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Free as in Freedom

Free as in Freedom

Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software

By Sam Williams
March 2002 
0-596-00287-4, Order Number: 2874
240 pages, $22.95 US $34.95 CA

Chapter 13

Continuing the Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the time, Boerries said his company's decision had little to do with Stallman and more to do with the momentum of GPL-protected programs. "What basically happened was the recognition that different products attracted different communities, and the license you use depends on what type of community you want to attract," said Boerries. "With [OpenOffice], it was clear we had the highest correlation with the GPL community."1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The GPL's expanding popularity and continuing gravitational strength are the best tributes to the foundation laid by Stallman and his GNU colleagues. While no longer capable of billing himself as the "last true hacker," Stallman nevertheless can take sole credit for building the free software movement's ethical framework. Whether or not other modern programmers feel comfortable working inside that framework is immaterial. The fact that they even have a choice at all is Stallman's greatest legacy.

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

To his credit, Stallman refuses all opportunities to speculate. "I've never been able to work out detailed plans of what the future was going to be like," says Stallman, offering his own premature epitaph. "I just said `I'm going to fight. Who knows where I'll get?'"

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gilmore, who describes his inclusion between the erratic Nelson and the irascible Stallman as something of a "mixed honor," nevertheless seconds the Moglen argument. Writes Gilmore:

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

But even if we win, what history people learn a hundred years from now is likely to depend on who dominates politically.

Searching for his own 19th-century historical analogy, Stallman summons the figure of John Brown, the militant abolitionist regarded as a hero on one side of the Mason Dixon line and a madman on the other.

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

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

Then again, it is that very will that may someday prove to be Stallman's greatest lasting legacy. Moglen, a close observer over the last decade, warns those who mistake the Stallman personality as counter-productive or epiphenomenal to the "artifacts" of Stalllman's life. Without that personality, Moglen says, there would be precious few artifiacts to discuss. Says Moglen, a former Supreme Court clerk:

Look, the greatest man I ever worked for was Thurgood Marshall. I knew what made him a great man. I knew why he had been able to change the world in his possible way. I would be going out on a limb a little bit if I were to make a comparison, because they could not be more different. Thurgood Marshall was a man in society, representing an outcast society to the society that enclosed it, but still a man in society. His skill was social skills. But he was all of a piece, too. Different as they were in every other respect, that the person I most now compare him to in that sense, all of a piece, compact, made of the substance that makes stars, all the way through, is Stallman.
In an effort to drive that image home, Moglen reflects on a shared moment in the spring of 2000. The success of the VA Linux IPO was still resonating in the business media, and a half dozen free software-related issues were swimming through the news. Surrounded by a swirling hurricane of issues and stories each begging for comment, Moglen recalls sitting down for lunch with Stallman and feeling like a castaway dropped into the eye of the storm. For the next hour, he says, the conversation calmly revolved around a single topic: strengthening the GPL.

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

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

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


  1. See Marco Boerries, interview with author (July, 2000).
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