Chapter 2
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

The New York University computer-science department
sits inside Warren Weaver Hall, a fortress-like
building located two blocks east of Washington Square
Park. Industrial-strength air-conditioning vents create
a surrounding moat of hot air, discouraging loiterers
and solicitors alike. Visitors who breach the moat
encounter another formidable barrier, a security
check-in counter immediately inside the building's
single entryway.

Beyond the security checkpoint, the atmosphere relaxes
somewhat. Still, numerous signs scattered throughout
the first floor preach the dangers of unsecured doors
and propped-open fire exits. Taken as a whole, the
signs offer a reminder: even in the relatively tranquil
confines of pre-September 11, 2001, New York, one can
never be too careful or too suspicious.

The signs offer an interesting thematic counterpoint to
the growing number of visitors gathering in the hall's
interior atrium. A few look like NYU students. Most
look like shaggy-aired concert-goers milling outside a
music hall in anticipation of the main act. For one
brief morning, the masses have taken over Warren Weaver
Hall, leaving the nearby security attendant with
nothing better to do but watch Ricki Lake on TV and
shrug her shoulders toward the nearby auditorium
whenever visitors ask about "the speech."

Once inside the auditorium, a visitor finds the person
who has forced this temporary shutdown of building
security procedures. The person is Richard M. Stallman,
founder of the GNU Project, original president of the
Free Software Foundation, winner of the 1990 MacArthur
Fellowship, winner of the Association of Computing
Machinery's Grace Murray Hopper Award (also in 1990),
corecipient of the Takeda Foundation's 2001 Takeda
Award, and former AI Lab hacker. As announced over a
host of hacker-related web sites, including the GNU
Project's own site, Stallman is in
Manhattan, his former hometown, to deliver a much
anticipated speech in rebuttal to the Microsoft
Corporation's recent campaign against the GNU General
Public License.

The subject of Stallman's speech is the history and
future of the free software movement. The location is
significant. Less than a month before, Microsoft senior
vice president Craig Mundie appeared at the nearby NYU
Stern School of Business, delivering a speech blasting
the General Public License, or GPL, a legal device
originally conceived by Stallman 16 years before. Built
to counteract the growing wave of software secrecy
overtaking the computer industry-a wave first noticed
by Stallman during his 1980 troubles with the Xerox
laser printer-the GPL has evolved into a central tool
of the free software community. In simplest terms, the
GPL locks software programs into a form of communal
ownership-what today's legal scholars now call the
"digital commons"-through the legal weight of
copyright. Once locked, programs remain unremovable.
Derivative versions must carry the same copyright
protection-even derivative versions that bear only a
small snippet of the original source code. For this
reason, some within the software industry have taken to
calling the GPL a "viral" license, because it spreads
itself to every software program it touches. Actually, the GPL's powers are not
quite that potent.
According to section 10 of the GNU General Public
License, Version 2 (1991), the viral nature of the
license depends heavily on the Free Software
Foundation's willingness to view a program as a
derivative work, not to mention the existing license
the GPL would replace.

If you wish to incorporate parts of the Program into
other free programs whose distribution conditions are
different, write to the author to ask for permission.
For software that is copyrighted by the Free Software
Foundation, write to the Free Software Foundation; we
sometimes make exceptions for this. Our decision will
be guided by the two goals of preserving the free
status of all derivatives of our free software and of
promoting the sharing and reuse of software generally.

"To compare something to a virus is very harsh," says
Stallman. "A spider plant is a more accurate
comparison; it goes to another place if you actively
take a cutting."

For more information on the GNU General Public License,
visit []

In an information economy increasingly dependent on
software and increasingly beholden to software
standards, the GPL has become the proverbial "big
stick." Even companies that once laughed it off as
software socialism have come around to recognize the
benefits. Linux, the Unix-like kernel developed by
Finnish college student Linus Torvalds in 1991, is
licensed under the GPL, as are many of the world's most
popular programming tools: GNU Emacs, the GNU Debugger,
the GNU C Compiler, etc. Together, these tools form the
components of a free software operating system
developed, nurtured, and owned by the worldwide hacker
community. Instead of viewing this community as a
threat, high-tech companies like IBM, Hewlett Packard,
and Sun Microsystems have come to rely upon it, selling
software applications and services built to ride atop
the ever-growing free software infrastructure.

They've also come to rely upon it as a strategic weapon
in the hacker community's perennial war against
Microsoft, the Redmond, Washington-based company that,
for better or worse, has dominated the PC-software
marketplace since the late 1980s. As owner of the
popular Windows operating system, Microsoft stands to
lose the most in an industry-wide shift to the GPL
license. Almost every line of source code in the
Windows colossus is protected by copyrights reaffirming
the private nature of the underlying source code or, at
the very least, reaffirming Microsoft's legal ability
to treat it as such. From the Microsoft viewpoint,
incorporating programs protected by the "viral" GPL
into the Windows colossus would be the software
equivalent of Superman downing a bottle of Kryptonite
pills. Rival companies could suddenly copy, modify, and
sell improved versions of Windows, rendering the
company's indomitable position as the No. 1 provider of
consumer-oriented software instantly vulnerable. Hence
the company's growing concern over the GPL's rate of
adoption. Hence the recent Mundie speech blasting the
GPL and the " open source" approach to software
development and sales. And hence Stallman's decision to
deliver a public rebuttal to that speech on the same
campus here today.

20 years is a long time in the software industry.
Consider this: in 1980, when Richard Stallman was
cursing the AI Lab's Xerox laser printer, Microsoft,
the company modern hackers view as the most powerful
force in the worldwide software industry, was still a
privately held startup. IBM, the company hackers used
to regard as the most powerful force in the worldwide
software industry, had yet to to introduce its first
personal computer, thereby igniting the current
low-cost PC market. Many of the technologies we now
take for granted-the World Wide Web, satellite
television, 32-bit video-game consoles-didn't even
exist. The same goes for many of the companies that now
fill the upper echelons of the corporate establishment,
companies like AOL, Sun Microsystems,,
Compaq, and Dell. The list goes on and on.

The fact that the high-technology marketplace has come
so far in such little time is fuel for both sides of
the GPL debate. GPL-proponents point to the short
lifespan of most computer hardware platforms. Facing
the risk of buying an obsolete product, consumers tend
to flock to companies with the best long-term survival.
As a result, the software marketplace has become a
winner-take-all arena.See Shubha Ghosh, "Revealing the Microsoft Windows
Source Code," (January, 2000).
 The current, privately owned software environment,
GPL-proponents say, leads to monopoly abuse and
stagnation. Strong companies suck all the oxygen out of
the marketplace for rival competitors and innovative startups.

GPL-opponents argue just the opposite. Selling software
is just as risky, if not more risky, than buying
software, they say. Without the legal guarantees
provided by private software licenses, not to mention
the economic prospects of a privately owned "killer
app" (i.e., a breakthrough technology that launches an
entirely new market),Killer apps don't have to be proprietary. Witness, of
course, the legendary Mosaic browser, a program whose
copyright permits noncommercial derivatives with
certain restrictions. Still, I think the reader gets
the point: the software marketplace is like the
lottery. The bigger the potential payoff, the more
people want to participate. For a good summary of the
killer-app phenomenon, see Philip Ben-David, "Whatever
Happened to the `Killer App'?" e-Commerce News
(December 7, 2000).
 companies lose the incentive to participate. Once
again, the market stagnates and innovation declines. As
Mundie himself noted in his May 3 address on the same
campus, the GPL's "viral" nature "poses a threat" to
any company that relies on the uniqueness of its
software as a competitive asset. Added Mundie: It also
fundamentally undermines the independent commercial
software sector because it effectively makes it
impossible to distribute software on a basis where
recipients pay for the product rather than just the
cost of distributionSee Craig Mundie, "The Commercial Software Model,"
senior vice president, Microsoft Corp. Excerpted from
an online transcript of Mundie's May 3,speech to the
New York University Stern School of Business. 001,
 The mutual success of GNU/ LinuxThe acronym GNU stands for "GNU's not Unix."
In another
portion of the May 29, 2001, NYU speech, Stallman
summed up the acronym's origin: 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. We also had a tradition of recursive acronyms,
to say that the program that you're writing is similar
to some existing program . . . I looked for a recursive
acronym for Something Is Not UNIX. And I tried all 26
letters and discovered that none of them was a word. I
decided to make it a contraction. That way I could have
a three-letter acronym, for Something's Not UNIX. And I
tried letters, and I came across the word "GNU." That
was it. Although a fan of puns, Stallman recommends
that software users pronounce the "g" at the beginning
of the acronym (i.e., "gah-new"). Not only does this
avoid confusion with the word "gnu," the name of the
African antelope, Connochaetes gnou , it also avoids
confusion with the adjective "new." "We've been working
on it for 17 years now, so it is not exactly new any
more," Stallman says. Source: author notes and online
transcript of "Free Software: Freedom and Cooperation,"
Richard Stallman's May 29, 2001, speech at New York University.
, the amalgamated operating system built around the
GPL-protected Linux kernel, and Windows over the last
10 years reveals the wisdom of both perspectives.
Nevertheless, the battle for momentum is an important
one in the software industry. Even powerful vendors
such as Microsoft rely on the support of third-party
software developers whose tools, programs, and computer
games make an underlying software platform such as
Windows more attractive to the mainstream consumer.
Citing the rapid evolution of the technology
marketplace over the last 20 years, not to mention his
own company's admirable track record during that
period, Mundie advised listeners to not get too carried
away by the free software movement's recent momentum:
Two decades of experience have shown that an economic
model that protects intellectual property and a
business model that recoups research and development
costs can create impressive economic benefits and
distribute them very broadly. Such admonitions serve as
the backdrop for Stallman's speech today. Less than a
month after their utterance, Stallman stands with his
back to one of the chalk boards at the front of the
room, edgy to begin.

If the last two decades have brought dramatic changes
to the software marketplace, they have brought even
more dramatic changes to Stallman himself. Gone is the
skinny, clean-shaven hacker who once spent his entire
days communing with his beloved PDP-10. In his place
stands a heavy-set middle-aged man with long hair and
rabbinical beard, a man who now spends the bulk of his
time writing and answering email, haranguing fellow
programmers, and giving speeches like the one today.
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.

The crowd is filled with visitors who share Stallman's
fashion and grooming tastes. Many come bearing laptop
computers and cellular modems, all the better to record
and transmit Stallman's words to a waiting Internet
audience. The gender ratio is roughly 15 males to 1
female, and 1 of the 7 or 8 females in the room comes
in bearing a stuffed penguin, the official Linux
mascot, while another carries a stuffed teddy bear.

<Graphic file:/home/craigm/books/free_0201.png>

Richard Stallman, circa 2000. "I decided I would
develop a free software operating system or die trying
. . of old age of course." Photo courtesy of

Agitated, Stallman leaves his post at the front of the
room and takes a seat in a front-row chair, tapping a
few commands into an already-opened laptop. For the
next 10 minutes Stallman is oblivious to the growing
number of students, professors, and fans circulating in
front of him at the foot of the auditorium stage.

Before the speech can begin, the baroque rituals of
academic formality must be observed. Stallman's
appearance merits not one but two introductions. Mike
Uretsky, codirector of the Stern School's Center for
Advanced Technology, provides the first.

"The role of a university is to foster debate and to
have interesting discussions," Uretsky says. "This
particular presentation, this seminar falls right into
that mold. I find the discussion of open source
particularly interesting."

Before Uretsky can get another sentence out, Stallman
is on his feet waving him down like a stranded motorist.

"I do free software," Stallman says to rising laughter.
"Open source is a different movement."

The laughter gives way to applause. The room is stocked
with Stallman partisans, people who know of his
reputation for verbal exactitude, not to mention his
much publicized 1998 falling out with the open source
software proponents. Most have come to anticipate such
outbursts the same way radio fans once waited for Jack
Benny's trademark, "Now cut that out!" phrase during
each radio program.

Uretsky hastily finishes his introduction and cedes the
stage to Edmond Schonberg, a professor in the NYU
computer-science department. As a computer programmer
and GNU Project contributor, Schonberg knows which
linguistic land mines to avoid. He deftly summarizes
Stallman's career from the perspective of a modern-day

"Richard is the perfect example of somebody who, by
acting locally, started thinking globally [about]
problems concerning the unavailability of source code,"
says Schonberg. "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."

Schonberg welcomes Stallman to more applause. Stallman
takes a moment to shut off his laptop, rises out of his
chair, and takes the stage.

At first, Stallman's address seems more Catskills
comedy routine than political speech. "I'd like to
thank Microsoft for providing me the opportunity to be
on this platform," Stallman wisecracks. "For the past
few weeks, I have felt like an author whose book was
fortuitously banned somewhere."

For the uninitiated, Stallman dives into a quick free
software warm-up analogy. He likens a software program
to a cooking recipe. Both provide useful step-by-step
instructions on how to complete a desired task and can
be easily modified if a user has special desires or
circumstances. "You don't have to follow a recipe
exactly," Stallman notes. "You can leave out some
ingredients. Add some mushrooms, 'cause you like
mushrooms. Put in less salt because your doctor said
you should cut down on salt-whatever."

Most importantly, Stallman says, software programs and
recipes are both easy to share. In giving a recipe to a
dinner guest, a cook loses little more than time and
the cost of the paper the recipe was written on.
Software programs require even less, usually a few
mouse-clicks and a modicum of electricity. In both
instances, however, the person giving the information
gains two things: increased friendship and the ability
to borrow interesting recipes in return.

"Imagine what it would be like if recipes were packaged
inside black boxes," Stallman says, shifting gears.
"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."

With this introductory analogy out of the way, Stallman
launches into a retelling of the Xerox laser-printer
episode. Like the recipe analogy, the laser-printer
story is a useful rhetorical device. With its
parable-like structure, it dramatizes just how quickly
things can change in the software world. Drawing
listeners back to an era before one-click
shopping, Microsoft Windows, and Oracle databases, it
asks the listener to examine the notion of software
ownership free of its current corporate logos.

Stallman delivers the story with all the polish and
practice of a local district attorney conducting a
closing argument. When he gets to the part about the
Carnegie Mellon professor refusing to lend him a copy
of the printer source code, Stallman pauses.

"He had betrayed us," Stallman says. "But he didn't
just do it to us. Chances are he did it to you."

On the word "you," Stallman points his index finger
accusingly at an unsuspecting member of the audience.
The targeted audience member's eyebrows flinch
slightly, but Stallman's own eyes have moved on. Slowly
and deliberately, Stallman picks out a second listener
to nervous titters from the crowd. "And I think, mostly
likely, he did it to you, too," he says, pointing at an
audience member three rows behind the first.

By the time Stallman has a third audience member picked
out, the titters have given away to general laughter.
The gesture seems a bit staged, because it is. Still,
when it comes time to wrap up the Xerox laser-printer
story, Stallman does so with a showman's flourish. "He
probably did it to most of the people here in this
room-except a few, maybe, who weren't born yet in
1980," Stallman says, drawing more laughs. "[That's]
because he had promised to refuse to cooperate with
just about the entire population of the planet Earth."

Stallman lets the comment sink in for a half-beat. "He
had signed a nondisclosure agreement," Stallman adds.

Richard Matthew Stallman's rise from frustrated
academic to political leader over the last 20 years
speaks to many things. It speaks to Stallman's stubborn
nature and prodigious will. It speaks to the clearly
articulated vision and values of the free software
movement Stallman helped build. It speaks to the
high-quality software programs Stallman has built,
programs that have cemented Stallman's reputation as a
programming legend. It speaks to the growing momentum
of the GPL, a legal innovation that many Stallman
observers see as his most momentous accomplishment.

Most importantly, it speaks to the changing nature of
political power in a world increasingly beholden to
computer technology and the software programs that
power that technology.

Maybe that's why, even at a time when most
high-technology stars are on the wane, Stallman's star
has grown. Since launching the GNU Project in 1984,5
Stallman has been at turns ignored, satirized,
vilified, and attacked-both from within and without the
free software movement. Through it all, the GNU Project
has managed to meet its milestones, albeit with a few
notorious delays, and stay relevant in a software
marketplace several orders of magnitude more complex
than the one it entered 18 years ago. So too has the
free software ideology, an ideology meticulously
groomed by Stallman himself.

To understand the reasons behind this currency, it
helps to examine Richard Stallman both in his own words
and in the words of the people who have collaborated
and battled with him along the way. The Richard
Stallman character sketch is not a complicated one. If
any person exemplifies the old adage "what you see is
what you get," it's Stallman.

"I think if you want to understand Richard Stallman the
human being, you really need to see all of the parts as
a consistent whole," advises Eben Moglen, legal counsel
to the Free Software Foundation and professor of law at
Columbia University Law School. "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."

Explaining how a journey that started with a laser
printer would eventually lead to a sparring match with
the world's richest corporation is no easy task. It
requires a thoughtful examination of the forces that
have made software ownership so important in today's
society. It also requires a thoughtful examination of a
man who, like many political leaders before him,
understands the malleability of human memory. It
requires an ability to interpret the myths and
politically laden code words that have built up around
Stallman over time. Finally, it requires an
understanding of Stallman's genius as a programmer and
his failures and successes in translating that genius
to other pursuits.

When it comes to offering his own summary of the
journey, Stallman acknowledges the fusion of
personality and principle observed by Moglen.
"Stubbornness is my strong suit," he says. "Most people
who attempt to do anything of any great difficulty
eventually get discouraged and give up. I never gave up."

He also credits blind chance. Had it not been for that
run-in over the Xerox laser printer, had it not been
for the personal and political conflicts that closed
out his career as an MIT employee, had it not been for
a half dozen other timely factors, Stallman finds it
very easy to picture his life following a different
career path. That being said, Stallman gives thanks to
the forces and circumstances that put him in the
position to make a difference.

"I had just the right skills," says Stallman, summing
up his decision for launching the GNU Project to the
audience. "Nobody was there but me, so I felt like,
`I'm elected. I have to work on this. If not me ,
who?'" Endnotes

1. Actually, the GPL's powers are not quite that
potent. According to section 10 of the GNU General
Public License, Version 2 (1991), the viral nature of
the license depends heavily on the Free Software
Foundation's willingness to view a program as a
derivative work, not to mention the existing license
the GPL would replace.

If you wish to incorporate parts of the Program into
other free programs whose distribution conditions are
different, write to the author to ask for permission.
For software that is copyrighted by the Free Software
Foundation, write to the Free Software Foundation; we
sometimes make exceptions for this. Our decision will
be guided by the two goals of preserving the free
status of all derivatives of our free software and of
promoting the sharing and reuse of software generally.

"To compare something to a virus is very harsh," says
Stallman. "A spider plant is a more accurate
comparison; it goes to another place if you actively
take a cutting."

For more information on the GNU General Public License,