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How Will History View Richard Stallman?

An interview with Sam Williams, author of Free as in Freedom

by Bruce Stewart
02/28/2002

Free as in Freedom traces Richard Stallman's evolution from gifted, solitary child to teen outcast to revered and reviled crusader. As the leader of the free software movement, Stallman is one of the most influential and controversial personalities in hacker culture today. Through extensive interviews with Stallman, his family, and fellow hackers, author Sam Williams has created an intimate portrait of this freedom fighter.

We recently spoke to Williams about his experiences writing this book, and how he thinks history will view Stallman and the Free Software Foundation.

Stewart: How did you get interested in the free software movement and Richard Stallman?

Williams: I was doing a column for Upside Today, formerly upside.com, the Web site of Upside magazine, and the theme of the column was to look at the monetary excesses of Silicon Valley. I saw a posting about a Linux Install Fest at the San Francisco Cow Palace, so I went and covered the event, wrote a story on it, and got the most feedback of any story I'd written -- almost as many responses as all my other stories combined. Covering Linux was an attempt to show how, for some people, it still is all about the technology. So I just figured, hey, this might be an interesting thing to look into a little bit more. The themes in the spirit of the free software/open source movement definitely appealed to me, so I just went from there.

I encountered Richard Stallman for the first time at the 1999 Linux World in San Jose, and had a tense encounter -- I used the term "Linux" and he corrected me on "GNU/Linux." I followed up with a story for my column and kept in touch with him from there, and then eventually somebody came and said, "Hey, why don't you do a book on him?"

Stewart: While there's a large open source movement with many success stories, Stallman and the Free Software Foundation are really the only ones who assign notions of morality to free software usage. How radical an idea is it to assert that access to software is a community right?

Related Reading

Free as in Freedom [Paperback]
Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software
By Sam Williams

Williams: It is radical. I think that's the breakthrough. When I spoke to Larry Lessig he said that's where he sees Stallman being significant in the future. I think Lessig's comment was that he changed the argument from "is" to "ought." A lot of free software was just created by the communal customs throughout this hacker elite programmer community. They're just engineers, everybody liked to share information, and it goes against the hacker mindset to reinvent the wheel.

But Stallman really grafted that onto notions of morality and ethics, and said, "No, this is the way it's suppose to be. It works so well because it is ethical." You know, he kind of just built that. He made it a very scalable concept so that when you hit new things like Napster and DVD copying, you can look at Stallman's original argument and say, "OK, well, let's look at it from a moral perspective. Does it matter if I'm stealing somebody's songs, or does the word 'stealing' even apply here?"

Stewart: I'm curious about how Stallman supports himself financially solely writing free software, and if there's a workable model for programmers who agree with the Free Software Foundation ideals but also have a family to feed.

Williams: From what little I know, and I have to admit I didn't dig too deeply into his finances in reporting on this book, during the 80s he largely worked as a consultant, and he charged very high rates because he was and is a very talented programmer. Part of his agreement was that if you brought him in, whatever he developed for your company was free software, so he never really compromises ethics in that fashion.

But one of the things that helped him support himself is just that his needs are very simple. He's not into driving the latest BMW or Lexus, he has no family, so his needs are very simple -- and not everybody has the luxury to have a life that simple, or the will to keep their life that simple.

So yes, once you expand away from the true idealists -- like Richard and a few others -- I think that's where you have to decide how much do you want to compromise with the marketplace. How much do you want to accede to the demands of the marketplace? You see this in a couple of companies, like Red Hat, which has merged with Cygnus. Those are two companies that seem to have done a fairly good job of sticking with the free software values and not compromising too much.

Stewart: Stallman has a pretty testy reputation. Did he help you with the book? And if so, what was it like working with him?

Williams: [Laughs] We're in a key stage right now to find out how much he's going to like this book or support it or pan it. He was definitely very helpful. One thing about Richard is he's incredibly candid. There's nothing hidden -- there's no guile, there's no "this is going to be off the record" -- everything's just out there. So I knew that it would not be hard to get him to interview, just because he wants to spread his free software message.

But at the same time there was a lot of negotiating in terms of what the conditions of the interview were going to be. Usually he puts the request out that when you write about the operating system, you call it "GNU/Linux," and you use "free software" instead of "open source." He didn't really make those demands to me, but we were planning it as an electronic book with a restrictive content licensing mechanism, first. I was originally going with another publisher who wanted to do it as an electronic book, and he was steadfastly opposed to the idea of helping out with an electronic book -- even if it did publicize his message.

So I didn't feel comfortable doing an unauthorized biography of him in an electronic book medium. I just felt it was kind of like doing a biography of Mahatma Ghandi and printing it on a calf vellum and selling it in India. It just would have been a lightning rod. So we said to the publisher, "Let's not do this topic," and eventually my agent brought it over to O'Reilly. O'Reilly was pretty enthusiastic about it, and there were still negotiations and conditions for interviews, but again he was very forthcoming. Now we're in the tense phase, though, where he wants to audit the book and change perceived errors, and that's causing a lot of tension right now.

Stewart: How do you think his personality has helped or hindered the Free Software Foundation in achieving its goals?

Williams: That's really the meat of my book. I think a lot of people will go to this book and say, "Oh, you know, I was really hoping to get an idea of how he writes code, how he approaches code." Well, I'm not a hacker and that's not my level of expertise. I really spent a lot of the book focusing on his personality, and he's got a very seductive personality, which various people have commented on.

His rhetoric is very seductive, but he's also got a very repellent side of his personality. He's a control freak, he's very meticulous. I knew all of this going in and I pretty much have firsthand accounts that can demonstrate it. But how this has helped or hindered? I'm definitely of the opinion that nobody but him could have had the patience, and the stubbornness, and the will to build something this big. There are other people writing free software, but he's the one that made it an issue. He's the one that provided the initial gravitation that everybody else could gather around.

And then again he's also repelled a lot of people, and that's why you're seeing a kind of jockeying for power right now in the hacker community, with some people holding up Torvalds or other leading programmers, like Larry Wall -- people who are a little bit more accepting of people with conflicting viewpoints. That's just definitely because Richard's very orthodox in a lot of his beliefs.

Stewart: How do you think future generations will view Stallman and the Free Software Movement?

Williams: This is the closing theme of my book. I think they will view him very favorably. I think in the historical view his stock is definitely going to rise. In terms of developing the GPL (GNU General Public License), every year that passes people realize that it's more of a significant innovation than originally thought, and that seems to be the character of a lot of his work. It looks simple in retrospect, but just the fact that he was there to propose the idea, or to make the hack that opened up EMACS development, or had the idea of codifying the hacker social contract into the GPL. These are major things that are going to really become more important in the coming decade.

Stewart: How successful do you think the Free Software Foundation has been at achieving its goals?

Williams: That depends on what you think the goals are. The original goal was to support the GNU project and to develop a GNU operating system. They obviously fulfilled that goal. They didn't do it in the timely manner that a lot of people expected, but they were really one of the few groups of people actually making this kind of effort. They were definitely one of the few groups that saw it as a political cause.

About the time that Linux came on the scene, and kind of filled the gap that they hadn't been able to fill with the Hurd kernel, it seems like their goal morphed a little bit into "free software everywhere." I think in terms of that goal they've done a fairly good job. Probably the biggest thing is that they are the steward of the GPL, which I describe at one point in the book as the big stick in the software industry, you know, like the old Teddy Roosevelt quote: "Speak softly and carry a big stick."

Stewart: Do you see the free software movement progressing or stagnating at this point?

Williams: I don't know. I don't think those terms really apply to the movement. It's not dependent on the market. It's not judged in terms of acceptance or non-acceptance. In talking to Richard there's a definite theme that without eternal vigilance all could be quickly lost. But I think it's been largely successful.

Stewart: One of the criticisms of the Free Software Foundation ideals is that they don't really give developers true freedom -- such as the freedom to pick whatever license they want for software they write. How do you think Stallman would respond to that?

Williams: Yes, that's a definite criticism. That's sort of where Torvalds and Stallman kind of split, and where Stallman splits with people like Tim O'Reilly. This whole idea that people should be free to choose whether or not they want their software to be free software and open source goes against the Stallman world view that says it should always be free software. Richard's argument has always been that the people on the open source side, these people advocating this extra degree of freedom, are really just arguing for the freedom to make themselves a slave again. A lot of his effort over the last decade has gone into providing a counter-argument to these conciliatory viewpoints.

From Tim O'Reilly's Weblog:
GPL Tested in Court
Email from attorney Ed Kelly, who attended the first day of the MySQL-NuSphere hearing, dissects the legal issues that were explored. [Feb. 28, 2002]

I think we're at a weird inflection point period right now, and the next two to five years will be very important, but I got the sense when I started this book that the GPL was really beginning to pick up steam, mainly because it doesn't allow people to break off proprietary offshoots, like the BSD license and other more liberal licenses do. A lot of its recent endorsements have come from people and organizations not traditionally associated with Stallman or the FSF. For instance, a number of companies and organizations switched their software over to the GPL in 2000 -- Sun Microsystems, Troll Tech, MySQL, etc.

It's hard to gauge the momentum of a license, because software is such an evolutionary marketplace, but the fact that the GPL is gaining new adherents while Stallman spends most of his time travelling the world and evangelizing on other, related issues, is an indication that the GPL is selling itself.

Stewart: In many ways the free software movement parallels the anti-WTO movement and other grassroots efforts to counteract corporate power, and Stallman's personal Web site is full of links to progressive political causes. How has Stallman's political vision shaped the community around him?

Williams: I would say not very much. He's a definite liberal, and you can see when he's fighting over this schism between the free software and open source movement that it does kind of come down to political values -- on the one side you've got these libertarian people that just say, "Let my people make their own decisions," and then you've got Stallman, who's got kind of the liberal approach of, "Let people make their own decisions, but at the same time protect people from exploitation."

One of the things that interested me, and this goes back to his personality, is that he's not really a coalition builder. There's so much opportunity to link the free software movement to other similar movements, like the environmental movement ... I mean it's all generally the same thing. Capitalism, expansion, growth, corporate culture -- those are all good things, they all help, they're all better than the alternatives -- but at the same time there's notions of responsibility, ethics, and stuff that he has gone a long way in terms of voicing in the software community, but I find it very surprising that he hasn't really expanded beyond that.

At one point he said free software was his "small puddle of freedom," and he really can't move out of it, or he doesn't really have the confidence to move out of it, and I think that that has definitely hampered his visibility in some ways.

Stewart: Would he be a more effective leader if he knew how to compromise, or is his political charisma entirely dependent upon staying away from the main stream?

Williams: I think the latter. His charisma is dependent on being non-compromising and this is the role that he has adopted -- whether consciously or unconsciously. People that do compromise can say, "Well, at least we have Richard Stallman over there on the periphery." One person I talked to, I don't know if it made it into the book, but one person called him kind of a "pole star." You can always measure yourself against Richard's position because his position doesn't budge.

Stewart: Asperger's Syndrome, a mild version of autism, has gotten quite a lot of attention in the geek press recently, and I understand Stallman postulates in your book that he may suffer from this. What do you make of this claim?

Williams: I asked him about this directly and he says he's not entirely sure that that's what explains his childhood. While it may be impossible to determine if Stallman suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, descriptions of him as a child certainly run parallel to descriptions of kids currently diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. It's sort of like retroactively diagnosing El Greco with astigmatism or Da Vinci with dyslexia. You can't be entirely sure, but the evidence is compelling.

His mother is a little bit more convinced. I spoke with her a few days ago. Initially I thought that she didn't see any link, but when I spoke with her again she said, "No, no, I definitely think that he might have suffered from a condition like that," but it just wasn't anything that was diagnosed in that manner at the time. But it was a definite factor in the way his career has evolved because a lot of what he talks about over and over again are these themes of finding a home, overcoming loneliness, and neighborliness.

Stewart: How does his mother feel about his career and the free software movement?

Williams: She's very proud of it. I detected a little tension, but she seemed like your typical Jewish mother who just loves to gush about her son and what he's done. I'm glad I got a chance to talk to her because she really filled in a lot of gaps on why is he the way he is, and when you listen to the stories about his childhood it definitely helps you empathize with him a little bit more.

Stewart: What one thing surprised you the most as you researched this book?

Williams: What surprised me the most was the lack of enthusiasm by people closest to Richard within the Free Software Foundation to help out with the book. I really thought that a lot of these people that helped to found the Free Software Foundation would be the most eager to participate in this, and in fact the opposite was true. There was a lot of questions like, "Why are you doing a biography on him?" And then people would give me interviews but off the record, and other people wouldn't respond to emails or calls. I don't know what to make of it, if it's bad blood, or if it's just academia, or if they saw me as an outsider and thought, "It's going to be a waste of time to deal with this guy because he doesn't know the issues or he doesn't know software," but it surprised me.

Bruce Stewart is a freelance technology writer and editor.


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