Chapter 10
Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software

Visit the Gifcom

Table of Contents



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Project Gutenburg

By 1993, the free software movement was at a
crossroads. To the optimistically inclined, all signs
pointed toward success for the hacker cultur. Wired
magazine, a funky, new publication offering stories on
data encryption, Usenet, and software freedom, was
flying off magazine racks. The Internet, once a slang
term used only by hackers and research scientists, had
found its way into mainstream lexicon. Even President
Clinton was using it. The personal computer, once a
hobbyist's toy, had grown to full-scale respectability,
giving a whole new generation of computer users access
to hacker-built software. And while the GNU Project had
not yet reached its goal of a fully intact, free
software operating system, curious users could still
try Linux in the interim.

Any way you sliced it, the news was good, or so it
seemed. After a decade of struggle, hackers and hacker
values were finally gaining acceptance in mainstream
society. People were getting it.

Or were they? To the pessimistically inclined, each
sign of acceptance carried its own troubling
countersign. Sure, being a hacker was suddenly cool,
but was cool good for a community that thrived on
alienation? Sure, the White House was saying all the
right things about the Internet, even going so far as
to register its own domain name,, but it
was also meeting with the companies, censorship
advocates, and law-enforcement officials looking to
tame the Internet's Wild West culture. Sure, PCs were
more powerful, but in commoditizing the PC marketplace
with its chips, Intel had created a situation in which
proprietary software vendors now held the power. For
every new user won over to the free software cause via
Linux, hundreds, perhaps thousands, were booting up
Microsoft Windows for the first time.

Finally, there was the curious nature of Linux itself.
Unrestricted by design bugs (like GNU) and legal
disputes (like BSD), Linux' high-speed evolution had
been so unplanned, its success so accidental, that
programmers closest to the software code itself didn't
know what to make of it. More compilation album than
operating system, it was comprised of a hacker medley
of greatest hits: everything from GCC, GDB, and glibc
(the GNU Project's newly developed C Library) to X (a
Unix-based graphic user interface developed by MIT's
Laboratory for Computer Science) to BSD-developed tools
such as BIND (the Berkeley Internet Naming Daemon,
which lets users substitute easy-to-remember Internet
domain names for numeric IP addresses) and TCP/IP. The
arch's capstone, of course, was the Linux kernel-itself
a bored-out, super-charged version of Minix. Rather
than building their operating system from scratch,
Torvalds and his rapidly expanding Linux development
team had followed the old Picasso adage, "good artists
borrow; great artists steal." Or as Torvalds himself
would later translate it when describing the secret of
his success: "I'm basically a very lazy person who
likes to take credit for things other people actually do."Torvalds has offered
this quote in many different
settings. To date, however, the quote's most notable
appearance is in the Eric Raymond essay, "The Cathedral
and the Bazaar" (May, 1997).





Such laziness, while admirable from an efficiency
perspective, was troubling from a political
perspective. For one thing, it underlined the lack of
an ideological agenda on Torvalds' part. Unlike the GNU
developers, Torvalds hadn't built an operating system
out of a desire to give his fellow hackers something to
work with; he'd built it to have something he himself
could play with. Like Tom Sawyer whitewashing a fence,
Torvalds' genius lay less in the overall vision and
more in his ability to recruit other hackers to speed
the process.

That Torvalds and his recruits had succeeded where
others had not raised its own troubling question: what,
exactly, was Linux? Was it a manifestation of the free
software philosophy first articulated by Stallman in
the GNU Manifesto? Or was it simply an amalgamation of
nifty software tools that any user, similarly
motivated, could assemble on his own home system?

By late 1993, a growing number of Linux users had begun
to lean toward the latter definition and began brewing
private variations on the Linux theme. They even became
bold enough to bottle and sell their variations-or
"distributions"-to fellow Unix aficionados. The results
were spotty at best.

"This was back before Red Hat and the other commercial
distributions," remembers Ian Murdock, then a computer
science student at Purdue University. "You'd flip
through Unix magazines and find all these business
card-sized ads proclaiming `Linux.' Most of the
companies were fly-by-night operations that saw nothing
wrong with slipping a little of their own source code
into the mix."

Murdock, a Unix programmer, remembers being "swept
away" by Linux when he first downloaded and installed
it on his home PC system. "It was just a lot of fun,"
he says. "It made me want to get involved." The
explosion of poorly built distributions began to dampen
his early enthusiasm, however. Deciding that the best
way to get involved was to build a version of Linux
free of additives, Murdock set about putting a list of
the best free software tools available with the
intention of folding them into his own distribution. "I
wanted something that would live up to the Linux name,"
Murdock says.

In a bid to "stir up some interest," Murdock posted his
intentions on the Internet, including Usenet's
comp.os.linux newsgroup. One of the first responding
email messages was from . As a hacker,
Murdock instantly recognized the address. It was
Richard M. Stallman, founder of the GNU Project and a
man Murdock knew even back then as "the hacker of
hackers." Seeing the address in his mail queue, Murdock
was puzzled. Why on Earth would Stallman, a person
leading his own operating-system project, care about
Murdock's gripes over Linux?

Murdock opened the message.

"He said the Free Software Foundation was starting to
look closely at Linux and that the FSF was interested
in possibly doing a Linux system, too. Basically, it
looked to Stallman like our goals were in line with
their philosophy."

The message represented a dramatic about-face on
Stallman's part. Until 1993, Stallman had been content
to keep his nose out of the Linux community's affairs.
In fact, he had all but shunned the renegade operating
system when it first appeared on the Unix programming
landscape in 1991. After receiving the first
notification of a Unix-like operating system that ran
on PCs, Stallman says he delegated the task of
examining the new operating system to a friend. Recalls
Stallman, "He reported back that the software was
modeled after System V, which was the inferior version
of Unix. He also told me it wasn't portable."

The friend's report was correct. Built to run on
386-based machines, Linux was firmly rooted to its
low-cost hardware platform. What the friend failed to
report, however, was the sizable advantage Linux
enjoyed as the only freely modifiable operating system
in the marketplace. In other words, while Stallman
spent the next three years listening to bug reports
from his HURD team, Torvalds was winning over the
programmers who would later uproot and replant the
operating system onto new platforms.

By 1993, the GNU Project's inability to deliver a
working kernel was leading to problems both within the
GNU Project and within the free software movement at
large. A March, 1993, a Wired magazine article by
Simson Garfinkel described the GNU Project as "bogged
down" despite the success of the project's many tools.See Simson Garfinkel, "Is
Stallman Stalled?" Wired
(March, 1993).
 Those within the project and its nonprofit adjunct,
the Free Software Foundation, remember the mood as
being even worse than Garfinkel's article let on. "It
was very clear, at least to me at the time, that there
was a window of opportunity to introduce a new
operating system," says Chassell. "And once that window
was closed, people would become less interested. Which
is in fact exactly what happened."Chassel's concern about there being a
36-month "window"
for a new operating system is not unique to the GNU
Project. During the early 1990s, free software versions
of the Berkeley Software Distribution were held up by
Unix System Laboratories' lawsuit restricting the
release of BSD-derived software. While many users
consider BSD offshoots such as FreeBSD and OpenBSD to
be demonstrably superior to GNU/Linux both in terms of
performance and security, the number of FreeBSD and
OpenBSD users remains a fraction of the total GNU/Linux
user population. To view a sample analysis of the
relative success of GNU/Linux in relation to other free
software operating systems, see the essay by New
Zealand hacker, Liam Greenwood, "Why is Linux
Successful" (1999).

Much has been made about the GNU Project's struggles
during the 1990-1993 period. While some place the blame
on Stallman for those struggles, Eric Raymond, an early
member of the GNU Emacs team and later Stallman critic,
says the problem was largely institutional. "The FSF
got arrogant," Raymond says. "They moved away from the
goal of doing a production-ready operating system to
doing operating-system research." Even worse, "They
thought nothing outside the FSF could affect them."

Murdock, a person less privy to the inner dealings of
the GNU Project, adopts a more charitable view. "I
think part of the problem is they were a little too
ambitious and they threw good money after bad," he
says. "Micro-kernels in the late 80s and early 90s were
a hot topic. Unfortunately, that was about the time
that the GNU Project started to design their kernel.
They ended up with alot of baggage and it would have
taken a lot of backpedaling to lose it."

Stallman cites a number of issues when explaining the
delay. The Lotus and Apple lawsuits had provided
political distractions, which, coupled with Stallman's
inability to type, made it difficult for Stallman to
lend a helping hand to the HURD team. Stallman also
cites poor communication between various portions of
the GNU Project. "We had to do a lot of work to get the
debugging environment to work," he recalls. "And the
people maintaining GDB at the time were not that
cooperative." Mostly, however, Stallman says he and the
other members of the GNU Project team underestimated
the difficulty of expanding the Mach microkernal into a
full-fledged Unix kernel.

"I figured, OK, the [Mach] part that has to talk to the
machine has already been debugged," Stallman says,
recalling the HURD team's troubles in a 2000 speech.
"With that head start, we should be able to get it done
faster. But instead, it turned out that debugging these
asynchronous multithreaded programs was really hard.
There were timing books that would clobber the files,
and that's no fun. The end result was that it took
many, many years to produce a test version."See Maui High Performance Computing
Center Speech.

Whatever the excuse, or excuses, the concurrent success
of the Linux-kernel team created a tense situation.
Sure, the Linux kernel had been licensed under the GPL,
but as Murdock himself had noted, the desire to treat
Linux as a purely free software operating system was
far from uniform. By late 1993, the total Linux user
population had grown from a dozen or so Minix
enthusiasts to somewhere between 20,000 and 100,000.GNU/Linux user-population
numbers are sketchy at best,
which is why I've provided such a broad range. The
100,000 total comes from the Red Hat "Milestones" site,
 What had once been a hobby was now a marketplace ripe
for exploitation. Like Winston Churchill watching
Soviet troops sweep into Berlin, Stallman felt an
understandable set of mixed emotions when it came time
to celebrate the Linux "victory."I wrote this Winston Churchill analogy before
himself sent me his own unsolicited comment on
Churchill: World War II and the determination needed to
win it was a very strong memory as I was growing up.
Statements such as Churchill's, "We will fight them in
the landing zones, we will fight them on the beaches .
. . we will never surrender," have always resonated for

Although late to the party, Stallman still had clout.
As soon as the FSF announced that it would lend its
money and moral support to Murdock's software project,
other offers of support began rolling in. Murdock
dubbed the new project Debian-a compression of his and
his wife, Deborah's, names-and within a few weeks was
rolling out the first distribution. "[Richard's
support] catapulted Debian almost overnight from this
interesting little project to something people within
the community had to pay attention to," Murdock says.

In January of 1994, Murdock issued the " Debian
Manifesto." Written in the spirit of Stallman's "GNU
Manifesto" from a decade before, it explained the
importance of working closely with the Free Software
Foundation. Murdock wrote: The Free Software Foundation
plays an extremely important role in the future of
Debian. By the simple fact that they will be
distributing it, a message is sent to the world that
Linux is not a commercial product and that it never
should be, but that this does not mean that Linux will
never be able to compete commercially. For those of you
who disagree, I challenge you to rationalize the
success of GNU Emacs and GCC, which are not commercial
software but which have had quite an impact on the
commercial market regardless of that fact.

The time has come to concentrate on the future of Linux
rather than on the destructive goal of enriching
oneself at the expense of the entire Linux community
and its future. The development and distribution of
Debian may not be the answer to the problems that I
have outlined in the Manifesto, but I hope that it will
at least attract enough attention to these problems to
allow them to be solved. Shortly after the Manifesto's
release, the Free Software Foundation made its first
major request. Stallman wanted Murdock to call its
distribution "GNU/Linux." At first, Murdock says,
Stallman had wanted to use the term " Lignux"-"as in
Linux with GNU at the heart of it"-but a sample testing
of the term on Usenet and in various impromptu hacker
focus groups had merited enough catcalls to convince
Stallman to go with the less awkward GNU/Linux.

Although some would dismiss Stallman's attempt to add
the "GNU" prefix as a belated quest for credit, Murdock
saw it differently. Looking back, Murdock saw it as an
attempt to counteract the growing tension between GNU
Project and Linux-kernel developers. "There was a split
emerging," Murdock recalls. "Richard was concerned."

The deepest split, Murdock says, was over glibc. Short
for GNU C Library, glibc is the package that lets
programmers make "system calls" directed at the kernel.
Over the course of 1993-1994, glibc emerged as a
troublesome bottleneck in Linux development. Because so
many new users were adding new functions to the Linux
kernel, the GNU Project's glibc maintainers were soon
overwhelmed with suggested changes. Frustrated by
delays and the GNU Project's growing reputation for
foot-dragging, some Linux developers suggested creating
a " fork"-i.e., a Linux-specific C Library parallel to glibc.

In the hacker world, forks are an interesting
phenomenon. Although the hacker ethic permits a
programmer to do anything he wants with a given
program's source code, most hackers prefer to pour
their innovations into a central source-code file or "
tree" to ensure compatibility with other people's
programs. To fork glibc this early in the development
of Linux would have meant losing the potential input of
hundreds, even thousands, of Linux developers. It would
also mean growing incompatibility between Linux and the
GNU system that Stallman and the GNU team still hoped
to develop.

As leader of the GNU Project, Stallman had already
experienced the negative effects of a software fork in
1991. A group of Emacs developers working for a
software company named Lucid had a falling out over
Stallman's unwillingness to fold changes back into the
GNU Emacs code base. The fork had given birth to a
parallel version, Lucid Emacs, and hard feelings all around.Jamie Zawinski, a
former Lucid programmer who would go
on to head the Mozilla development team, has a web site
that documents the Lucid/GNU Emacs fork, titled, "The
Lemacs/FSFmacs Schism."

Murdock says Debian was mounting work on a similar fork
in glibc source code that motivated Stallman to insist
on adding the GNU prefix when Debian rolled out its
software distribution. "The fork has since converged.
Still, at the time, there was a concern that if the
Linux community saw itself as a different thing as the
GNU community, it might be a force for disunity."

Stallman seconds Murdock's recollection. In fact, he
says there were nascent forks appearing in relation to
every major GNU component. At first, Stallman says he
considered the forks to be a product of sour grapes. In
contrast to the fast and informal dynamics of the
Linux-kernel team, GNU source-code maintainers tended
to be slower and more circumspect in making changes
that might affect a program's long-term viability. They
also were unafraid of harshly critiquing other people's
code. Over time, however, Stallman began to sense that
there was an underlying lack of awareness of the GNU
Project and its objectives when reading Linux
developers' emails.

"We discovered that the people who considered
themselves Linux users didn't care about the GNU
Project," Stallman says. "They said, `Why should I
bother doing these things? I don't care about the GNU
Project. It's working for me. It's working for us Linux
users, and nothing else matters to us.' And that was
quite surprising given that people were essentially
using a variant of the GNU system, and they cared so
little. They cared less than anybody else about GNU."

While some viewed descriptions of Linux as a "variant"
of the GNU Project as politically grasping, Murdock,
already sympathetic to the free software cause, saw
Stallman's request to call Debian's version GNU/Linux
as reasonable. "It was more for unity than for credit,"
he says.

Requests of a more technical nature quickly followed.
Although Murdock had been accommodating on political
issues, he struck a firmer pose when it came to the
design and development model of the actual software.
What had begun as a show of solidarity soon became of
model of other GNU projects.

"I can tell you that I've had my share of disagreements
with him," says Murdock with a laugh. "In all honesty
Richard can be a fairly difficult person to work with."

In 1996, Murdock, following his graduation from Purdue,
decided to hand over the reins of the growing Debian
project. He had already been ceding management duties
to Bruce Perens, the hacker best known for his work on
Electric Fence, a Unix utility released under the GPL.
Perens, like Murdock, was a Unix programmer who had
become enamored of GNU/Linux as soon as the program's
Unix-like abilities became manifest. Like Murdock,
Perens sympathized with the political agenda of
Stallman and the Free Software Foundation, albeit from afar.

"I remember after Stallman had already come out with
the GNU Manifesto, GNU Emacs, and GCC, I read an
article that said he was working as a consultant for
Intel," says Perens, recalling his first brush with
Stallman in the late 1980s. "I wrote him asking how he
could be advocating free software on the one hand and
working for Intel on the other. He wrote back saying,
`I work as a consultant to produce free software.' He
was perfectly polite about it, and I thought his answer
made perfect sense."

As a prominent Debian developer, however, Perens
regarded Murdock's design battles with Stallman with
dismay. Upon assuming leadership of the development
team, Perens says he made the command decision to
distance Debian from the Free Software Foundation. "I
decided we did not want Richard's style of
micro-management," he says.

According to Perens, Stallman was taken aback by the
decision but had the wisdom to roll with it. "He gave
it some time to cool off and sent a message that we
really needed a relationship. He requested that we call
it GNU/Linux and left it at that. I decided that was
fine. I made the decision unilaterally. Everybody
breathed a sigh of relief."

Over time, Debian would develop a reputation as the
hacker's version of Linux, alongside Slackware, another
popular distribution founded during the same 1993-1994
period. Outside the realm of hacker-oriented systems,
however, Linux was picking up steam in the commercial
Unix marketplace. In North Carolina, a Unix company
billing itself as Red Hat was revamping its business to
focus on Linux. The chief executive officer was Robert
Young, the former Linux Journal editor who in 1994 had
put the question to Linus Torvalds, asking whether he
had any regrets about putting the kernel under the GPL.
To Young, Torvalds' response had a "profound" impact on
his own view toward Linux. Instead of looking for a way
to corner the GNU/Linux market via traditional software
tactics, Young began to consider what might happen if a
company adopted the same approach as Debian-i.e.,
building an operating system completely out of free
software parts. Cygnus Solutions, the company founded
by Michael Tiemann and John Gilmore in 1990, was
already demonstrating the ability to sell free software
based on quality and customizability. What if Red Hat
took the same approach with GNU/Linux?

"In the western scientific tradition we stand on the
shoulders of giants," says Young, echoing both Torvalds
and Sir Isaac Newton before him. "In business, this
translates to not having to reinvent wheels as we go
along. The beauty of [the GPL] model is you put your
code into the public domain.Young uses the term "public domain" incorrectly
Public domain means not protected by copyright.
GPL-protected programs are by definition protected by
 If you're an independent software vendor and you're
trying to build some application and you need a
modem-dialer, well, why reinvent modem dialers? You can
just steal PPP off of Red Hat Linux and use that as the
core of your modem-dialing tool. If you need a graphic
tool set, you don't have to write your own graphic
library. Just download GTK. Suddenly you have the
ability to reuse the best of what went before. And
suddenly your focus as an application vendor is less on
software management and more on writing the
applications specific to your customer's needs."

Young wasn't the only software executive intrigued by
the business efficiencies of free software. By late
1996, most Unix companies were starting to wake up and
smell the brewing source code. The Linux sector was
still a good year or two away from full commercial
breakout mode, but those close enough to the hacker
community could feel it: something big was happening.
The Intel 386 chip, the Internet, and the World Wide
Web had hit the marketplace like a set of monster
waves, and Linux-and the host of software programs that
echoed it in terms of source-code accessibility and
permissive licensing-seemed like the largest wave yet.

For Ian Murdock, the programmer courted by Stallman and
then later turned off by Stallman's micromanagement
style, the wave seemed both a fitting tribute and a
fitting punishment for the man who had spent so much
time giving the free software movement an identity.
Like many Linux aficionados, Murdock had seen the
original postings. He'd seen Torvalds's original
admonition that Linux was "just a hobby." He'd also
seen Torvalds's admission to Minix creator Andrew
Tanenbaum: "If the GNU kernel had been ready last
spring, I'd not have bothered to even start my project."This quote is taken
from the much-publicized
Torvalds-Tanenbaum "flame war" following the initial
release of Linux. In the process of defending his
choice of a nonportable monolithic kernel design,
Torvalds says he started working on Linux as a way to
learn more about his new 386 PC. "If the GNU kernel had
been ready last spring, I'd not have bothered to even
start my project." See Chris DiBona et al., Open
Sources (O'Reilly & Associates, Inc., 1999): 224.
 Like many, Murdock knew the opportunities that had
been squandered. He also knew the excitement of
watching new opportunities come seeping out of the very
fabric of the Internet.

"Being involved with Linux in those early days was
fun," recalls Murdock. "At the same time, it was
something to do, something to pass the time. If you go
back and read those old [comp.os.minix] exchanges,
you'll see the sentiment: this is something we can play
with until the HURD is ready. People were anxious. It's
funny, but in a lot of ways, I suspect that Linux would
never have happened if the HURD had come along more quickly."

By the end of 1996, however, such "what if" questions
were already moot. Call it Linux, call it GNU/Linux;
the users had spoken. The 36-month window had closed,
meaning that even if the GNU Project had rolled out its
HURD kernel, chances were slim anybody outside the
hard-core hacker community would have noticed. The
first Unix-like free software operating system was
here, and it had momentum. All hackers had left to do
was sit back and wait for the next major wave to come
crashing down on their heads. Even the shaggy-haired
head of one Richard M. Stallman.

Ready or not.