Chapter 5
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

Ask anyone who's spent more than a minute in Richard
Stallman's presence, and you'll get the same
recollection: forget the long hair. Forget the quirky
demeanor. The first thing you notice is the gaze. One
look into Stallman's green eyes, and you know you're in
the presence of a true believer.

To call the Stallman gaze intense is an understatement.
Stallman's eyes don't just look at you; they look
through you. Even when your own eyes momentarily shift
away out of simple primate politeness, Stallman's eyes
remain locked-in, sizzling away at the side of your
head like twin photon beams.

Maybe that's why most writers, when describing
Stallman, tend to go for the religious angle. In a 1998 article titled "The Saint of Free Software,"
Andrew Leonard describes Stallman's green eyes as
"radiating the power of an Old Testament prophet."See Andrew Leonard, "The
Saint of Free Software," (August 1998).

 A 1999 Wired magazine article describes the Stallman
beard as "Rasputin-like,"See Leander Kahney, "Linux's Forgotten Man," Wired
(March 5, 1999).,1294,18291,00.html
 while a London Guardian profile describes the Stallman
smile as the smile of "a disciple seeing Jesus."See "Programmer on moral high
ground; Free software is
a moral issue for Richard Stallman believes in freedom
and free software." London Guardian (November 6, 1999).
These are just a small sampling of the religious
comparisons. To date, the most extreme comparison has
to go to Linus Torvalds, who, in his autobiography-see
Linus Torvalds and David Diamond, Just For Fun: The
Story of an Accidentaly Revolutionary (HarperCollins
Publishers, Inc., 2001): 58-writes "Richard Stallman is
the God of Free Software." Honorable mention goes to
Larry Lessig, who, in a footnote description of
Stallman in his book-see Larry Lessig, The Future of
Ideas (Random House, 2001): 270-likens Stallman to
Moses: . . . as with Moses, it was another leader,
Linus Torvalds, who finally carried the movement into
the promised land by facilitating the development of
the final part of the OS puzzle. Like Moses, too,
Stallman is both respected and reviled by allies within
the movement. He is [an] unforgiving, and hence for
many inspiring, leader of a critically important aspect
of modern culture. I have deep respect for the
principle and commitment of this extraordinary
individual, though I also have great respect for those
who are courageous enough to question his thinking and
then sustain his wrath. In a final interview with
Stallman, I asked him his thoughts about the religious
comparisons. "Some people do compare me with an Old
Testament prophent, and the reason is Old Testament
prophets said certain social practices were wrong. They
wouldn't compromise on moral issues. They couldn't be
bought off, and they were usually treated with contempt."

Such analogies serve a purpose, but they ultimately
fall short. That's because they fail to take into
account the vulnerable side of the Stallman persona.
Watch the Stallman gaze for an extended period of time,
and you will begin to notice a subtle change. What
appears at first to be an attempt to intimidate or
hypnotize reveals itself upon second and third viewing
as a frustrated attempt to build and maintain contact.
If, as Stallman himself has suspected from time to
time, his personality is the product of autism or
Asperger Syndrome, his eyes certainly confirm the
diagnosis. Even at their most high-beam level of
intensity, they have a tendency to grow cloudy and
distant, like the eyes of a wounded animal preparing to
give up the ghost.

My own first encounter with the legendary Stallman gaze
dates back to the March, 1999, LinuxWorld Convention
and Expo in San Jose, California. Billed as a "coming
out party" for the Linux software community, the
convention also stands out as the event that
reintroduced Stallman to the technology media.
Determined to push for his proper share of credit,
Stallman used the event to instruct spectators and
reporters alike on the history of the GNU Project and
the project's overt political objectives.

As a reporter sent to cover the event, I received my
own Stallman tutorial during a press conference
announcing the release of GNOME 1.0, a free software
graphic user interface. Unwittingly, I push an entire
bank of hot buttons when I throw out my very first
question to Stallman himself: do you think GNOME's
maturity will affect the commercial popularity of the
Linux operating system?

"I ask that you please stop calling the operating
system Linux," Stallman responds, eyes immediately
zeroing in on mine. "The Linux kernel is just a small
part of the operating system. Many of the software
programs that make up the operating system you call
Linux were not developed by Linus Torvalds at all. They
were created by GNU Project volunteers, putting in
their own personal time so that users might have a free
operating system like the one we have today. To not
acknowledge the contribution of those programmers is
both impolite and a misrepresentation of history.
That's why I ask that when you refer to the operating
system, please call it by its proper name, GNU/Linux."

Taking the words down in my reporter's notebook, I
notice an eerie silence in the crowded room. When I
finally look up, I find Stallman's unblinking eyes
waiting for me. Timidly, a second reporter throws out a
question, making sure to use the term " GNU/Linux"
instead of Linux. Miguel de Icaza, leader of the GNOME
project, fields the question. It isn't until halfway
through de Icaza's answer, however, that Stallman's
eyes finally unlock from mine. As soon as they do, a
mild shiver rolls down my back. When Stallman starts
lecturing another reporter over a perceived error in
diction, I feel a guilty tinge of relief. At least he
isn't looking at me, I tell myself.

For Stallman, such face-to-face moments would serve
their purpose. By the end of the first LinuxWorld show,
most reporters know better than to use the term "Linux"
in his presence, and is running a story
comparing Stallman to a pre-Stalinist revolutionary
erased from the history books by hackers and
entrepreneurs eager to downplay the GNU Project's
overly political objectives.2 Other articles follow,
and while few reporters call the operating system
GNU/Linux in print, most are quick to credit Stallman
for launching the drive to build a free software
operating system 15 years before.

I won't meet Stallman again for another 17 months.
During the interim, Stallman will revisit Silicon
Valley once more for the August, 1999 LinuxWorld show.
Although not invited to speak, Stallman does managed to
deliver the event's best line. Accepting the show's
Linus Torvalds Award for Community Service-an award
named after Linux creator Linus Torvalds-on behalf of
the Free Software Foundation, Stallman wisecracks,
"Giving the Linus Torvalds Award to the Free Software
Foundation is a bit like giving the Han Solo Award to
the Rebel Alliance."

This time around, however, the comments fail to make
much of a media dent. Midway through the week, Red Hat,
Inc., a prominent GNU/Linux vendor, goes public. The
news merely confirms what many reporters such as myself
already suspect: "Linux" has become a Wall Street
buzzword, much like "e-commerce" and "dot-com" before
it. With the stock market approaching the Y2K rollover
like a hyperbola approaching its vertical asymptote,
all talk of free software or open source as a political
phenomenon falls by the wayside.

Maybe that's why, when LinuxWorld follows up its first
two shows with a third LinuxWorld show in August, 2000,
Stallman is conspicuously absent.

My second encounter with Stallman and his trademark
gaze comes shortly after that third LinuxWorld show.
Hearing that Stallman is going to be in Silicon Valley,
I set up a lunch interview in Palo Alto, California.
The meeting place seems ironic, not only because of the
recent no-show but also because of the overall
backdrop. Outside of Redmond, Washington, few cities
offer a more direct testament to the economic value of
proprietary software. Curious to see how Stallman, a
man who has spent the better part of his life railing
against our culture's predilection toward greed and
selfishness, is coping in a city where even
garage-sized bungalows run in the half-million-dollar
price range, I make the drive down from Oakland.

I follow the directions Stallman has given me, until I
reach the headquarters of, a nonprofit "virtual
artists collective." Located in a hedge-shrouded house
in the northern corner of the city, the
headquarters are refreshingly run-down. Suddenly, the
idea of Stallman lurking in the heart of Silicon Valley
doesn't seem so strange after all.

I find Stallman sitting in a darkened room, tapping
away on his gray laptop computer. He looks up as soon
as I enter the room, giving me a full blast of his
200-watt gaze. When he offers a soothing "Hello," I
offer a return greeting. Before the words come out,
however, his eyes have already shifted back to the
laptop screen.

"I'm just finishing an article on the spirit of
hacking," Stallman says, fingers still tapping. "Take a look."

I take a look. The room is dimly lit, and the text
appears as greenish-white letters on a black
background, a reversal of the color scheme used by most
desktop word-processing programs, so it takes my eyes a
moment to adjust. When they do, I find myself reading
Stallman's account of a recent meal at a Korean
restaurant. Before the meal, Stallman makes an
interesting discovery: the person setting the table has
left six chopsticks instead of the usual two in front
of Stallman's place setting. Where most restaurant
goers would have ignored the redundant pairs, Stallman
takes it as challenge: find a way to use all six
chopsticks at once. Like many software hacks, the
successful solution is both clever and silly at the
same time. Hence Stallman's decision to use it as an

As I read the story, I feel Stallman watching me
intently. I look over to notice a proud but child-like
half smile on his face. When I praise the essay, my
comment barely merits a raised eyebrow.

"I'll be ready to go in a moment," he says.

Stallman goes back to tapping away at his laptop. The
laptop is gray and boxy, not like the sleek, modern
laptops that seemed to be a programmer favorite at the
recent LinuxWorld show. Above the keyboard rides a
smaller, lighter keyboard, a testament to Stallman's
aging hands. During the late 1980s, when Stallman was
putting in 70- and 80-hour work weeks writing the first
free software tools and programs for the GNU Project,
the pain in Stallman's hands became so unbearable that
he had to hire a typist. Today, Stallman relies on a
keyboard whose keys require less pressure than a
typical computer keyboard.

Stallman has a tendency to block out all external
stimuli while working. Watching his eyes lock onto the
screen and his fingers dance, one quickly gets the
sense of two old friends locked in deep conversation.

The session ends with a few loud keystrokes and the
slow disassembly of the laptop.

"Ready for lunch?" Stallman asks.

We walk to my car. Pleading a sore ankle, Stallman
limps along slowly. Stallman blames the injury on a
tendon in his left foot. The injury is three years old
and has gotten so bad that Stallman, a huge fan of folk
dancing, has been forced to give up all dancing
activities. "I love folk dancing inherently," Stallman
laments. "Not being able to dance has been a tragedy
for me."

Stallman's body bears witness to the tragedy. Lack of
exercise has left Stallman with swollen cheeks and a
pot belly that was much less visible the year before.
You can tell the weight gain has been dramatic, because
when Stallman walks, he arches his back like a pregnant
woman trying to accommodate an unfamiliar load.

The walk is further slowed by Stallman's willingness to
stop and smell the roses, literally. Spotting a
particularly beautiful blossom, he tickles the
innermost petals with his prodigious nose, takes a deep
sniff and steps back with a contented sigh.

"Mmm, rhinophytophilia,"At the time,

I thought Stallman was referring to the
flower's scientific name. Months later, I would learn
that rhinophytophilia was in fact a humorous reference
to the activity, i.e., Stallman sticking his nose into
a flower and enjoying the moment. For another humorous
Stallman flower incident, visit:
 he says, rubbing his back.

The drive to the restaurant takes less than three
minutes. Upon recommendation from Tim Ney, former
executive director of the Free Software Foundation, I
have let Stallman choose the restaurant. While some
reporters zero in on Stallman's monk-like lifestyle,
the truth is, Stallman is a committed epicure when it
comes to food. One of the fringe benefits of being a
traveling missionary for the free software cause is the
ability to sample delicious food from around the world.
"Visit almost any major city in the world, and chances
are Richard knows the best restaurant in town," says
Ney. "Richard also takes great pride in knowing what's
on the menu and ordering for the entire table."

For today's meal, Stallman has chosen a Cantonese-style
dim sum restaurant two blocks off University Avenue,
Palo Alto's main drag. The choice is partially inspired
by Stallman's recent visit to China, including a
lecture stop in Guangdong province, in addition to
Stallman's personal aversion to spicier Hunanese and
Szechuan cuisine. "I'm not a big fan of spicy,"
Stallman admits.

We arrive a few minutes after 11 a.m. and find
ourselves already subject to a 20-minute wait. Given
the hacker aversion to lost time, I hold my breath
momentarily, fearing an outburst. Stallman, contrary to
expectations, takes the news in stride.

"It's too bad we couldn't have found somebody else to
join us," he tells me. "It's always more fun to eat
with a group of people."

During the wait, Stallman practices a few dance steps.
His moves are tentative but skilled. We discuss current
events. Stallman says his only regret about not
attending LinuxWorld was missing out on a press
conference announcing the launch of the GNOME
Foundation. Backed by Sun Microsystems and IBM, the
foundation is in many ways a vindication for Stallman,
who has long championed that free software and
free-market economics need not be mutually exclusive.
Nevertheless, Stallman remains dissatisfied by the
message that came out.

"The way it was presented, the companies were talking
about Linux with no mention of the GNU Project at all,"
Stallman says.

Such disappointments merely contrast the warm response
coming from overseas, especially Asia, Stallman notes.
A quick glance at the Stallman 2000 travel itinerary
bespeaks the growing popularity of the free software
message. Between recent visits to India, China, and
Brazil, Stallman has spent 12 of the last 115 days on
United States soil. His travels have given him an
opportunity to see how the free software concept
translates into different languages of cultures.

"In India many people are interested in free software,
because they see it as a way to build their computing
infrastructure without spending a lot of money,"
Stallman says. "In China, the concept has been much
slower to catch on. Comparing free software to free
speech is harder to do when you don't have any free
speech. Still, the level of interest in free software
during my last visit was profound."

The conversation shifts to Napster, the San Mateo,
California software company, which has become something
of a media cause cÈlËbre in recent months. The company
markets a controversial software tool that lets music
fans browse and copy the music files of other music
fans. Thanks to the magnifying powers of the Internet,
this so-called "peer-to-peer" program has evolved into
a de facto online juke box, giving ordinary music fans
a way to listen to MP3 music files over the computer
without paying a royalty or fee, much to record
companies' chagrin.

Although based on proprietary software, the Napster
system draws inspiration from the long-held Stallman
contention that once a work enters the digital realm-in
other words, once making a copy is less a matter of
duplicating sounds or duplicating atoms and more a
matter of duplicating information-the natural human
impulse to share a work becomes harder to restrict.
Rather than impose additional restrictions, Napster
execs have decided to take advantage of the impulse.
Giving music listeners a central place to trade music
files, the company has gambled on its ability to steer
the resulting user traffic toward other commercial opportunities.

The sudden success of the Napster model has put the
fear in traditional record companies, with good reason.
Just days before my Palo Alto meeting with Stallman,
U.S. District Court Judge Marilyn Patel granted a
request filed by the Recording Industry Association of
America for an injunction against the file-sharing
service. The injunction was subsequently suspended by
the U.S. Ninth District Court of Appeals, but by early
2001, the Court of Appeals, too, would find the San
Mateo-based company in breach of copyright law,5 a
decision RIAA spokesperson Hillary Rosen would later
proclaim proclaim a "clear victory for the creative
content community and the legitimate online marketplace."

See "A Clear Victory
for Recording Industry in Napster
Case," RIAA press release (February 12, 2001).

For hackers such as Stallman, the Napster business
model is scary in different ways. The company's
eagerness to appropriate time-worn hacker principles
such as file sharing and communal information
ownership, while at the same time selling a service
based on proprietary software, sends a distressing
mixed message. As a person who already has a hard
enough time getting his own carefully articulated
message into the media stream, Stallman is
understandably reticent when it comes to speaking out
about the company. Still, Stallman does admit to
learning a thing or two from the social side of the
Napster phenomenon.

"Before Napster, I thought it might be OK for people to
privately redistribute works of entertainment,"
Stallman says. "The number of people who find Napster
useful, however, tells me that the right to
redistribute copies not only on a neighbor-to-neighbor
basis, but to the public at large, is essential and
therefore may not be taken away."

No sooner does Stallman say this than the door to the
restaurant swings open and we are invited back inside
by the host. Within a few seconds, we are seated in a
side corner of the restaurant next to a large mirrored wall.

The restaurant's menu doubles as an order form, and
Stallman is quickly checking off boxes before the host
has even brought water to the table. "Deep-fried shrimp
roll wrapped in bean-curd skin," Stallman reads.
"Bean-curd skin. It offers such an interesting texture.
I think we should get it."

This comment leads to an impromptu discussion of
Chinese food and Stallman's recent visit to China. "The
food in China is utterly exquisite," Stallman says, his
voice gaining an edge of emotion for the first time
this morning. "So many different things that I've never
seen in the U.S., local things made from local
mushrooms and local vegetables. It got to the point
where I started keeping a journal just to keep track of
every wonderful meal."

The conversation segues into a discussion of Korean
cuisine. During the same June, 2000, Asian tour,
Stallman paid a visit to South Korea. His arrival
ignited a mini-firestorm in the local media thanks to a
Korean software conference attended by Microsoft
founder and chairman Bill Gates that same week. Next to
getting his photo above Gates's photo on the front page
of the top Seoul newspaper, Stallman says the best
thing about the trip was the food. "I had a bowl of
naeng myun, which is cold noodles," says Stallman.
"These were a very interesting feeling noodle. Most
places don't use quite the same kind of noodles for
your naeng myun, so I can say with complete certainty
that this was the most exquisite naeng myun I ever had."

The term "exquisite" is high praise coming from
Stallman. I know this, because a few moments after
listening to Stallman rhapsodize about naeng myun, I
feel his laser-beam eyes singeing the top of my right shoulder.

"There is the most exquisite woman sitting just behind
you," Stallman says.

I turn to look, catching a glimpse of a woman's back.
The woman is young, somewhere in her mid-20s, and is
wearing a white sequinned dress. She and her male lunch
companion are in the final stages of paying the check.
When both get up from the table to leave the
restaurant, I can tell without looking, because
Stallman's eyes suddenly dim in intensity.

"Oh, no," he says. "They're gone. And to think, I'll
probably never even get to see her again."

After a brief sigh, Stallman recovers. The moment gives
me a chance to discuss Stallman's reputation vis-ý-vis
the fairer sex. The reputation is a bit contradictory
at times. A number of hackers report Stallman's
predilection for greeting females with a kiss on the
back of the hand.See Mae Ling Mak, "Mae Ling's Story" (December 17,

So far, Mak is the only person I've found willing to
speak on the record in regard to this practice,
although I've heard this from a few other female
sources. Mak, despite expressing initial revulsion at
it, later managed to put aside her misgivings and dance
with Stallman at a 1999 LinuxWorld show.
 A May 26, 2000 article, meanwhile, portrays
Stallman as a bit of a hacker lothario. Documenting the
free software-free love connection, reporter Annalee
Newitz presents Stallman as rejecting traditional
family values, telling her, "I believe in love, but not
monogamy."See Annalee Newitz, "If Code is Free Why Not Me?" (May 26, 2000).

Stallman lets his menu drop a little when I bring this
up. "Well, most men seem to want sex and seem to have a
rather contemptuous attitude towards women," he says.
"Even women they're involved with. I can't understand
it at all."

I mention a passage from the 1999 book Open Sources in
which Stallman confesses to wanting to name the
ill-fated GNU kernel after a girlfriend at the time.
The girlfriend's name was Alix, a name that fit
perfectly with the Unix developer convention of putting
an "x" at the end of any new kernel name-e.g., "Linux."
Because the woman was a Unix system administrator,
Stallman says it would have been an even more touching
tribute. Unfortunately, Stallman notes, the kernel
project's eventual main developer renamed the kernel HURD.See Richard Stallman,
"The GNU Operating System and the
Free Software Movement," Open Sources (O'Reilly &
Associates, Inc., 1999): 65.
 Although Stallman and the girlfriend later broke up,
the story triggers an automatic question: for all the
media imagery depicting him as a wild-eyed fanatic, is
Richard Stallman really just a hopeless romantic, a
wandering Quixote tilting at corporate windmills in an
effort to impress some as-yet-unidentified Dulcinea?

"I wasn't really trying to be romantic," Stallman says,
recalling the Alix story. "It was more of a teasing
thing. I mean, it was romantic, but it was also
teasing, you know? It would have been a delightful surprise."

For the first time all morning, Stallman smiles. I
bring up the hand kissing. "Yes, I do do that,"
Stallman says. "I've found it's a way of offering some
affection that a lot of women will enjoy. It's a chance
to give some affection and to be appreciated for it."

Affection is a thread that runs clear through Richard
Stallman's life, and he is painfully candid about it
when questions arise. "There really hasn't been much
affection in my life, except in my mind," he says.
Still, the discussion quickly grows awkward. After a
few one-word replies, Stallman finally lifts up his
menu, cutting off the inquiry.

"Would you like some shimai?" he asks.

When the food comes out, the conversation slaloms
between the arriving courses. We discuss the oft-noted
hacker affection for Chinese food, the weekly dinner
runs into Boston's Chinatown district during Stallman's
days as a staff programmer at the AI Lab, and the
underlying logic of the Chinese language and its
associated writing system. Each thrust on my part
elicits a well-informed parry on Stallman's part.

"I heard some people speaking Shanghainese the last
time I was in China," Stallman says. "It was
interesting to hear. It sounded quite different [from
Mandarin]. I had them tell me some cognate words in
Mandarin and Shanghainese. In some cases you can see
the resemblance, but one question I was wondering about
was whether tones would be similar. They're not. That's
interesting to me, because there's a theory that the
tones evolved from additional syllables that got lost
and replaced. Their effect survives in the tone. If
that's true, and I've seen claims that that happened
within historic times, the dialects must have diverged
before the loss of these final syllables."

The first dish, a plate of pan-fried turnip cakes, has
arrived. Both Stallman and I take a moment to carve up
the large rectangular cakes, which smell like boiled
cabbage but taste like potato latkes fried in bacon.

I decide to bring up the outcast issue again, wondering
if Stallman's teenage years conditioned him to take
unpopular stands, most notably his uphill battle since
1994 to get computer users and the media to replace the
popular term "Linux" with "GNU/Linux."

"I believe it did help me," Stallman says, chewing on a
dumpling. "I have never understood what peer pressure
does to other people. I think the reason is that I was
so hopelessly rejected that for me, there wasn't
anything to gain by trying to follow any of the fads.
It wouldn't have made any difference. I'd still be just
as rejected, so I didn't try."

Stallman points to his taste in music as a key example
of his contrarian tendencies. As a teenager, when most
of his high school classmates were listening to Motown
and acid rock, Stallman preferred classical music. The
memory leads to a rare humorous episode from Stallman's
middle-school years. Following the Beatles' 1964
appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, most of Stallman's
classmates rushed out to purchase the latest Beatles
albums and singles. Right then and there, Stallman
says, he made a decision to boycott the Fab Four.

"I liked some of the pre-Beatles popular music,"
Stallman says. "But I didn't like the Beatles. I
especially disliked the wild way people reacted to
them. It was like: who was going to have a Beatles
assembly to adulate the Beatles the most?"

When his Beatles boycott failed to take hold, Stallman
looked for other ways to point out the herd-mentality
of his peers. Stallman says he briefly considered
putting together a rock band himself dedicated to
satirizing the Liverpool group.

"I wanted to call it Tokyo Rose and the Japanese Beetles."

Given his current love for international folk music, I
ask Stallman if he had a similar affinity for Bob Dylan
and the other folk musicians of the early 1960s.
Stallman shakes his head. "I did like Peter, Paul and
Mary," he says. "That reminds me of a great filk."

When I ask for a definition of "filk," Stallman
explains the concept. A filk, he says, is a popular
song whose lyrics have been replaced with parody
lyrics. The process of writing a filk is called
filking, and it is a popular activity among hackers and
science-fiction aficionados. Classic filks include "On
Top of Spaghetti," a rewrite of "On Top of Old Smokey,"
and "Yoda," filk-master "Weird" Al Yankovic's Star
Wars-oriented rendition of the Kinks tune, "Lola."

Stallman asks me if I would be interested in hearing
the folk filk. As soon as I say yes, Stallman's voice
begins singing in an unexpectedly clear tone: How much
wood could a woodchuck chuck,If a woodchuck could chuck
wood?How many poles could a polak lock,If a polak could
lock poles?How many knees could a negro grow,If a negro
could grow knees?The answer, my dear, is stick it in
your ear.The answer is to stick it in your ear. The
singing ends, and Stallman's lips curl into another
child-like half smile. I glance around at the nearby
tables. The Asian families enjoying their Sunday lunch
pay little attention to the bearded alto in their midst.

For more Stallman filks, visit To hear Stallman
singing "The Free Software Song," visit
 After a few moments of hesitation, I finally smile too.

"Do you want that last cornball?" Stallman asks, eyes
twinkling. Before I can screw up the punch line,
Stallman grabs the corn-encrusted dumpling with his two
chopsticks and lifts it proudly. "Maybe I'm the one who
should get the cornball," he says.

The food gone, our conversation assumes the dynamics of
a normal interview. Stallman reclines in his chair and
cradles a cup of tea in his hands. We resume talking
about Napster and its relation to the free software
movement. Should the principles of free software be
extended to similar arenas such as music publishing? I ask.

"It's a mistake to transfer answers from one thing to
another," says Stallman, contrasting songs with
software programs. "The right approach is to look at
each type of work and see what conclusion you get."

When it comes to copyrighted works, Stallman says he
divides the world into three categories. The first
category involves "functional" works-e.g., software
programs, dictionaries, and textbooks. The second
category involves works that might best be described as
"testimonial"-e.g., scientific papers and historical
documents. Such works serve a purpose that would be
undermined if subsequent readers or authors were free
to modify the work at will. The final category involves
works of personal expression-e.g., diaries, journals,
and autobiographies. To modify such documents would be
to alter a person's recollections or point of
view-action Stallman considers ethically unjustifiable.

Of the three categories, the first should give users
the unlimited right to make modified versions, while
the second and third should regulate that right
according to the will of the original author.
Regardless of category, however, the freedom to copy
and redistribute noncommercially should remain
unabridged at all times, Stallman insists. If that
means giving Internet users the right to generate a
hundred copies of an article, image, song, or book and
then email the copies to a hundred strangers, so be it.
"It's clear that private occasional redistribution must
be permitted, because only a police state can stop
that," Stallman says. "It's antisocial to come between
people and their friends. Napster has convinced me that
we also need to permit, must permit, even noncommercial
redistribution to the public for the fun of it. Because
so many people want to do that and find it so useful."

When I ask whether the courts would accept such a
permissive outlook, Stallman cuts me off.

"That's the wrong question," he says. "I mean now
you've changed the subject entirely from one of ethics
to one of interpreting laws. And those are two totally
different questions in the same field. It's useless to
jump from one to the other. How the courts would
interpret the existing laws is mainly in a harsh way,
because that's the way these laws have been bought by

The comment provides an insight into Stallman's
political philosophy: just because the legal system
currently backs up businesses' ability to treat
copyright as the software equivalent of land title
doesn't mean computer users have to play the game
according to those rules. Freedom is an ethical issue,
not a legal issue. "I'm looking beyond what the
existing laws are to what they should be," Stallman
says. "I'm not trying to draft legislation. I'm
thinking about what should the law do? I consider the
law prohibiting the sharing of copies with your friend
the moral equivalent of Jim Crow. It does not deserve respect."

The invocation of Jim Crow prompts another question.
How much influence or inspiration does Stallman draw
from past political leaders? Like the civil-rights
movement of the 1950s and 1960s, his attempt to drive
social change is based on an appeal to timeless values:
freedom, justice, and fair play.

Stallman divides his attention between my analogy and a
particularly tangled strand of hair. When I stretch the
analogy to the point where I'm comparing Stallman with
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Stallman, after breaking
off a split end and popping it into his mouth, cuts me off.

"I'm not in his league, but I do play the same game,"
he says, chewing.

I suggest Malcolm X as another point of comparison.
Like the former Nation of Islam spokesperson, Stallman
has built up a reputation for courting controversy,
alienating potential allies, and preaching a message
favoring self-sufficiency over cultural integration.

Chewing on another split end, Stallman rejects the
comparison. "My message is closer to King's message,"
he says. "It's a universal message. It's a message of
firm condemnation of certain practices that mistreat
others. It's not a message of hatred for anyone. And
it's not aimed at a narrow group of people. I invite
anyone to value freedom and to have freedom."

Even so, a suspicious attitude toward political
alliances remains a fundamental Stallman character
trait. In the case of his well-publicized distaste for
the term "open source," the unwillingness to
participate in recent coalition-building projects seems
understandable. As a man who has spent the last two
decades stumping on the behalf of free software,
Stallman's political capital is deeply invested in the
term. Still, comments such as the "Han Solo" wisecrack
at the 1999 LinuxWorld have only reinforced the
Stallman's reputation in the software industry as a
disgrunted mossback unwilling to roll with political or
marketing trends.

"I admire and respect Richard for all the work he's
done," says Red Hat president Robert Young, summing up
Stallman's paradoxical political nature. "My only
critique is that sometimes Richard treats his friends
worse than his enemies."

Stallman's unwillingness to seek alliances seems
equally perplexing when you consider his political
interests outside of the free software movement. Visit
Stallman's offices at MIT, and you instantly find a
clearinghouse of left-leaning news articles covering
civil-rights abuses around the globe. Visit his web
site, and you'll find diatribes on the Digital
Millennium Copyright Act, the War on Drugs, and the
World Trade Organization.

Given his activist tendencies, I ask, why hasn't
Stallman sought a larger voice? Why hasn't he used his
visibility in the hacker world as a platform to boost
rather than reduce his political voice.

Stallman lets his tangled hair drop and contemplates
the question for a moment.

"I hesitate to exaggerate the importance of this little
puddle of freedom," he says. "Because the more
well-known and conventional areas of working for
freedom and a better society are tremendously
important. I wouldn't say that free software is as
important as they are. It's the responsibility I
undertook, because it dropped in my lap and I saw a way
I could do something about it. But, for example, to end
police brutality, to end the war on drugs, to end the
kinds of racism we still have, to help everyone have a
comfortable life, to protect the rights of people who
do abortions, to protect us from theocracy, these are
tremendously important issues, far more important than
what I do. I just wish I knew how to do something about them."

Once again, Stallman presents his political activity as
a function of personal confidence. Given the amount of
time it has taken him to develop and hone the free
software movement's core tenets, Stallman is hesitant
to jump aboard any issues or trends that might
transport him into uncharted territory.

"I wish I knew I how to make a major difference on
those bigger issues, because I would be tremendously
proud if I could, but they're very hard and lots of
people who are probably better than I am have been
working on them and have gotten only so far," he says.
"But as I see it, while other people were defending
against these big visible threats, I saw another threat
that was unguarded. And so I went to defend against
that threat. It may not be as big a threat, but I was
the only one there."

Chewing a final split end, Stallman suggests paying the
check. Before the waiter can take it away, however,
Stallman pulls out a white-colored dollar bill and
throws it on the pile. The bill looks so clearly
counterfeit, I can't help but pick it up and read it.
Sure enough, it is counterfeit. Instead of bearing the
image of a George Washington or Abe Lincoln, the bill's
front side bears the image of a cartoon pig. Instead of
the United States of America, the banner above the pig
reads "United Swines of Avarice." The bill is for zero
dollars, and when the waiter picks up the money,
Stallman makes sure to tug on his sleeve.

"I added an extra zero to your tip," Stallman says, yet
another half smile creeping across his lips.

The waiter, uncomprehending or fooled by the look of
the bill, smiles and scurries away.

"I think that means we're free to go," Stallman says.