Free as in Freedom

Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software

First published in 2002, Free as in Freedom is the story of free software activist Richard Stallman. Stallman is best known for creating the Free Software movement that led to the General Public License (GPL) which today underpins today’s open-source movement. While his rigid stance on issues and use of wording related to free software have certainly earned him his share of detractors both inside and outside the community, without him, the modern software industry might be a lot different.

The book goes back and forth between his present work and Stallman’s life growing up in New York, later working at MIT’s Artificial Intelligence (AI) lab and to the creation of the Free Software movement. It was at MIT’s AI lab was a set of incidents convinced him that the sharing culture that existed among computer scientists in the 1970s needed to be protected from commercial interests that wanted to monopolize knowledge for commercial advantage. While his “Rosa Parks moment” might have been not being able to get the source for the software that controlled a printer in the computer lab to fix a problem with it- as was common practise then – it essentially crystallized what was going on in the late 1970s as computers were moving out of computer labs and large businesses and into the mainstream: software was becoming valuable.

In a lot of ways, Stallman grew up in the same world as Gates, Wozniak and other computer pioneers in the 1960s and 70s: the pre-personal computer world where the only accessible computers where large machines found in some school labs and research centres. Stallman’s appearance today is somewhere between an Old Testament prophet and Carl Marx – which usually depends on one’s views on open source. While he was political, Stallman was never a “hippy”, partly because of the anti-technology / anti-intellectualism that was popular in some circles back then didn’t appeal to him. Where many of his peers (and arguably with a lot of hackers then and now) avoided getting involved in politics, Stallman did just that by starting the Free Software Foundation. In 1985 and later created the General Public License (GPL), arguably one of the best-known (non-religious) contracts. The first version of the GPL appeared in 1988; it didn’t get too much attention until authors, including Linux creator Linus Torvalds, started using it. At that point, the implications of it sunk in. Previous to it, the software was in general owned by somebody or existed in the “public domain” which meant it was available to anybody to pick up and hold, therefore removing it from the public. The GPL created a way to keep something in the public domain. More troubling to some (including famously Bill Gates), it said that if something licensed under GPL were incorporated into another thing, that thing would also take on the same license. For companies that had spent 20-odd years believing that secrecy and exclusivity gave them an advantage, Stallman’s GPL was a truly dangerous idea.

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Even by 2002, when this book was first published, a lot of his ideas had moved from the fringe to mainstream. There are now several dozen licenses that, while generally more restrictive, take inspiration from it, though usually taking a few steps back from its clear-cut goals to satisfy some interests. He did lose the battle over “Open Source” and his preferred term “Free Software” (at least in the Anglo-sphere). However, Stallman is still very much active, particularly in developing countries, where many of the ideas of open source are finding even greater acceptance.