Richard Stallman, the saint of free software. By Jack Schofield
The code of the freedom fighter

Meeting Richard Stallman at Victoria station, London, I decided to take a high-tech approach: instead of writing his name on a tatty bit of card, I opened a Microsoft Word document and held up my notebook computer to display it in 72pt type. The ploy worked, though it earned a smiling rebuke. "I admire your ingenuity," said Stallman, "but I disapprove of your choice of software."

In fact, such ingenuity was hardly unnecessary. Anyone familiar with Unix hackers (not the people who break into computers, but the ones who love exploring the mysteries of this complex yet powerful operating system) could have spotted Stallman from 50 yards. He has the long hair and bushy black beard common to the breed, and is attired to suggest that the way people dress is the least important thing about them. He also speaks quietly but with some intensity. It's easy to see why people call him 'the saint of free software', especially as this freedom is ethical not financial. "Think of 'free speech', not 'free beer'," he says.

Stallman's message is that instead of using proprietary software from Microsoft, Apple and Sun, we should all use free software, that we can change as we wish, and pass on to our friends. There is a growing interest in such programs, thanks partly to the Linux operating system, and the success of Apache, the leading software for serving up Web pages. It's reached the point where even Microsoft claims to be worried — though when Microsoft is under attack for monopolising the software market, as it is now in a Washington court room, the company may have ulterior motives for boosting the opposition.

Stallman's message is in demand. He is visiting Europe to give talks in the UK, Finland, France and Holland, though it's not quite a grand tour. He's mostly staying with friends, and the large duffel bag he's towing contains an airbed that will be unrolled on my living room floor. It's a modest enough service to offer the founder of the Free Software Foundation, whom readers of Forbes, the American business magazine, voted into second place as a 'hero of the net' — ahead of the Web's inventor, Tim Berners-Lee, but behind Linus Torvalds of Linux fame, who was featured on the cover.

Stallman likes Linux too, but not references to 'the Linux operating system'. He always calls it GNU/Linux, to reflect the fact that Torvalds wrote only one small part, albeit at the operating system's heart. Much more of the code was developed as part of Stallman's project to produce a free Unix-compatible operating system called GNU (sound the G, like the Flanders and Swann Gnu song) which stands for 'Gnu is Not Unix'. Stallman was also the principal or initial author of GNU Emacs, the standard Unix word processor, the GCC compiler used for writing programs written in C, the GDB debugger for finding and fixing code errors, and parts of other programs usually shipped as part of Linux.

Over an Indonesian vegetable soup, Stallman fills in the history since GNU started in 1984. "By 1991, we had every necessary major component except the kernel," he says, "and I made a mistake: I chose a kernel design that turned out to be very hard to debug. So then along came Linus Torvalds. He wasn't out to change the world — but he enjoyed programming, he wrote a kernel, and he got it to work. He looked at the GNU General Public Licence [the free software licensing approach that Stallman devised, often known as 'copyleft'], and decided to release the kernel under that. it was a natural thing to combine that kernel with the GNU system. Confusingly, people have come to call this whole system Linux, which is the same name as the one component Linus wrote."

Stallman's point is that Linux is "totally useless by itself" while GNU can be run on top of a different kernel. A preliminary version of GNU's own more advanced kernel, Hurd, was released for programmers about a year ago, and Stallman says a version for users is on the way. It will be published by Debian as Debian GNU/Hurd, alongside Debian GNU/Linux.

Even the GNU system includes masses of software not written as part of the GNU project. "If there was something already available that was good enough, we used it," Stallman says, examining his locks for split ends. The point is not just to give credit to the GNU project — "which tends to get forgotten and written out of history", he says — but to reintroduce the philosophical issues about copyright and the ownership of software.

But Stallman's philosophy is exactly what Eric Raymond, a contributor to the GNU project is trying to dump. Raymond, a programmer in Malvern, Pennsylvania, editor of The New Hacker's Dictionary and 'neo-pagan libertarian' with a taste for guns, refers to Stallman as 'that crazy guy from Boston'. In April he told Salon (http://www.salonmag.com): 'I love Richard dearly, and we've been friends since the '70s and he's done valuable service to our community, but in the battle we are fighting now, ideology is just a handicap. We need to be making arguments based on economics and development processes and expected return. We do not need to behave like Communards pumping our fists on the barricades. This is a losing strategy.'

Raymond's big break came thanks to a conference paper called The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which he posted on the Web. It presented a cogent argument for the development of open software — essentially publishing the source code of programs and inviting the hacker community to improve them. The paper helped to persuade embattled Netscape to open up the source code of its popular Web browser, Navigator. This was not so much to provide users with freedom (though it did) , as to bring in outsiders to help defray the cost of improving a program Netscape felt forced to give away in its fight for market share with Microsoft.

To capitalise on this breakthrough, Raymond organised a strategy meeting in Palo Alto, California, in February. 'We realised it was time to dump the confrontational attitude associated with 'free software' and sell the idea strictly on the same pragmatic grounds that motivated Netscape. We brainstormed about tactics and a new label. 'Open Source', contributed by Chris Peterson [of the Foresight Institute, in Palo Alto], was the best thing we came up with,' he wrote. Thus was a new movement born.

Pitching the idea to hackers, Raymond added: 'Mainstream corporate [officers] will never buy "free software", manifestos and clenched fists and all. But if we take the same tradition, the same people, and the same free software licences and change the label to Open Source — that, they'll buy. Some hackers find this hard to believe, but that's because they're techies who think in concrete, substantial terms and don't understand how important image is when you're selling something.'

Raymond's movement might be designed to exclude Stallman, but it's not one he wants to join. "Please make it clear that I have nothing to do with Open Source," he says. "I do not describe what I do as Open Source. That term is a mistake. The fact that you can see the source code doesn't mean something's free software. People like Eric Raymond just don't agree with what I say about philosophy, and he wanted basically to disconnect what people were doing from this open philosophy. Open Source eliminates the crucial issue, [which is] about how society ought to be structured, about encouraging people to co-operate with one another."

In effect, Stallman regards Open Source as providing just another market for proprietary software manufacturers to exploit. It's not that Stallman is against commerce. In fact, he thinks free software should be sold for the highest possible price, so that programmers can make a living and make donations to causes like the Free Software Foundation. "If you charge too little, you're wasting an opportunity to help the whole community," he says.

However, Stallman's view of proprietary software suppliers is not calculated to win their support. "They almost all do the same intolerable things," he says, "so by and large, I think the software industry is bad. One thief is attacking a another thief: so what? I don't care all that much which of them wins and which of them loses because I've already decided I'm not going to be a customer of any of them."

Even suppliers who concede that users should be free to modify their software — or pay a programmer to do it for them — are likely to choke on Stallman's insistence on the freedom to redistribute copies.

"If you have anything on your computer, you should be free at least to make a copy and send it to your friend," he says. "Anyone who tries to stop you doing that, that's tyranny, that's oppression. When you start telling people it's forbidden to share with your neighbour, nothing less than pervasive fear can enforce that. We're going to see a war on copyright like the war on drugs. They're public enemies: the public should rise up and put an end to them."

Perhaps not many people care enough to support a 'software liberation front', but that doesn't bother Stallman either. "I'm not trying to give users what they want, I'm trying to give them freedom, which they can then accept or reject. If people don't want freedom, they may be out of luck with me, but I won't allow them to define for me what is right, what is worth spending my life for."

  • GNU starts at http://www.gnu.org

    Stallman and the lineage of Saint IGNUcius

  • 1969-70 Development of the Unix operating system begins at AT&T's Bell Laboratories.
  • 1971 Stallman joins the Artificial Intelligence Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. His job is to improve a computer operating system called ITS —Incompatible Time-Sharing System.
  • 1975 For ITS, Stallman develops a powerful word processor called Emacs.
  • 1984 Stallman resigns from MIT to start the GNU project to write a free, Unix-like operating system. The name stands for GNU is Not Unix.
  • 1985 Stallman publishes GNU Emacs, and launches the Free Software Foundation (FSF) to support the GNU project.
  • 1989 FSF introduces a General Public Licence (GPL) under which the source code of copyright software can be published. GPL is also known as 'copyleft'.
  • 1990 As president of the League for Programming Freedom, Stallman is given a $240,000 fellowship by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
  • 1991 America's Association for Computing Machinery gives Stallman the Grace Hopper Award for developing Emacs. Linus Benedict Torvalds begins to develop the kernel or core of a Unix-like operating system, Linux.
  • 1994 First official Linux version 1.0 kernel released. It has about 500,000 users.
  • 1996 Royal Institute of Technology, Sweden, awards Stallman an honorary doctorate.
  • 1997 Eric Raymond delivers paper, The Cathedral and The Bazaar, at the Linux Kongress 97 conference.
  • 1998 Netscape announces that it will release the source code for Navigator, stimulating the launch of an Open Source movement that will offer a friendlier face to the business world than was presented by the FSF. Stallman and Torvalds are given Pioneer awards by the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Linux has at least 7.5 million users. JS

    11 November 1998