Chapter 13
Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software

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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

For Richard Stallman, time may not heal all wounds, but
it does provide a convenient ally.

Four years after " The Cathedral and the Bazaar,"
Stallman still chafes over the Raymond critique. He
also grumbles over Linus Torvalds' elevation to the
role of world's most famous hacker. He recalls a
popular T-shirt that began showing at Linux tradeshows
around 1999. Designed to mimic the original promotional
poster for Star Wars, the shirt depicted Torvalds
brandishing a lightsaber like Luke Skywalker, while
Stallman's face rides atop R2D2. The shirt still grates
on Stallmans nerves not only because it depicts him as
a Torvalds' sidekick, but also because it elevates
Torvalds to the leadership role in the free
software/open source community, a role even Torvalds
himself is loath to accept. "It's ironic," says
Stallman mournfully. "Picking up that sword is exactly
what Linus refuses to do. He gets everybody focusing on
him as the symbol of the movement, and then he won't
fight. What good is it?"

Then again, it is that same unwillingness to "pick up
the sword," on Torvalds part, that has left the door
open for Stallman to bolster his reputation as the
hacker community's ethical arbiter. Despite his
grievances, Stallman has to admit that the last few
years have been quite good, both to himself and to his
organization. Relegated to the periphery by the
unforeseen success of GNU/Linux, Stallman has
nonetheless successfully recaptured the initiative. His
speaking schedule between January 2000 and December
2001 included stops on six continents and visits to
countries where the notion of software freedom carries
heavy overtones-China and India, for example.

Outside the bully pulpit, Stallman has also learned how
to leverage his power as costeward of the GNU General
Public License (GPL). During the summer of 2000, while
the air was rapidly leaking out of the 1999 Linux IPO
bubble, Stallman and the Free Software Foundation
scored two major victories. In July, 2000, Troll Tech,
a Norwegian software company and developer of Qt, a
valuable suite of graphics tools for the GNU/Linux
operating system, announced it was licensing its
software under the GPL. A few weeks later, Sun
Microsystems, a company that, until then, had been
warily trying to ride the open source bandwagon without
giving up total control of its software properties,
finally relented and announced that it, too, was dual
licensing its new OpenOffice application suite under
the Lesser GNU Public License (LGPL) and the Sun
Industry Standards Source License (SISSL).

Underlining each victory was the fact that Stallman had
done little to fight for them. In the case of Troll
Tech, Stallman had simply played the role of free
software pontiff. In 1999, the company had come up with
a license that met the conditions laid out by the Free
Software Foundation, but in examining the license
further, Stallman detected legal incompatibles that
would make it impossible to bundle Qt with
GPL-protected software programs. Tired of battling
Stallman, Troll Tech management finally decided to
split the Qt into two versions, one GPL-protected and
one QPL-protected, giving developers a way around the
compatibility issues cited by Stallman.

In the case of Sun, they desired to play according to
the Free Software Foundation's conditions. At the 1999
O'Reilly Open Source Conference, Sun Microsystems
cofounder and chief scientist Bill Joy defended his
company's "community source" license, essentially a
watered-down compromise letting users copy and modify
Sun-owned software but not charge a fee for said
software without negotiating a royalty agreement with
Sun. A year after Joy's speech, Sun Microsystems vice
president Marco Boerries was appearing on the same
stage spelling out the company's new licensing
compromise in the case of OpenOffice, an
office-application suite designed specifically for the
GNU/Linux operating system.

"I can spell it out in three letters," said Boerries. "GPL."

At the time, Boerries said his company's decision had
little to do with Stallman and more to do with the
momentum of GPL-protected programs. "What basically
happened was the recognition that different products
attracted different communities, and the license you
use depends on what type of community you want to
attract," said Boerries. "With [OpenOffice], it was
clear we had the highest correlation with the GPL community."See Marco
Boerries, interview with author (July, 2000).

Such comments point out the under-recognized strength
of the GPL and, indirectly, the political genius of man
who played the largest role in creating it. "There
isn't a lawyer on earth who would have drafted the GPL
the way it is," says Eben Moglen, Columbia University
law professor and Free Software Foundation general
counsel. "But it works. And it works because of
Richard's philosophy of design."

A former professional programmer, Moglen traces his pro
bono work with Stallman back to 1990 when Stallman
requested Moglen's legal assistance on a private
affair. Moglen, then working with encryption expert
Phillip Zimmerman during Zimmerman's legal battles with
the National Security Administration, says he was
honored by the request. "I told him I used Emacs every
day of my life, and it would take an awful lot of
lawyering on my part to pay off the debt."

Since then, Moglen, perhaps more than any other
individual, has had the best chance to observe the
crossover of Stallman's hacker philosophies into the
legal realm. Moglen says the difference between
Stallman's approach to legal code and software code are
largely the same. "I have to say, as a lawyer, the idea
that what you should do with a legal document is to
take out all the bugs doesn't make much sense," Moglen
says. "There is uncertainty in every legal process, and
what most lawyers want to do is to capture the benefits
of uncertainty for their client. Richard's goal is the
complete opposite. His goal is to remove uncertainty,
which is inherently impossible. It is inherently
impossible to draft one license to control all
circumstances in all legal systems all over the world.
But if you were to go at it, you would have to go at it
his way. And the resulting elegance, the resulting
simplicity in design almost achieves what it has to
achieve. And from there a little lawyering will carry
you quite far."

As the person charged with pushing the Stallman agenda,
Moglen understands the frustration of would-be allies.
"Richard is a man who does not want to compromise over
matters that he thinks of as fundamental," Moglen says,
"and he does not take easily the twisting of words or
even just the seeking of artful ambiguity, which human
society often requires from a lot of people."

Because of the Free Software Foundation's unwillingness
to weigh in on issues outside the purview of GNU
development and GPL enforcement, Moglen has taken to
devoting his excess energies to assisting the
Electronic Frontier Foundation, the organization
providing legal aid to recent copyright defendants such
as Dmitri Skylarov. In 2000, Moglen also served as
direct counsel to a collection of hackers that were
joined together from circulating the DVD decryption
program deCSS. Despite the silence of his main client
in both cases, Moglen has learned to appreciate the
value of Stallman's stubbornness. "There have been
times over the years where I've gone to Richard and
said, `We have to do this. We have to do that. Here's
the strategic situation. Here's the next move. Here's
what he have to do.' And Richard's response has always
been, `We don't have to do anything.' Just wait. What
needs doing will get done."

"And you know what?" Moglen adds. "Generally, he's been right."

Such comments disavow Stallman's own self-assessment:
"I'm not good at playing games," Stallman says,
addressing the many unseen critics who see him as a
shrewd strategist. "I'm not good at looking ahead and
anticipating what somebody else might do. My approach
has always been to focus on the foundation, to say
`Let's make the foundation as strong as we can make it.'"

The GPL's expanding popularity and continuing
gravitational strength are the best tributes to the
foundation laid by Stallman and his GNU colleagues.
While no longer capable of billing himself as the "last
true hacker," Stallman 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.

Discussing Stallman's legacy at this point seems a bit
premature. Stallman, 48 at the time of this writing,
still has a few years left to add to or subtract from
that legacy. Still, the autopilot nature of the free
software movement makes it tempting to examine
Stallman's life outside the day-to-day battles of the
software industry and within a more august, historical setting.

To his credit, Stallman refuses all opportunities to
speculate. "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?'"

There's no question that in picking his fights,
Stallman has alienated the very people who might
otherwise have been his greatest champions. It is also
a testament to his forthright, ethical nature that many
of Stallman's erstwhile political opponents still
manage to put in a few good words for him when pressed.
The tension between Stallman the ideologue and Stallman
the hacker genius, however, leads a biographer to
wonder: how will people view Stallman when Stallman's
own personality is no longer there to get in the way?

In early drafts of this book, I dubbed this question
the "100 year" question. Hoping to stimulate an
objective view of Stallman and his work, I asked
various software-industry luminaries to take themselves
out of the current timeframe and put themselves in a
position of a historian looking back on the free
software movement 100 years in the future. From the
current vantage point, it is easy to see similarities
between Stallman and past Americans who, while somewhat
marginal during their lifetime, have attained
heightened historical importance in relation to their
age. Easy comparisons include Henry David Thoreau,
transcendentalist philosopher and author of On Civil
Disobedience, and John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club
and progenitor of the modern environmental movement. It
is also easy to see similarities in men like William
Jennings Bryan, a.k.a. "The Great Commoner," leader of
the populist movement, enemy of monopolies, and a man
who, though powerful, seems to have faded into
historical insignificance.

Although not the first person to view software as
public property, Stallman is guaranteed a footnote in
future history books thanks to the GPL. Given that
fact, it seems worthwhile to step back and examine
Richard Stallman's legacy outside the current time
frame. Will the GPL still be something software
programmers use in the year 2102, or will it have long
since fallen by the wayside? Will the term "free
software" seem as politically quaint as "free silver"
does today, or will it seem eerily prescient in light
of later political events?

Predicting the future is risky sport, but most people,
when presented with the question, seemed eager to bite.
"One hundred years from now, Richard and a couple of
other people are going to deserve more than a
footnote," says Moglen. "They're going to be viewed as
the main line of the story."

The "couple other people" Moglen nominates for future
textbook chapters include John Gilmore, Stallman's GPL
advisor and future founder of the Electronic Frontier
Foundation, and Theodor Holm Nelson, a.k.a. Ted Nelson,
author of the 1982 book, Literary Machines . Moglen
says Stallman, Nelson, and Gilmore each stand out in
historically significant, nonoverlapping ways. He
credits Nelson, commonly considered to have coined the
term "hypertext," for identifying the predicament of
information ownership in the digital age. Gilmore and
Stallman, meanwhile, earn notable credit for
identifying the negative political effects of
information control and building organizations-the
Electronic Frontier Foundation in the case of Gilmore
and the Free Software Foundation in the case of
Stallman-to counteract those effects. Of the two,
however, Moglen sees Stallman's activities as more
personal and less political in nature.

"Richard was unique in that the ethical implications of
unfree software were particularly clear to him at an
early moment," says Moglen. "This has a lot to do with
Richard's personality, which lots of people will, when
writing about him, try to depict as epiphenomenal or
even a drawback in Richard Stallman's own life work."

Gilmore, who describes his inclusion between the
erratic Nelson and the irascible Stallman as something
of a "mixed honor," nevertheless seconds the Moglen
argument. Writes Gilmore: My guess is that Stallman's
writings will stand up as well as Thomas Jefferson's
have; he's a pretty clear writer and also clear on his
principles . . . Whether Richard will be as influential
as Jefferson will depend on whether the abstractions we
call "civil rights" end up more important a hundred
years from now than the abstractions that we call
"software" or "technically imposed restrictions."
Another element of the Stallman legacy not to be
overlooked, Gilmore writes, is the collaborative
software-development model pioneered by the GNU
Project. Although flawed at times, the model has
nevertheless evolved into a standard within the
software-development industry. All told, Gilmore says,
this collaborative software-development model may end
up being even more influential than the GNU Project,
the GPL License, or any particular software program
developed by Stallman: Before the Internet, it was
quite hard to collaborate over distance on software,
even among teams that know and trust each other.
Richard pioneered collaborative development of
software, particularly by disorganized volunteers who
seldom meet each other. Richard didn't build any of the
basic tools for doing this (the TCP protocol, email
lists, diff and patch, tar files, RCS or CVS or
remote-CVS), but he used the ones that were available
to form social groups of programmers who could
effectively collaborate. Lawrence Lessig, Stanford law
professor and author of the 2001 book, The Future of
Ideas , is similarly bullish. Like many legal scholars,
Lessig sees the GPL as a major bulwark of the current
so-called "digital commons," the vast agglomeration of
community-owned software programs, network and
telecommunication standards that have triggered the
Internet's exponential growth over the last three
decades. Rather than connect Stallman with other
Internet pioneers, men such as Vannevar Bush, Vinton
Cerf, and J. C. R. Licklider who convinced others to
see computer technology on a wider scale, Lessig sees
Stallman's impact as more personal, introspective, and,
ultimately, unique: [Stallman] changed the debate from
is to ought. He made people see how much was at stake,
and he built a device to carry these ideals forward . .
. That said, I don't quite know how to place him in the
context of Cerf or Licklider. The innovation is
different. It is not just about a certain kind of code,
or enabling the Internet. [It's] much more about
getting people to see the value in a certain kind of
Internet. I don't think there is anyone else in that
class, before or after. Not everybody sees the Stallman
legacy as set in stone, of course. Eric Raymond, the
open source proponent who feels that Stallman's
leadership role has diminished significantly since
1996, sees mixed signals when looking into the 2102
crystal ball: I think Stallman's artifacts (GPL, Emacs,
GCC) will be seen as revolutionary works, as
foundation-stones of the information world. I think
history will be less kind to some of the theories from
which RMS operated, and not kind at all to his personal
tendency towards territorial, cult-leader behavior. As
for Stallman himself, he, too, sees mixed signals: What
history says about the GNU Project, twenty years from
now, will depend on who wins the battle of freedom to
use public knowledge. If we lose, we will be just a
footnote. If we win, it is uncertain whether people
will know the role of the GNU operating system-if they
think the system is "Linux," they will build a false
picture of what happened and why.

But even if we win, what history people learn a hundred
years from now is likely to depend on who dominates
politically. Searching for his own 19th-century
historical analogy, Stallman summons the figure of John
Brown, the militant abolitionist regarded as a hero on
one side of the Mason Dixon line and a madman on the other.

John Brown's slave revolt never got going, but during
his subsequent trial he effectively roused national
demand for abolition. During the Civil War, John Brown
was a hero; 100 years after, and for much of the 1900s,
history textbooks taught that he was crazy. During the
era of legal segregation, while bigotry was shameless,
the US partly accepted the story that the South wanted
to tell about itself, and history textbooks said many
untrue things about the Civil War and related events.

Such comparisons document both the self-perceived
peripheral nature of Stallman's current work and the
binary nature of his current reputation. Although it's
hard to see Stallman's reputation falling to the level
of infamy as Brown's did during the post-Reconstruction
period-Stallman, despite his occasional war-like
analogies, has done little to inspire violence-it's
easy to envision a future in which Stallman's ideas
wind up on the ash-heap. In fashioning the free
software cause not as a mass movement but as a
collection of private battles against the forces of
proprietary temptation, Stallman seems to have created
a unwinnable situation, especially for the many
acolytes with the same stubborn will.

Then again, it is that very will that may someday prove
to be Stallman's greatest lasting legacy. Moglen, a
close observer over the last decade, warns those who
mistake the Stallman personality as counter-productive
or epiphenomenal to the "artifacts" of Stalllman's
life. Without that personality, Moglen says, there
would be precious few artifiacts to discuss. Says
Moglen, a former Supreme Court clerk: Look, the
greatest man I ever worked for was Thurgood Marshall. I
knew what made him a great man. I knew why he had been
able to change the world in his possible way. I would
be going out on a limb a little bit if I were to make a
comparison, because they could not be more different.
Thurgood Marshall was a man in society, representing an
outcast society to the society that enclosed it, but
still a man in society. His skill was social skills.
But he was all of a piece, too. Different as they were
in every other respect, that the person I most now
compare him to in that sense, all of a piece, compact,
made of the substance that makes stars, all the way
through, is Stallman. In an effort to drive that image
home, Moglen reflects on a shared moment in the spring
of 2000. The success of the VA Linux IPO was still
resonating in the business media, and a half dozen free
software-related issues were swimming through the news.
Surrounded by a swirling hurricane of issues and
stories each begging for comment, Moglen recalls
sitting down for lunch with Stallman and feeling like a
castaway dropped into the eye of the storm. For the
next hour, he says, the conversation calmly revolved
around a single topic: strengthening the GPL.

"We were sitting there talking about what we were going
to do about some problems in Eastern Europe and what we
were going to do when the problem of the ownership of
content began to threaten free software," Moglen
recalls. "As we were talking, I briefly thought about
how we must have looked to people passing by. Here we
are, these two little bearded anarchists, plotting and
planning the next steps. And, of course, Richard is
plucking the knots from his hair and dropping them in
the soup and behaving in his usual way. Anybody
listening in on our conversation would have thought we
were crazy, but I knew: I knew the revolution's right
here at this table. This is what's making it happen.
And this man is the person making it happen."

Moglen says that moment, more than any other, drove
home the elemental simplicity of the Stallman style.

"It was funny," recalls Moglen. "I said to him,
`Richard, you know, you and I are the two guys who
didn't make any money out of this revolution.' And then
I paid for the lunch, because I knew he didn't have the
money to pay for it .'" Endnote