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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?

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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.

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