Chapter 8
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 Maui High Performance Computing Center is located
in a single-story building in the dusty red hills just
above the town of Kihei. Framed by million-dollar views
and the multimillion dollar real estate of the
Silversword Golf Course, the center seems like the
ultimate scientific boondoggle. Far from the boxy,
sterile confines of Tech Square or even the sprawling
research metropolises of Argonne, Illinois and Los
Alamos, New Mexico, the MHPCC seems like the kind of
place where scientists spend more time on their tans
than their post-doctoral research projects.

The image is only half true. Although researchers at
the MHPCC do take advantage of the local recreational
opportunities, they also take their work seriously.
According to, a web site that tracks the
most powerful supercomputers in the world, the IBM SP
Power3 supercomputer housed within the MHPCC clocks in
at 837 billion floating-point operations per second,
making it one of 25 most powerful computers in the
world. Co-owned and operated by the University of
Hawaii and the U.S. Air Force, the machine divides its
computer cycles between the number crunching tasks
associated with military logistics and high-temperature
physics research.

Simply put, the MHPCC is a unique place, a place where
the brainy culture of science and engineering and the
laid-back culture of the Hawaiian islands coexist in
peaceful equilibrium. A slogan on the lab's 2000 web
site sums it up: "Computing in paradise."

It's not exactly the kind of place you'd expect to find
Richard Stallman, a man who, when taking in the
beautiful view of the nearby Maui Channel through the
picture windows of a staffer's office, mutters a terse
critique: "Too much sun." Still, as an emissary from
one computing paradise to another, Stallman has a
message to deliver, even if it means subjecting his
pale hacker skin to the hazards of tropical exposure.

The conference room is already full by the time I
arrive to catch Stallman's speech. The gender breakdown
is a little better than at the New York speech, 85%
male, 15% female, but not by much. About half of the
audience members wear khaki pants and logo-encrusted
golf shirts. The other half seems to have gone native.
Dressed in the gaudy flower-print shirts so popular in
this corner of the world, their faces are a deep shade
of ochre. The only residual indication of geek status
are the gadgets: Nokia cell phones, Palm Pilots, and
Sony VAIO laptops.

Needless to say, Stallman, who stands in front of the
room dressed in plain blue T-shirt, brown polyester
slacks, and white socks, sticks out like a sore thumb.
The fluorescent lights of the conference room help
bring out the unhealthy color of his sun-starved skin.
His beard and hair are enough to trigger beads of sweat
on even the coolest Hawaiian neck. Short of having the
words "mainlander" tattooed on his forehead, Stallman
couldn't look more alien if he tried.

As Stallman putters around the front of the room, a few
audience members wearing T-shirts with the logo of the
Maui FreeBSD Users Group (MFUG) race to set up camera
and audio equipment. FreeBSD, a free software offshoot
of the Berkeley Software Distribution, the venerable
1970s academic version of Unix, is technically a
competitor to the GNU/Linux operating system. Still, in
the hacking world, Stallman speeches are documented
with a fervor reminiscent of the Grateful Dead and its
legendary army of amateur archivists. As the local free
software heads, it's up to the MFUG members to make
sure fellow programmers in Hamburg, Mumbai, and
Novosibirsk don't miss out on the latest pearls of RMS wisdom.

The analogy to the Grateful Dead is apt. Often, when
describing the business opportunities inherent within
the free software model, Stallman has held up the
Grateful Dead as an example. In refusing to restrict
fans' ability to record live concerts, the Grateful
Dead became more than a rock group. They became the
center of a tribal community dedicated to Grateful Dead
music. Over time, that tribal community became so large
and so devoted that the band shunned record contracts
and supported itself solely through musical tours and
live appearances. In 1994, the band's last year as a
touring act, the Grateful Dead drew $52 million in gate
receipts alone.See "Grateful Dead Time Capsule: 1985-1995 North
American Tour Grosses."

While few software companies have been able to match
that success, the tribal aspect of the free software
community is one reason many in the latter half of the
1990s started to accept the notion that publishing
software source code might be a good thing. Hoping to
build their own loyal followings, companies such as
IBM, Sun Microsystems, and Hewlett Packard have come to
accept the letter, if not the spirit, of the Stallman
free software message. Describing the GPL as the
information-technology industry's "Magna Carta," ZDNet
software columnist Evan Leibovitch sees the growing
affection for all things GNU as more than just a trend.
"This societal shift is letting users take back control
of their futures," Leibovitch writes. "Just as the
Magna Carta gave rights to British subjects, the GPL
enforces consumer rights and freedoms on behalf of the
users of computer software."See Evan Leibovitch, "Who's Afraid of Big Bad
ZDNet Tech Update (December 15, 2000).

The tribal aspect of the free software community also
helps explain why 40-odd programmers, who might
otherwise be working on physics projects or surfing the
Web for windsurfing buoy reports, have packed into a
conference room to hear Stallman speak.

Unlike the New York speech, Stallman gets no
introduction. He also offers no self-introduction. When
the FreeBSD people finally get their equipment up and
running, Stallman simply steps forward, starts
speaking, and steamrolls over every other voice in the room.

"Most of the time when people consider the question of
what rules society should have for using software, the
people considering it are from software companies, and
they consider the question from a self-serving
perspective," says Stallman, opening his speech. "What
rules can we impose on everybody else so they have to
pay us lots of money? I had the good fortune in the
1970s to be part of a community of programmers who
shared software. And because of this I always like to
look at the same issue from a different direction to
ask: what kind of rules make possible a good society
that is good for the people who are in it? And
therefore I reach completely different answers."

Once again, Stallman quickly segues into the parable of
the Xerox laser printer, taking a moment to deliver the
same dramatic finger-pointing gestures to the crowd. He
also devotes a minute or two to the GNU/Linux name.

"Some people say to me, `Why make such a fuss about
getting credit for this system? After all, the
important thing is the job is done, not whether you get
recognition for it.' Well, this would be wise advice if
it were true. But the job wasn't to build an operating
system; the job is to spread freedom to the users of
computers. And to do that we have to make it possible
to do everything with computers in freedom."For narrative purposes, I have
hesitated to go in-depth
when describing Stallman's full definition of software
"freedom." The GNU Project web site lists four
fundamental components: The freedom to run a program,
for any purpose (freedom 0). The freedom to study how a
program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1).
The freedom to redistribute copies of a program so you
can help your neighbor (freedom 2). The freedom to
improve the program, and release your improvements to
the public, so that the whole community benefits
(freedom 3). For more information, please visit "The
Free Software Definition" at

Adds Stallman, "There's a lot more work to do."

For some in the audience, this is old material. For
others, it's a little arcane. When a member of the
golf-shirt contingent starts dozing off, Stallman stops
the speech and asks somebody to wake the person up.

"Somebody once said my voice was so soothing, he asked
if I was some kind of healer," says Stallman, drawing a
quick laugh from the crowd. "I guess that probably
means I can help you drift gently into a blissful,
relaxing sleep. And some of you might need that. I
guess I shouldn't object if you do. If you need to
sleep, by all means do."

The speech ends with a brief discussion of software
patents, a growing issue of concern both within the
software industry and within the free software
community. Like Napster, software patents reflect the
awkward nature of applying laws and concepts written
for the physical world to the frictionless universe of
information technology. The difference between
protecting a program under copyright and protecting a
program under software patents is subtle but
significant. In the case of copyright, a software
creator can restrict duplication of the source code but
not duplication of the idea or functionality that the
source code addresses. In other words, if a developer
chooses not to use a software program under the
original developer's terms, that second developer is
still free to reverse-engineer the program-i.e.,
duplicate the software program's functionality by
rewriting the source code from scratch. Such
duplication of ideas is common within the commercial
software industry, where companies often isolate
reverse-engineering teams to head off accusations of
corporate espionage or developer hanky-panky. In the
jargon of modern software development, companies refer
to this technique as "clean room" engineering.

Software patents work differently. According to the
U.S. Patent Office, companies and individuals may
secure patents for innovative algorithms provided they
submit their claims to a public review. In theory, this
allows the patent-holder to trade off disclosure of
their invention for a limited monopoly of a minimum of
20 years after the patent filing. In practice, the
disclosure is of limited value, since the operation of
the program is often self-evident. Unlike copyright, a
patent gives its holder the ability to head off the
independent development of software programs with the
same or similar functionality.

In the software industry, where 20 years can cover the
entire life cycle of a marketplace, patents take on a
strategic weight. Where companies such as Microsoft and
Apple once battled over copyright and the "look and
feel" of various technologies, today's Internet
companies use patents as a way to stake out individual
applications and business models, the most notorious
example being's 2000 attempt to patent the
company's "one-click" online shopping process. For most
companies, however, software patents have become a
defensive tool, with cross-licensing deals balancing
one set of corporate patents against another in a tense
form of corporate detente. Still, in a few notable
cases of computer encryption and graphic imaging
algorithms, software vendors have successfully stifled
rival technologies.

For Stallman, the software-patent issue dramatizes the
need for eternal hacker vigilance. It also underlines
the importance of stressing the political benefits of
free software programs over the competitive benefits.
Pointing to software patents' ability to create
sheltered regions in the marketplace, Stallman says
competitive performance and price, two areas where free
software operating systems such as GNU/Linux and
FreeBSD already hold a distinct advantage over their
proprietary counterparts, are red herrings compared to
the large issues of user and developer freedom.

"It's not because we don't have the talent to make
better software," says Stallman. "It's because we don't
have the right. Somebody has prohibited us from serving
the public. So what's going to happen when users
encounter these gaps in free software? Well, if they
have been persuaded by the open source movement that
these freedoms are good because they lead to
more-powerful reliable software, they're likely to say,
`You didn't deliver what you promised. This software's
not more powerful. It's missing this feature. You lied
to me.' But if they have come to agree with the free
software movement, that the freedom is important in
itself, then they will say, `How dare those people stop
me from having this feature and my freedom too.' And
with that kind of response, we may survive the hits
that we're going to take as these patents explode."

Such comments involve a hefty dose of spin, of course.
Most open source advocates are equally, if not more,
vociferous as Stallman when it comes to opposing
software patents. Still, the underlying logic of
Stallman's argument-that open source advocates
emphasize the utilitarian advantages of free software
over the political advantages-remains uncontested.
Rather than stress the political significance of free
software programs, open source advocates have chosen to
stress the engineering integrity of the hacker
development model. Citing the power of peer review, the
open source argument paints programs such as GNU/Linux
or FreeBSD as better built, better inspected and, by
extension, more trushworthy to the average user.

That's not to say the term "open source" doesn't have
its political implications. For open source advocates,
the term open source serves two purposes. First, it
eliminates the confusion associated with the word
"free," a word many businesses interpret as meaning
"zero cost." Second, it allows companies to examine the
free software phenomenon on a technological, rather
than ethical, basis. Eric Raymond, cofounder of the
Open Source Initiative and one of the leading hackers
to endorse the term, effectively summed up the
frustration of following Stallman down the political
path in a 1999 essay, titled " Shut Up and Show Them
the Code": RMS's rhetoric is very seductive to the kind
of people we are. We hackers are thinkers and idealists
who readily resonate with appeals to "principle" and
"freedom" and "rights." Even when we disagree with bits
of his program, we want RMS's rhetorical style to work;
we think it ought to work; we tend to be puzzled and
disbelieving when it fails on the 95% of people who
aren't wired like we are.4 Included among that 95%,
Raymond writes, are the bulk of business managers,
investors, and nonhacker computer users who, through
sheer weight of numbers, tend to decide the overall
direction of the commercial software marketplace.
Without a way to win these people over, Raymond argues,
programmers are doomed to pursue their ideology on the
periphery of society: When RMS insists that we talk
about "computer users' rights," he's issuing a
dangerously attractive invitation to us to repeat old
failures. It's one we should reject-not because his
principles are wrong, but because that kind of
language, applied to software, simply does not persuade
anybody but us. In fact, it confuses and repels most
people outside our culture.4 Watching Stallman deliver
his political message in person, it is hard to see
anything confusing or repellent. Stallman's appearance
may seem off-putting, but his message is logical. When
an audience member asks if, in shunning proprietary
software, free software proponents lose the ability to
keep up with the latest technological advancements,
Stallman answers the question in terms of his own
personal beliefs. "I think that freedom is more
important than mere technical advance," he says. "I
would always choose a less advanced free program rather
than a more advanced nonfree program, because I won't
give up my freedom for something like that. My rule is,
if I can't share it with you, I won't take it."

Such answers, however, reinforce the quasi-religious
nature of the Stallman message. Like a Jew keeping
kosher or a Mormon refusing to drink alcohol, Stallman
paints his decision to use free software in the place
of proprietary in the color of tradition and personal
belief. As software evangelists go, Stallman avoids
forcing those beliefs down listeners' throats. Then
again, a listener rarely leaves a Stallman speech not
knowing where the true path to software righteousness lies.

As if to drive home this message, Stallman punctuates
his speech with an unusual ritual. Pulling a black robe
out of a plastic grocery bag, Stallman puts it on. Out
of a second bag, he pulls a reflective yellow computer
disk and places it on his head. The crowd lets out a
startled laugh.

"I am St. Ignucius of the Church of Emacs," says
Stallman, raising his right hand in mock-blessing. "I
bless your computer, my child."

<Graphic file:books/free_0801.png>

Stallman dressed as St. Ignucius. Photo by Wouter van

The laughter turns into full-blown applause after a few
seconds. As audience members clap, the computer disk on
Stallman's head catches the glare of an overhead light,
eliciting a perfect halo effect. In the blink of an
eye, Stallman goes from awkward haole to Russian
religious icon.

" Emacs was initially a text editor," says Stallman,
explaining the getup. "Eventually it became a way of
life for many and a religion for some. We call this
religion the Church of Emacs."

The skit is a lighthearted moment of self-pardoy, a
humorous return-jab at the many people who might see
Stallman's form of software asceticism as religious
fanaticism in disguise. It is also the sound of the
other shoe dropping-loudly. It's as if, in donning his
robe and halo, Stallman is finally letting listeners of
the hook, saying, "It's OK to laugh. I know I'm weird."

Discussing the St. Ignucius persona afterward, Stallman
says he first came up with it in 1996, long after the
creation of Emacs but well before the emergence of the
"open source" term and the struggle for
hacker-community leadership that precipitated it. At
the time, Stallman says, he wanted a way to "poke fun
at himself," to remind listeners that, though stubborn,
Stallman was not the fanatic some made him out to be.
It was only later, Stallman adds, that others seized
the persona as a convenient way to play up his
reputation as software ideologue, as Eric Raymond did
in an 1999 interview with the web site: When
I say RMS calibrates what he does, I'm not belittling
or accusing him of insincerity. I'm saying that like
all good communicators he's got a theatrical streak.
Sometimes it's conscious-have you ever seen him in his
St. Ignucius drag, blessing software with a disk
platter on his head? Mostly it's unconscious; he's just
learned the degree of irritating stimulus that works,
that holds attention without (usually) freaking people out.See "Guest
Interview: Eric S. Raymond," (May
18, 1999).
 Stallman takes issue with the Raymond analysis. "It's
simply my way of making fun of myself," he says. "The
fact that others see it as anything more than that is a
reflection of their agenda, not mine."

That said, Stallman does admit to being a ham. "Are you
kidding?" he says at one point. "I love being the
center of attention." To facilitate that process,
Stallman says he once enrolled in Toastmasters, an
organization that helps members bolster their
public-speaking skills and one Stallman recommends
highly to others. He possesses a stage presence that
would be the envy of most theatrical performers and
feels a link to vaudevillians of years past. A few days
after the Maui High Performance Computing Center
speech, I allude to the 1999 LinuxWorld performace and
ask Stallman if he has a Groucho Marx complex-i.e., the
unwillingness to belong to any club that would have him
as a member. Stallman's response is immediate: "No, but
I admire Groucho Marx in a lot of ways and certainly
have been in some things I say inspired by him. But
then I've also been inspired in some ways by Harpo."

The Groucho Marx influence is certainly evident in
Stallman's lifelong fondness for punning. Then again,
punning and wordplay are common hacker traits. Perhaps
the most Groucho-like aspect of Stallman's personality,
however, is the deadpan manner in which the puns are
delivered. Most come so stealthily-without even the
hint of a raised eyebrow or upturned smile-you almost
have to wonder if Stallman's laughing at his audience
more than the audience is laughing at him.

Watching members of the Maui High Performance Computer
Center laugh at the St. Ignucius parody, such concerns
evaporate. While not exactly a standup act, Stallman
certainly possesses the chops to keep a roomful of
engineers in stitches. "To be a saint in the Church of
Emacs does not require celibacy, but it does require
making a commitment to living a life of moral purity,"
he tells the Maui audience. "You must exorcise the evil
proprietary operating system from all your computer and
then install a wholly [holy] free operating system. And
then you must install only free software on top of
that. If you make this commitment and live by it, then
you too will be a saint in the Church of Emacs, and you
too may have a halo."

The St. Ignucius skit ends with a brief inside joke. On
most Unix systems and Unix-related offshoots, the
primary competitor program to Emacs is vi, a
text-editing program developed by former UC Berkeley
student and current Sun Microsystems chief scientist,
Bill Joy. Before doffing his "halo," Stallman pokes fun
at the rival program. "People sometimes ask me if it is
a sin in the Church of Emacs to use vi," he says.
"Using a free version of vi is not a sin; it is a
penance. So happy hacking."

After a brief question-and-answer session, audience
members gather around Stallman. A few ask for
autographs. "I'll sign this," says Stallman, holding up
one woman's print out of the GNU General Public
License, "but only if you promise me to use the term
GNU/Linux instead of Linux and tell all your friends to
do likewise."

The comment merely confirms a private observation.
Unlike other stage performers and political figures,
Stallman has no "off" mode. Aside from the St. Ignucius
character, the ideologue you see onstage is the
ideologue you meet backstage. Later that evening,
during a dinner conversation in which a programmer
mentions his affinity for "open source" programs,
Stallman, between bites, upbraids his tablemate: "You
mean free software. That's the proper way to refer to it."

During the question-and-answer session, Stallman admits
to playing the pedagogue at times. "There are many
people who say, `Well, first let's invite people to
join the community, and then let's teach them about
freedom.' And that could be a reasonable strategy, but
what we have is almost everybody's inviting people to
join the community, and hardly anybody's teaching them
about freedom once they come in."

The result, Stallman says, is something akin to a
third-world city. People move in, hoping to strike it
rich or at the very least to take part in a vibrant,
open culture, and yet those who hold the true power
keep evolving new tricks and strategies-i.e., software
patents-to keep the masses out. "You have millions of
people moving in and building shantytowns, but nobody's
working on step two: getting them out of those
shantytowns. If you think talking about software
freedom is a good strategy, please join in doing step
two. There are plenty working on step one. We need more
people working on step two."

Working on "step two" means driving home the issue that
freedom, not acceptance, is the root issue of the free
software movement. Those who hope to reform the
proprietary software industry from the inside are on a
fool's errand. "Change from the inside is risky,"
Stallman stays. "Unless you're working at the level of
a Gorbachev, you're going to be neutralized."

Hands pop up. Stallman points to a member of the golf
shirt-wearing contingent. "Without patents, how would
you suggest dealing with commercial espionage?"

"Well, those two questions have nothing to do with each
other, really," says Stallman.

"But I mean if someone wants to steal another company's
piece of software."

Stallman's recoils as if hit by a poisonous spray.
"Wait a second," Stallman says. "Steal? I'm sorry,
there's so much prejudice in that statement that the
only thing I can say is that I reject that prejudice.
Companies that develop nonfree software and other
things keep lots and lots of trade secrets, and so
that's not really likely to change. In the old
days-even in the 1980s-for the most part programmers
were not aware that there were even software patents
and were paying no attention to them. What happened was
that people published the interesting ideas, and if
they were not in the free software movement, they kept
secret the little details. And now they patent those
broad ideas and keep secret the little details. So as
far as what you're describing, patents really make no
difference to it one way or another."

"But if it doesn't affect their publication," a new
audience member jumps in, his voice trailing off almost
as soon as he starts speaking.

"But it does," Stallman says. "Their publication is
telling you that this is an idea that's off limits to
the rest of the community for 20 years. And what the
hell good is that? Besides, they've written it in such
a hard way to read, both to obfuscate the idea and to
make the patent as broad as possible, that it's
basically useless looking at the published information
to learn anything anyway. The only reason to look at
patents is to see the bad news of what you can't do."

The audience falls silent. The speech, which began at
3:15, is now nearing the 5:00 whistle, and most
listeners are already squirming in their seats, antsy
to get a jump start on the weekend. Sensing the
fatigue, Stallman glances around the room and hastily
shuts things down. "So it looks like we're done," he
says, following the observation with an auctioneer's
"going, going, gone" to flush out any last-minute
questioners. When nobody throws their hand up, Stallman
signs off with a traditional exit line.

"Happy hacking," he says. Endnotes

1. See "Grateful Dead Time Capsule: 1985-1995 North
American Tour Grosses." 2. See Evan
Leibovitch, "Who's Afraid of Big Bad Wolves," ZDNet
Tech Update (December 15, 2000).>
3. For narrative purposes, I have hesitated to go
in-depth when describing Stallman's full definition of
software "freedom." The GNU Project web site lists four
fundamental components: The freedom to run a program,
for any purpose (freedom 0). The freedom to study how a
program works, and adapt it to your needs (freedom 1).
The freedom to redistribute copies of a program so you
can help your neighbor (freedom 2). The freedom to
improve the program, and release your improvements to
the public, so that the whole community benefits
(freedom 3). For more information, please visit "The
Free Software Definition" at 4. See Eric
Raymond, "Shut Up and Show Them the Code," online
essay, (June 28, 1999). 5. See "Guest Interview: Eric
S. Raymond," (May 18, 1999).