Meeting the GNU-ru

In July 2000, the first international Logiciel Libre conference met in Bordeaux. Douglas Carnall went to interview the founder of the Free Software Foundation, Richard Stallman, and to find out more about the man, his history, and the ideas that made GNU/Linux possible.

Published in issue 3 of Linux User September 2000. You can download an illustrated PDF of their version this article (140kb)

Although Richard Stallman is a self-declared atheist, conversations with the legendary hacker take on a religious flavour. He does nothing to discourage the idea, even donning a mediaeval robe and halo (in fact, a defunct IBM hard disk platter) to address audiences as Saint IGNUcius, patron saint in the church of emacs. We go for lunch, and he treats me like a novice monk: he's clear and straight to the point, which is rewarding, but there's a chastisement in store for every slip of the tongue that reveals a departure from the one true path. Take this excerpt from my transcript of the conversation:

"So, if your ideal world arrived tomorrow, all commercial manufacturers of software would copyleft their software?"

"OK, by the way, did you really mean commercial, or did you really mean proprietary?"

Ulp! I realise I have made a slip.

"OK, proprietary."

"Please don't ever use the word commercial to mean proprietary. Please don't ever embody in your words the assumption that commercial software can't be free, because there is free commercial software and it's very important and we want to encourage more of it. If you presuppose it's impossible, and that's embedded in your way of speaking then you'll be working very much against that. So if you hear at any time anyone use the word commercial software, and you think he really means non-free software, bring that up explicitly right away. It's very important to end that confusion."

Such adherence to the niceties of semantics may be second nature to a computer programmer who spent 13 years of his life in an artifical intelligence laboratory, but it's not necessarily the most effective way to warm people to the cause. You start to realise why the open source people decided that maybe it was time to open up a little distance from the free software movement, and see if it could do some business with business.

The widespread adoption of the term "open source" over "free software" evidently rankles.

"If people forget my personal role, that is no tragedy. But the GNU Project needs people to know what it has done. We often hear from people who say our philosophy is "impractical," while calling themselves "Linux users." If they realized that our philosophy was responsible for the existence of the system they love, they would find it harder to call it "impractical". But the widespread error of calling the system "Linux" makes their unjustified criticism seem legitimate. They simply never learned about the main thing we have done."

Stallman regards the founders of open source as the ideological opposition within the free software movement, though allies within the wider context of the struggle against the evil software hoarders of proprietary companies.

And he has a point; the relative contribution of GNU code and Linux code to a typical distribution has be calculated at around 28% and 3% respectively, so it must be galling, to say the least, that if the world has heard of free software at all, it has heard of it as "Linux" or "open source."

You can read the pages on the GNU and Stallman websites that argue for precise use of the word "free" (best summarised in English as "think free speech, not free beer.")

The French do not have the same problem, using the word "libre" in the context of freedom and "gratuite" for "no money required." Stallman speaks excellent French, which naturally goes down very well in Bordeaux, as indeed does the free software concept, which chimes naturally with the French ideals of liberté, égalité, and fraternité. One of Stallman's best laughs in his talk at the conference came when he described the ideals of the open source movement as "efficacité, fiabilité, rentabilité" (efficiency, reliability, rentability).

Free software is not anti-business, says Stallman, it just changes the shape of the businesses that are possible. There are businesses to be made in the supply of physical copies of software, in accrediting and guaranteeing particular installations of the software, and providing support and training for users of particular systems. But what should not be done is to make money from restricting the supply of software through copyrights, patents, or trade secrecy agreements.

In essence, Stallman argues, while copyright was an industrial regulation that affected only writers, publishers and printers its effects were benign, and arguably helped more works into the public domain.

"Copyright developed along with the printing press, and it may have been a good idea at the time because it did not restrict the freedom of the individual reader. While copying was difficult (printing presses were expensive and specialised) society was willing to abridge its freedom to copy, in order that the public could enjoy more books. But the advent of tape recorders, xerox machines, and finally the digital computer now mean that individuals should have the right to take back some of that freedom they sold away in copyright law."

"It's like accepting money for promising not to travel to another star. You're not going to do it anyway, at least not in our lifetime, so you might as well take the deal. But if I presented you with a starship, then you might not think that deal was such a good deal any more."

This, argues Stallman, is exactly what has happened with the advent of digital technology. We find ourselves in a situation comparable to mediaeval times, in which there is much less distinction between readership and authorship. Back then because the only way to have your own book was to grab a pen and start copying; and now because everyone who can put a CD into a machine, can also produce perfect digital copies of that CD with almost no greater difficulty.

It's a persuasive argument, but one that seems to be losing ground in the face of corporate lobbying from organisations like WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organisation) which takes money from the businesses to enforce its hegemony. Their solution is to enforce draconion measures against "pirates"; Stallman's would be to change the nature of copyright law.

"There is a whole industry out there arguing that copyright exists as an entitlement for copyright owners, using the term "pirate" to give the impression that making an unauthorised copy is the moral equivalent of attacking a ship and killing the people on board. In fact the founding fathers of the US constitution explicitly rejected a proposal that authors should be entitled to a monopoly on copying their books. Instead, they adopted a philosophy of copyright that acknowledges peoples' natural right to copy, but allows artificial restrictions on copying for the sake of promoting progress."

The 1998 increases in the term of copyright law from 50 years to 70 years in the US were a retrograde step according to Stallman, who sees no reason why all works should be covered by the same period.

"It may be appropriate to allow software copyrights to last for only three years, books for five years, and movies twenty years."

Additionally Stallman argues that copyright law should acknowledge the different potential functions of a work for the public, classifying them into functional, positional, and aesthetic works. Functional works include computer software; recipes; textbooks; dictionaries and other reference works; here readers need the widest possible freedom to copy and modify the work. Positional works are a personal or organisational statements of fact or belief, such as scientific papers, or a memoir. Here, obviously, the freedom to modify is at best inappropriate and at worst hazardous, but Stallman believes they should be freely redistributable in verbatim form. And he is scathing about scientific journals that refuse to share their work on the web:

"Scientific journals have become an obstacle to the dissemination of scientific results. They used to be a necessary mechanism. Now they are nothing but an obstruction, and journals that restrict access and restrict redistribution must be abolished. They are the enemies of the dissemination of knowledge; the enemies of science."

Aesthetic works, such as novel or a piece of music, should enjoy the greatest protection in commercial settings according to Stallman, though he ambivalent about whether modification should be permitted.

"On the one hand you have authors with a lot of ego attachment saying, "Oh this is my creation, how dare anyone change a line of this?" On the other hand you have the folk process which shows that a series of people sequentially modifying the work or maybe even in parallel and then comparing versions can produce something tremendously rich."

There's no doubting the the sincerity of Stallman's attempt to match morality and ethics to new realities of the digital age. It is perhaps an interesting commentary on our times that he has had to stand outside business, government, and academe in order to be able to express himself fully and freely. Once he would have been forthright don in some great university: such is the penetration of neo-liberalism into the marrow of academic life (the idea of intellectual "property") that in order to be be free he had to leave.

Now, though he is no longer alone: the fact of the internet has enabled possibly as many as 40,000 programmers to participate in the development of the operating system Stallman set out to deliver, an effort that dwarfs the development strength of even the mightiest software houses. It's a great achievement, and perhaps could only have begun from such a professional contrarian. To stand alone with enough self conviction to produce the future of software takes a peculiar mixture of fine intellect and moral conviction, and Stallman has both.

What would society look like, if free software was rule rather than the exception?

"Most obviously, programmers would be encouraged to co-operate, instead of being prohibited from co-operating. It's hard to be sure about its effects on wider society; its effects would be indirect. I hope that the existence of a free software movement will help to put paid to the ideology which puts business in charge of life, and show that useful work can be done in other ways. That you don't have to assume that the only way you can get anything done is if somebody owns something, or controls it, and dominates everyone else involved with it. Also, I could hope it would be good for reducing the extent to which computer systems are used to dominate their users: the more you can be in charge of the software that you are using the more you can make sure it is not there to dominate you."

The main players who led to the development of the GNU/Linux operating system are unholy trinity: Bill Gates (because, say what you like about Windows, its massive and widespread adoption hastened a commodity market of standard cheap PCs), Linus Torvalds, whose greatest skill was to harness the people potential of working across the net; and Richard Stallman, whose tools made much of the work possible, but most importantly, whose devising of the GPL ensured that hackers' contributions would always add to a commonwealth of knowledge. For me, the enduring historic figure of the trio will not be Torvalds or Gates (Windows and Linux will one day be footnotes in geek history) but the development process that Stallman sparked as he set out to write the "first free modern operating system for a computer" marks the first major achievement of open co-operation on the internet: and there will surely be many more to follow.


His autobiog begins: "I was built at a laboratory in Manhattan around 1953, and moved to the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab in 1971. My hobbies include affection, international folk dance, flying, cooking, physics, recorder, puns, science fiction fandom, and programming; I magically get paid for doing the last one. About a year ago I split up with the PDP-10 computer to which I was married for ten years. We still love each other, but the world is taking us in different directions. For the moment I still live in Cambridge, Massachusetts, among our old memories. "Richard Stallman" is just my mundane name; you can call me "RMS".

Particularly the philosophy pages which have a rich set of links to all matters relating to copyright and the free software development process more generally.


Richard Stallman was born in New York in 1953, and started his life as a programmer in 1969 at IBM in New York. In 1971 he moved to the Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at the Massacheusetts Institute of Technology, to join a band of brilliant and unconventional hackers clustered around time sharing mainframes, at the time when they became affordable to the extent where universities could afford to let students near them. Various transcripts of Stallman's talks describe his life at that time (see for example, his talk to Stockholm computer scientists in 1987

The lab at MIT had a number of anarchic traditions that facilitated the writing of good software--no locks on doors, no limit on access to system administration files, and a round-clock-lifestyle--which broke down as the hackers were lured away from academe for fat salaries in the early eighties. Stallman took a highly principled stand that software ought to be free, railing against a world in which not only commercial companies, but also academic departments of computing, restricted the freedom to share software.

In 1984 he left MIT to found the Free Software Foundation, with the intention of building the first free modern operating system. As a principle of development he resolved that the tools he would use would also be free, so he wrote a new version of emacs with its own LISP interpreters, the GNU debugger, and the GNU C compiler. While Stallman's exceptional competence as a programmer is not in doubt, his greatest achievement is not one particular software tool, but the GNU General Public License (GPL), the licensing agreement that ensures that any piece of software released under its terms is freely distributable and modifiable, and that any subsequent versions must be made available on the same terms to other people. This means that any improvements made by other programmers contribute to a virtuous circle of continuing enhancement and development. When Linus Torvalds released the earliest versions of the Linux kernel in 1991 he did so using the GPL, knowing that the other programmers would be more willing to collaborate in developing the project if they could be assured that the results would also be available to them, with the results we have today.

Want more? Full text transcriptions of my lunchtime interview with Stallman and his talk on copyright are available.
Copyright Douglas Carnall July 2000
Link to Linux User version (140kb PDF) added 26 October 2000. Verbatim copying and distribution of the HTML version of this entire article is permitted in electronic media, provided this notice is preserved. Please email me about other uses.

Thanks to the editors at the BMJ, Linux User, and Health Informatics Europe for encouraging me to make the trip.