a tech and theory primer
who did what when
open source biz models
current legal issues


Richard Stallman and GNU
the philosopher of the Free Software movement

GNU author and FSF founder Richard Stallman

In today’s world of intellectual property disputes, mp3 music swaping, and malicious hacker attacks it can be hard to imagine the world of computing that once was.  Not so long ago in one of the nation’s oldest cities in Massachusetts and in a sleepy California valley, computer gurus were laying the groundwork for what would be the latter part of the century’s most influential revolution. 

Across the nation in university computer labs, government agencies and corporate think tanks, programmers created computer software, innovated and revised it.  These digital pioneers fondly called themselves “hackers.” 

Richard Stallman is generally regarded in the community as the “philosopher” of this era.  He considers himself among the first of the original hackers. These hackers were not like those of the movies that attempt to illegally procure secret files or take down worldwide financial networks.

“Most people have a mistaken idea of what we hackers actually do and what we think,” Stallman says in one of his numerous essays on the subject.

For Stallman and the early programmers “hacking” simply meant plugging away at computer code until the program worked.

In the 1970s Stallman worked for MIT at the college’s Artificial Intelligence Lab on Unix machines.  The community of programmers passed software around the world freely, modified one another’s work, and shared in the benefits of finely tweaked projects. 

By the early 1980s corporate America began to take notice of the power of computers and the potential market for personal computing.  As the AI Lab project was disbanded by MIT, many of the programmers went to work in the commercial arena developing software for the retail market.

Richard Stallman was and remains vehemently opposed to the commercialization of software.  For Stallman the AI Lab was a utopia that worked.  While some of his colleagues were refocusing their efforts on software for sale, Stallman began formalizing a project that would keep software free.  He called his philosophy “Free Software” and dubbed the project “GNU” (pronounced “Guh-new”), which stands for Gnu, is Not Unix.  Stallman says that the “G” has no meaning and is part of the recursive acronym.  The GNU project grew into Free Software Foundation, which Stallman officially founded in 1984.

Stallman’s GNU project remained an incomplete operating system until 1994 when Linus Torvalds, independently of the Free Software Foundation, created the first Unix-like kernel (kernel is the core of the operating system software that connects hardware to software) under the Free Software Foundation’s GNU Public License (GPL).  Together GNU and Linux form a complete and open source Unix compatible operating system.

While the open source community has embraced Stallman’s GPL as the standard license for its releases, Stallman has remained sharply opposed to the combination of the GPL with for-profit business solutions.  Stallman believes that all software should be free and that the business of software hurts further development.  He remains committed to the strict ideas of Free Software, believing that all software should be free and that there is no place for non-free or proprietary software.   For him programmers should ideally earn money by being paid for their time by employers to develop open source solutions for them and in turn contribute to the universe of Free Software.

“Open source is a development methodology; free software is a social movement,” Stallman says in his book Free Software Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman.  “We are not against the open source movement, but we (Free Software movement members) don’t want to be lumped in with them.”

Open source-ers like Bruce Perens, the author of the movement’s official definition, believe that free and proprietary software can co-exist. Perens, the author of the Open Source Definition, called Stallman a great philosopher but called his ideas “utopian” and attributed them to Stallman’s lack of success in the business world.

“Richard came in (to the open source movement) in 1984 and really tops any of us,” said Perens in an interview.  “Unfortunately there are a lot of really strong-willed people in the situation…and I may never be able to persuade us all to be buddies.”

Stallman himself has sharply criticized Linus Torvalds, for promoting the use of the name “Linux” to describe the software package, which includes GNU and its programs.

“When so many people want me to call the system ``Linux'', how can I, who merely launched its development, not comply,” writes Stallman on the FSF Web site.  “And forcibly denying them a speech is forcibly making them unhappy. That's coercion, as bad as Microsoft!”

Stallman has repeatedly suggested that Linux and its components, which include his GNU software, be called GNU/Linux.

“The whole GNU Project is really one big hack,” said Stallman in the documentary film Revolution OS.  “It is one big act of playful subversive playful cleverness to change society for the better…”

Richard Stallman earned a BA in physics from Harvard University in 1974.  He has received many accolades for his contribution to computing including the Grace Hopper award from the Association for Computing Machinery.  In 1998 he received the Electronic Frontier Foundation's pioneer award along  with Linus Torvalds.

Open Source Headlines