the printer unjammed and/or knew how to unjam the printer would show up to fix the problem. This was relatively easy for the programmers to accomplish, because the printer's software was available as standard procedure.

When Xerox donated the new cutting-edge machine to the AI Lab, however, the software didn't come with the package, and the non-disclosure agreement (NDA) that the programmer signed prevented anyone outside Xerox from viewing the code. So the jammed-paper message could not be programmed in unless Xerox put it in themselves.

Stallman believed this method of restricting access to code was morally wrong, in part because to this point, computer software was generally created to solve problems. Programmers shared all their work with each other, much like scientists before World War II. He saw NDAs and restrictive software licenses as ways to put profits and greed ahead of problem-solving and community. He resolved never to sign an NDA and would always make his programs available.

Williams traces Stallman's dissolute New York City youth, his early demonstrations of genius in Columbia Science Honors Program for high school students, his years as a Harvard math major and his early days at the AI Lab on the other side of Boston. All the traits that would define him later would be present here. His genius, his anti-socialness. His atheism, his moralizing. His off-the-wall humor, his intensity. Above all, his talent for just about anything he wanted to do.

He found out that what he wanted to do more than anything was write code. The day he first walked into the AI Lab, he sat down at a terminal and started doing just that. The next day, he had a job at the AI Lab, where perhaps the country's most brilliant programming talent were concentrated. Williams gives us a sense of the hacker community and the ethics developed at the AI Lab that Stallman became the champion of.

This environment led to the building of emacs, the endlessly customizable text editor designed to communicate with the PDP-11 mainframe. Emacs is the geek/hacker's editor of choice. It started as a set of macros that simplified life in the lab's TECO editor, but became a standalone program (short for Editing MACroS) in 1979. GNU emacs was the first product of the GNU Project.

The GNU Project (GNU's Not Unix) began in 1983, when Stallman shifted gears from writing programs for mainframes like the PDP-11 and decided to write "a complete Unix-compatible software system...and give it away free to everyone who can use it." Williams describes this as a stark moral choice: creating and promoting free software himself was the only way Stallman could live up to his moral code and not use proprietary software at any time.

GNU emacs was released in 1985, and shortly thereafter Stallman published the GNU Manifesto, his first expression of the philosophy and politics behind the movement. The manifesto eventually led to the creation of the GPL four years later. In 1990, Stallman's work on behalf of free software won him the $240,000 MacArthur Foundation "genius grant."

But for all of the GNU Project's successes, the team was having trouble building a kernel for the new free operating system. Enter Linus Torvalds. At first skeptical of Torvalds' just-for-fun approach to development, Williams describes Stallman's eventual adoption of the Linux kernel as the basis for the GNU/Linux free OS.

Through all this runs the story of Richard Stallman the uncompromising ideologue. We get the early story of Stallman freaking out when he cannot get the Xerox printer code. There's a very funny interlude of Stallman freaking out in a car while battling bumper-to-bumper traffic on Maui. There's the break between Stallman and Eric S. Raymond over the "open source" term. There's the all-too-brief section discussing Stallman's objections to the Trolltech license for the Qt libraries that serve as the basis for the KDE desktop (and no mention at all of the subsequent genesis of GNOME).

Finally, there's the story of Stallman's own cooperation with Williams on this book. The epilogue details Stallman's scuttling of the original project as an e-book. E-books are ultimately proprietary, and Stallman could not participate in a project that would make him look like a hypocrite. So the book is published by O'Reilly and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. Something you don't like about the book? Want to embellish some of the stories? You will have that opportunity (starting in June) at http://www.faifzilla.org.

More Stories By Maureen O'Gara

Maureen O'Gara the most read technology reporter for the past 20 years, is the Cloud Computing and Virtualization News Desk editor of SYS-CON Media. She is the publisher of famous "Billygrams" and the editor-in-chief of "Client/Server News" for more than a decade. One of the most respected technology reporters in the business, Maureen can be reached by email at maureen(at)sys-con.com or paperboy(at)g2news.com, and by phone at 516 759-7025. Twitter: @MaureenOGara

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