Richard Stallman Explained

Richard Matthew Stallman (born March 16, 1953), often abbreviated "rms",[1] is an American software freedom activist, hacker,[2] and software developer.In September 1983, he launched the GNU Project[3] to create a free Unix-like operating system, and has been the project's lead architect and organizer. With the launch of the GNU Project, he started the free software movement and, in October 1985, set up the Free Software Foundation.

Stallman pioneered the concept of copyleft and is the main author of several copyleft licenses including the GNU General Public License, the most widely used free software license.[4] Since the mid-1990s, Stallman has spent most of his time advocating for free software, as well as campaigning against both software patents and what he sees as excessive extension of copyright laws. Stallman has also developed a number of pieces of widely-used software, including the original Emacs, the GNU Compiler Collection, and the GNU Debugger. He co-founded the League for Programming Freedom in 1989.

Early years

Stallman was born to Daniel Stallman and Alice Lippman in 1953 in New York City, New York. Hired by the IBM New York Scientific Center, Stallman spent the summer after his high-school graduation writing his first program, a preprocessor for the PL/I programming language on the IBM System/360.

During this time, Stallman was also a volunteer laboratory assistant in the Biology Department at Rockefeller University. Although he was already moving toward a career in mathematics or physics, his teaching professor at Rockefeller thought he would have a future as a biologist.[5] Stallman scored 1597 on the SAT (800 Math, 797 Verbal).

In June 1971, as a first year student at Harvard University, Stallman became a programmer at the AI Laboratory of MIT. There he became a regular in the hacker community, where he was usually known by his initials, "rms" (which was the name of his computer accounts). In the first edition of the Hacker's Dictionary, he wrote, "'Richard Stallman' is just my mundane name; you can call me 'rms'."[1] Stallman graduated from Harvard magna cum laude earning a BA in Physics in 1974.

Stallman then enrolled as a graduate student in physics at MIT, but abandoned his graduate studies while remaining a programmer at the MIT AI Laboratory. At the end of his first year in the graduate program, Stallman suffered a knee injury that ended [6] his participation in international folk dancing.[7] Stallman abandoned his pursuit of a doctorate in physics in favor of programming. However, Stallman has since been awarded fifteen honorary doctorates and two honorary professorships (see list below).

While a graduate student at MIT, Stallman published a paper on an AI truth maintenance system called dependency-directed backtracking with Gerald Jay Sussman.[8] This paper was an early work on the problem of intelligent backtracking in constraint satisfaction problems. As of 2003, the technique Stallman and Sussman introduced is still the most general and powerful form of intelligent backtracking.[9] The technique of constraint recording, wherein partial results of a search are recorded for later reuse, was also introduced in this paper.[9]

As a hacker in MIT's AI laboratory, Stallman worked on software projects like TECO, Emacs, and the Lisp Machine Operating System. He would become an ardent critic of restricted computer access in the lab. When MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science (LCS) installed a password control system in 1977, Stallman found a way to decrypt the passwords and sent users messages containing their decoded password, with a suggestion to change it to the empty string (that is, no password) instead, to re-enable anonymous access to the systems. Around 20% of the users followed his advice at the time, although passwords ultimately prevailed. Stallman boasted of the success of his campaign for many years afterward.[10]

MIT's hacker culture declines

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the hacker culture that Stallman thrived in began to fragment. To prevent software from being used on their competitors' computers, most manufacturers stopped distributing source code and began using copyright and restrictive software licenses to limit or prohibit copying and redistribution. Such proprietary software had existed before, and it became apparent that it would become the norm. This shift in the legal characteristics of software can be regarded as a consequence triggered by the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, as stated by Stallman's MIT fellow Brewster Kahle.[11]

When Brian Reid in 1979 placed "time bombs" in Scribe to restrict unlicensed access to the software, Stallman proclaimed it "a crime against humanity."[12] He clarified, years later, that it is blocking the user's freedom that he believes is a "crime", not the issue of charging for the software.[13]

In 1980, Stallman and some other hackers at the AI Lab were refused access to the source code for the software of the first laser printer, the Xerox 9700. Stallman had modified the software on an older printer (the XGP, Xerographic Printer), so it electronically messaged a user when the person's job was printed, and would message all logged-in users when a printer was jammed. Not being able to add this feature to the Dover printer was a major inconvenience, as the printer was on a different floor from most of the users. This one experience convinced Stallman of people's need to be free to modify the software they use.[14]

In 1980, Richard Greenblatt, a fellow AI Lab hacker, founded Lisp Machines, Inc. (LMI) to market Lisp machines, which he and Tom Knight designed at the lab. Greenblatt rejected outside investment, believing that the proceeds from the construction and sale of a few machines could be profitably reinvested in the growth of the company. In contrast, the other hackers felt that the venture capital-funded approach was better. As no agreement could be reached, hackers from the latter camp founded Symbolics, with the aid of Russ Noftsker, an AI Lab administrator. Symbolics recruited most of the remaining hackers including notable hacker Bill Gosper, who then left the AI Lab. Symbolics forced Greenblatt to also resign by citing MIT policies. While both companies delivered proprietary software, Stallman believed that LMI, unlike Symbolics, had tried to avoid hurting the lab's community. For two years, from 1982 to the end of 1983, Stallman worked by himself to clone the output of the Symbolics programmers, with the aim of preventing them from gaining a monopoly on the lab's computers.[15]

Stallman argues that software users should have the freedom to "share with their neighbor" and to be able to study and make changes to the software that they use. He has repeatedly said that attempts by proprietary software vendors to prohibit these acts are "antisocial" and "unethical". The phrase "software wants to be free" is often incorrectly attributed to him, and Stallman argues that this is a misstatement of his philosophy.[16] He argues that freedom is vital for the sake of users and society as a moral value, and not merely for pragmatic reasons such as possibly developing technically superior software.

In January 1984, Stallman quit his job at MIT to work full-time on the GNU project, which he had announced in September 1983.

GNU project

See main article: GNU project. Stallman announced the plan for the GNU operating system in September 1983 on several ARPANET mailing lists and USENET.[17]

In 1985, Stallman published the GNU Manifesto, which outlined his motivation for creating a free operating system called GNU, which would be compatible with Unix. The name GNU is a recursive acronym for GNU's Not Unix. Soon after, he started a non-profit corporation called the Free Software Foundation to employ free software programmers and provide a legal infrastructure for the free software movement. Stallman is the nonsalaried president of the FSF, which is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization founded in Massachusetts.

In 1985, Stallman popularized the concept of copyleft, a legal mechanism to protect the modification and redistribution rights for free software. It was first implemented in the GNU Emacs General Public License, and in 1989 the first program-independent GNU General Public License (GPL) was released. By then, much of the GNU system had been completed. Stallman was responsible for contributing many necessary tools, including a text editor, compiler, debugger, and a build automator. The notable exception was a kernel. In 1990, members of the GNU project began a kernel called GNU Hurd, which has yet to achieve the maturity level required for widespread usage.

In 1991, Linus Torvalds, a Finnish student, used the GNU development tools to produce the Linux kernel. The existing programs from the GNU project were readily ported to run on the resultant platform; most sources use the name "Linux" to refer to the general-purpose operating system thus formed. This has been a longstanding naming controversy in the free software community. Stallman argues that not using "GNU" in the name of the operating system unfairly disparages the value of the GNU project and harms the sustainability of the free software movement by breaking the link between the software and the free software philosophy of the GNU project.

Stallman's influences on hacker culture include the name POSIX[18] and the Emacs editor. On UNIX systems, GNU Emacs's popularity rivaled that of another editor vi, spawning an editor war. Stallman's take on this was to jokingly canonize himself as "St. IGNUcius" of the Church of Emacs[19] [20] and acknowledge that "vi is the editor of the beast," while "using a free version of vi is not a sin; it is a penance."

A number of developers view Stallman as being difficult to work with from a political, interpersonal, or technical standpoint. Around 1992, developers at Lucid Inc. doing their own work on Emacs clashed with Stallman and ultimately forked the software. Their fork later became XEmacs. An email archive published by Jamie Zawinski documents their criticisms and Stallman's responses.[21] Ulrich Drepper, whom Stallman had appointed to work on GNU libc for the GNU Project, published complaints against Stallman in the release notes for glibc 2.2.4.[22] Drepper accuses Stallman of attempting a "hostile takeover" of the project, referring to him as a "control freak and raging maniac." Eric S. Raymond, who sometimes claims to speak for parts of the open source movement, has written many pieces laying out that movement's disagreement with Stallman and the free software movement, often in terms sharply critical of Stallman.[23]


Stallman has written many essays on software freedom and since the early 1990s has been an outspoken political campaigner for the free software movement. The speeches he has regularly given are titled The GNU project and the Free Software movement,[24] The Dangers of Software Patents,[25] and Copyright and Community in the age of computer networks.[26] His uncompromising attitude on ethical issues concerning computers and software has caused some people to label him as radical and extremist.[27] In 2006 and 2007, during the eighteen month public consultation for the drafting of version 3 of the GNU General Public License, he added a fourth topic explaining the proposed changes.[28]

Stallman's staunch advocacy for free software inspired "Virtual Richard M. Stallman" (vrms), software that analyzes the packages currently installed on a Debian GNU/Linux system, and report those that are from the non-free tree.[29] Stallman would disagree with parts of Debian's definition of free software.[30]

In 1999, Stallman called for development of a free on-line encyclopedia through the means of inviting the public to contribute articles. See GNUPedia.[31]

In Venezuela, Stallman has delivered public speeches and promoted the adoption of free software in the state's oil company (PDVSA), in municipal government, and in the nation's military. Although generally supportive of Hugo Chávez, Stallman has criticised some policies on television broadcasting, free speech rights, and privacy in meetings with Chávez and in public speeches in Venezuela.[32] [33] Stallman is on the Advisory Council of teleSUR, a Latin American television station.[34]

In August 2006 at his meetings with the government of the Indian State of Kerala, he persuaded officials to discard proprietary software, such as Microsoft's, at state-run schools. This has resulted in a landmark decision to switch all school computers in 12,500 high schools from Windows to a free software operating system.[35]

After personal meetings, Stallman has obtained positive statements about the free software movement from the then-President of India, Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam,[36] French 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal,[37] and the president of Ecuador Rafael Correa.[38]

Stallman has participated in protests about software patents,[39] DRM,[40] [41] and proprietary software.

Protesting against proprietary software in April 2006, Stallman held a "Don't buy from ATI, enemy of your freedom" placard at a speech by an ATI representative in the building where Stallman works, resulting in the police being called.[42] ATI has since merged with AMD Corporation and has taken small steps to make their hardware documentation available for use by the free software community [43] .

Stallman has also helped and supported the International Music Score Library Project in getting back online, after it had been taken down on October 19, 2007 following a cease and desist letter from Universal Edition.[44]


Stallman places great importance on the words and labels people use to talk about the world, including the relationship between software and freedom. He untiringly asks people to say "free software" and "GNU/Linux", and to avoid the terms "intellectual property" and "piracy" (in relation to copyright). His requests that people use certain terms, and his ongoing efforts to convince people of the importance of terminology are a source of regular misunderstanding and friction with parts of the free and open source software community.

One of his criteria for giving an interview to a journalist is that the journalist agree to use his terminology throughout their article.[45] Sometimes he has even required journalists to read parts of the GNU philosophy before an interview, for "efficiency's sake".[46] He has been known to turn down speaking requests over some terminology issues.[47]

Stallman rejects a common alternative term "open-source software" because it does not call to mind what Stallman sees as the value of the software: freedom.[48] Thus it will not inform people of the freedom issues, and will not lead to people valuing and defending their freedom.[49] Two alternatives which Stallman does accept are "software libre" and "unfettered software", but "free software" is the term he asks people to use in English. For similar reasons, he argues for the term "proprietary software" rather than "closed source software", when referring to software that is not free software.

Stallman repeatedly asks that the term "GNU/Linux", which he pronounces "GNU slash Linux", be used to refer to the operating system created by combining the GNU system and the Linux kernel. Stallman refers to this operating system as "a variant of GNU, and the GNU Project is its principal developer."[47] He claims that the connection between the GNU project's philosophy and its software is broken when people refer to the combination as merely "Linux".[50] Starting around 2003, he began also using the term "GNU+Linux", which he pronounces "GNU plus Linux".

Stallman argues that the term "intellectual property" is designed to confuse people, and is used to prevent intelligent discussion on the specifics of copyright, patent, trademark and other laws by lumping together areas of law that are more dissimilar than similar.[51] He also argues that by referring to these laws as "property" laws, the term biases the discussion when thinking about how to treat these issues.

An example of cautioning others to avoid other terminology while also offering suggestions for possible alternatives, is this sentence of an email by Stallman to a public mailing list:

Personal life

Stallman has devoted the bulk of his life’s energies to political and software activism.[52] Professing to care little for material wealth, he explains that "I've always lived cheaply … like a student, basically. And I like that, because it means that money is not telling me what to do."[53]

For many years, Stallman maintained no permanent residence outside his office at MIT's CSAIL Lab,[54] describing himself as a "squatter" on campus.[55] His "research affiliate" position at MIT is unpaid.[56]

In a footnote to an article he wrote in 1999, he says "As an atheist, I don't follow any religious leaders, but I sometimes find I admire something one of them has said."[57] Stallman chooses not to celebrate Christmas, instead celebrating on December 25 a holiday of his own invention, "Grav-mass". The name and date are references to Isaac Newton, whose birthday falls on that day.[58]

When asked about his influences, he replied that he admires Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr., Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, Ralph Nader, and Dennis Kucinich, and commented as well: "I admire Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill, even though I criticize some of the things that they did."[59] Stallman is a Green Party supporter,[1] and a supporter of the National Initiative proposal.[60]

Stallman recommends not owning a mobile phone,[61] as he believes the tracking of cell phones creates harmful privacy issues.[62] Also, Stallman avoids use of a key card to enter the building where his office is. Such a system would track doors entered and times.

In a lecture in Manchester, England on May 1, 2008, Stallman advocated paper voting over machine voting, insisting that there was a much better chance of being able to do a "recount" dutifully if there was a paper copy of the ballots.

Stallman enjoys a wide range of musical styles from Conlon Nancarrow[63] to folk;[64] the Free Software Song takes the form of alternative words for the Bulgarian folk dance Sadi Moma. More recently he wrote a take-off on the Cuban folk song Guantanamera, about a prisoner in the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, and recorded it in Cuba with Cuban musicians.[65] He does, from time to time, enjoy more mainstream music as well (including the song "Tell 'Em" by Soulja Boy Tell 'Em[66]).

Stallman is a fan of science fiction, including works by the author Greg Egan. He occasionally goes to science fiction conventions[67] and wrote the Free Software Song while awaiting his turn to sing at a convention. He has written two science fiction stories, The Right to Read and Jinnetic Engineering.

Stallman was the basis for the fictional character Henry Gupta in the 1997 James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies.

Along with his native English, Stallman is sufficiently fluent in French and Spanish to deliver his two-hour speeches in those languages, and claims a "somewhat flawed" command of Indonesian.[68]


Stallman has received the following recognition for his work:

Print publications

Stallman has written and been the subject of several books:

Stallman has four topics that he has spoken on often:

See also

External links

Notes and References

  1. Web site: Richard Stallman's 1983 biography.
    "'Richard Stallman' is just my mundane name; you can call me 'rms'". Stallman. Richard. N.D.. Richard Stallman's homepage. (Published in the first edition of "The Hacker's Dictionary"). 20 November 2008.
  2. Web site: On Hacking. 20 November 2008. Stallman. Richard. N.D.
  3. Web site: Initial GNU announcement. 1983-09-27. 20 November 2008. Stallman. Richard.
  4. Web site: Make Your Open Source Software GPL-Compatible. Or Else.. 20 November 2008. Wheeler. David A.. 2002-05-06/2008-10-03. (See the list in section 2).
  5. Book: Williams, Sampoydne. . O'Reilly Media. 2002. 0-596-00287-4. Chapter 3. Available under the GFDL in both the initial O'Reilly edition (accessed on 27 October 2006) and the updated FAIFzilla edition (accessed on 27 October 2006)
  6. Book: Williams, Sam. Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software. O’Reilly Media. 2002-03-15. 0-596-00287-4. The Emacs Commune. 2006-11-26. "Near the end of that first year at MIT, however, disaster struck. A knee injury forced Stallman to drop out of the troupe."
  7. Book: Williams, Sam. Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman’s Crusade for Free Software. O’Reilly Media. 2002-03-15. 0-596-00287-4. Impeach God. 2006-11-26. "During the middle of his sophomore year at Harvard, Stallman had joined up with a dance troupe that specialized in folk dances. What began as a simple attempt to meet women and expand his social horizons soon expanded into yet another passion alongside hacking."
  8. Web site: Stallman. Richard M. Sussman, Gerald J. 1977. Forward Reasoning and Dependency-Directed Backtracking In a System for Computer-Aided Circuit analysis. Artificial Intelligence 9. 135–196.
  9. Book: Russell, Stuart. Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. 2003. Norvig, Peter. 157.
  10. Levy,S: Hackers, page 417. Penguin USA, 1984
  11. Robert X. Cringely's interview with Brewster Kahle, around the 46th minute
  12. Book: Williams, Sam. Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software. O'Reilly Media. 2002. 0-596-00287-4. Chapter 6. Available under the GFDL in both the initial O'Reilly edition (accessed on 27 October 2006) and the updated FAIFzilla edition (accessed on 27 October 2006)
  13. Web site: Richard Stallman, Live and Unplugged. Q: You once said "the prospect of charging money for software was a crime against humanity." Do you still believe this? A: Well, I was not distinguishing the two meanings of free..
  14. Book: Williams, Sam. Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software. O'Reilly Media. 2002. 0-596-00287-4. Chapter 1. Available under the GFDL in both the initial O'Reilly edition (accessed on 27 October 2006) and the updated FAIFzilla edition (accessed on 27 October 2006)
  15. Levy,S: Hackers. Penguin USA, 1984
  16. The Daemon, the GNU and the Penguin
  17. new UNIX implementation
  18. Web site: 2006-02-02. POSIX 1003.1 FAQ Version 1.12. 2006-07-16.
  19. "Richard Stallman: GNU/Linux and a free society" article by Takver Sunday October 10, 2004 at 08:06 AM on Melbourne Indymedia web site.
  20. St IGNUcius web page at
  21. Web site: The Lemacs/FSFmacs Schism. 2006-07-16.
  22. Web site: glibc 2.2.4 release notes. Drepper, Ulrich. 2006-07-16. mailing list. 2001-08-15.
  23. Web site: Freedom, Power, or Confusion?. 2001-08-17. Linux Today. 2006-07-16.
  24. Web site: Transcript of Richard Stallman on the Free Software movement, Zagreb; 2006-03-09. 2008-01-17. FSFE.
  25. Web site: IFSO: Richard Stallman: The Dangers of Software Patents; 2004-05-24 (transcript). 2008-01-17.
  26. Web site: Copyright and Globalization in the Age of Computer Networks - GNU Project - Free Software Foundation (FSF). 2008-01-17.
  28. Web site: GPLv3 - GNU General Public License, version 3. 2008-01-17. FSFE.
  29. Web site: The Virtual Richard M. Stallman package. 2008-01-17. Debian.
  30. Web site: Debian Bug report logs - #221807: "vrms and RMS disagree sometimes....
  31. Web site: The Free Universal Encyclopedia and Learning Resource. 2006-10-15. Richard Stallman.
  32. Stallman, Richard. "Encounter with President Chavez (2004-12-01 to 2004-12-06)". Richard Stallman Travel and Free Software Activities Journal.
  33. Web site: Chavez threatens dignitaries.
  34. Web site: Chavez TV beams into South America.
  35. The Financial Express: Kerala logs Microsoft out
  36. Web site: Richard Stallman Meets the President of India.
  37. Web site: Meeting between Ségolène Royal and Richard Stallman.
  38. Web site: Success for free software in Latin America!.
  39. Web site: Protest in Brussels against software patents.
  40. Web site: Protest outside and inside MPAA meeting on DRM.
  41. Web site: Protest in France against DRM.
  42. Web site: Protest against ATI nearly led to the arrest of RMS. Free Software Foundation page.
  43. Web site: AMD will deliver open graphics drivers.
  44. Temporary main page of the IMSLP
  45. Leader of the Free World
  46. Interview
  47. Linux, GNU, Freedom
  48. Why "Free Software" is better than "Open Source"
  49. Why Software Should Be Free
  50. What's in a name?
  51. Web site: Transcript of Richard Stallman speaking on GPLv3 in Torino. 18 March 2006. Everyone who uses the term "intellectual property" is either confused himself or trying to confuse you..
  52. Web site: Stallman. Richard. My Personal Ad. 2006-11-26. My 23-year-old child, the Free Software Movement, occupies most of my life, leaving no room for more children, but I still have room to love a sweetheart..
  53. Web site: Stallman. Richard. Transcript of Richard M. Stallman’s speech. Free Software Foundation. 2001-05-29. 2006-11-26.
  54. Web site: Jones. K.C.. A Rare Glimpse into Richard Stallman's World. InformationWeek.
  55. Web site: Lerner. Reuven M. Stallman wins $240,000 in MacArthur award. The Tech. 1990-07-18. 2006-11-26.
  56. Web site: Stallman shares Takeda award of nearly $1M. MIT. 2001-10-17. 2006-11-26.
  57. Book: Various. Open Sources: Voices from the Open Source Revolution. O'Reilly Media. 1999. 1-56592-582-3. Stallman chapter. 2006-12-09.
  58. Web site: Celebrate Grav-mass. 2008-01-17.
  59. Web site: FSF India: A Q & A session with Richard M. Stallman. Free Software Foundation of India. 2006-11-26.
  60. Web site: Richard Stallman's Personal Page. Long Term Action Items: Support the National Initiative for Democracy.
  61. Web site: Transcript of Richard Stallman at the 3nd international GPLv3 conference; 22nd June 2006.
  62. Web site: A Rare Glimpse Into Richard Stallman's World.
  63. Web site: Bruce Sterling interview.
  64. Web site: Humorous bio.
  65. Web site: Stallman. Richard M. Guantanamero. 2007-05-04.
  66. Web site: Richard Stallman dances to Soulja Boy Tell 'Em.
  67. Book: Williams, Sam. Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman"s Crusade for Free Software. O'Reilly Media. 2002-03-15. 0-596-00287-4. 2006-11-26.
  68. Web site: WGIG nominees - Richard Stallman. 2006-11-26.
  69. Web site: Grace Murry Hopper award citation.
  70. Web site: Richard Stallman Wins Microsoft's Money.
  71. RESOLUCIÓN CS N° 204/04.
  72. Web site: Laurea in Ingegneria Informatica a Richard Stallman..