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Richard Stallman

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Richard Matthew Stallman
Richard Stallman at Pittsburgh University.jpg
Richard Stallman at the University of Pittsburgh 2010
Born (1953-03-16) March 16, 1953
New York City, United States
Nationality American
Other names RMS, St. iGNUcius (avatar)
Alma mater Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Occupation President of the Free Software Foundation
Known for Free software movement, GNU, Emacs, GCC

Richard Matthew Stallman (born March 16, 1953), often known by his initials, RMS, is an American software freedom activist and computer programmer. He campaigns for the freedom to use, study, distribute and modify software; software that ensures these freedoms is termed free software. He is best known for launching the GNU Project, founding the Free Software Foundation, developing the GNU Compiler Collection and GNU Emacs, and writing the GNU General Public License.

Stallman launched the GNU Project in September 1983 to create a Unix-like computer operating system composed entirely of free software. With this, he also launched the free software movement. He has been the GNU project's lead architect and organizer, and developed a number of pieces of widely used GNU software including, among others, the GNU Compiler Collection, the GNU Debugger and the GNU Emacs text editor. In October 1985 he founded the Free Software Foundation.

Stallman pioneered the concept of copyleft, which uses the principles of copyright law to preserve the right to use, modify and distribute free software, and is the main author of free software licenses which describe those terms, most notably the GNU General Public License (GPL), the most widely used free software license.

In 1989 he co-founded the League for Programming Freedom. Since the mid-1990s, Stallman has spent most of his time advocating for free software, as well as campaigning against software patents, digital rights management, and other legal and technical systems which he sees as taking away users' freedoms, including software license agreements, non-disclosure agreements, activation keys, dongles, copy restriction, proprietary formats and binary executables without source code.

He has received fourteen honorary doctorates and professorships for this work.

Early years

Stallman was born to Alice Lippman and Daniel Stallman, in 1953 in New York City. His first experience with computers was at the IBM New York Scientific Centre when he was in high school. He was hired for the summer to write a numerical analysis program in Fortran. He completed the task after a couple of weeks and spent the rest of the summer writing a text editor in APL. Stallman spent the summer after his high-school graduation writing another 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.

As a first-year student at Harvard University, Stallman was known for his strong performance in Math 55. In 1971 he became a programmer at the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, and became a regular in the hacker community, where he was usually known by his initials, rms (which was the name of his computer accounts). Stallman was graduated from Harvard magna cum laude earning an AB in Physics in 1974.

Stallman enrolled as a graduate student at MIT, but then ended his pursuit of a doctorate in physics to focus on his programming at the MIT AI Laboratory.

While a graduate student at MIT, Stallman published a paper with Gerald Jay Sussman on an AI truth maintenance system, called dependency-directed backtracking. 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. The technique of constraint recording, wherein partial results of a search are recorded for later reuse, was also introduced in this paper.

As a hacker in MIT's AI laboratory, Stallman worked on software projects such as TECO, Emacs, and the Lisp machine operating system. He would become an ardent critic of restricted computer access in the lab, which at that time was funded primarily by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. 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.

Decline of MIT hacker culture

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, the hacker culture that Stallman thrived on 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.

When Brian Reid in 1979 placed time bombs in the Scribe markup language and word processing system to restrict unlicensed access to the software, Stallman proclaimed it "a crime against humanity." 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.

In 1980, Stallman and some other hackers at the AI Lab were refused access to the source code for the software of a newly installed laser printer, the Xerox 9700. Stallman had modified the software for the Lab's previous laser 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 waiting for print jobs if the printer was jammed. Not being able to add these features to the new printer was a major inconvenience, as the printer was on a different floor from most of the users. This experience convinced Stallman of people's need to be free to modify the software they use.

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 also forced Greenblatt to 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.

Stallman argues that software users should have the freedom to share with their neighbour and to be able to study and make changes to the software that they use. He maintains 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. 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. Eric S. Raymond, creator of the open source movement, argues that moral arguments, rather than pragmatic ones, alienate potential allies and hurts the end goal of removing code secrecy.

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

GNU project

Richard Stallman in 2003 at the opening ceremony of NIXAL (a GLUG) at Netaji Subhash Engineering College, Calcutta, India

Stallman announced the plan for the GNU operating system in September 1983 on several ARPANET mailing lists and USENET.

Stallman started the project on his own and describes: "As an operating system developer, I had the right skills for this job. So even though I could not take success for granted, I realized that I was elected to do the job. I chose to make the system compatible with Unix so that it would be portable, and so that Unix users could easily switch to it."

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 nonprofit 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) nonprofit organization founded in Massachusetts. 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 (Emacs), compiler ( GCC), debugger ( gdb), and a build automator ( gmake). 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 use.

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.)

Cover picture for O'Reilly Media's book Free as in Freedom

Stallman's influences on hacker culture include the name POSIX 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 canonize himself as St. IGNUcius of the Church of Emacs and acknowledge that "vi vi vi is the editor of the beast," while "using a free version of vi is not a sin; it is a penance".

Around 1992, developers at Lucid Inc. doing their own work on Emacs clashed with Stallman and ultimately forked the software into what would become XEmacs. Technology journalist Andrew Leonard has characterized what he sees as Stallman's uncompromising stubbornness as common among elite computer programmers:

There's something comforting about Stallman's intransigence. Win or lose, Stallman will never give up. He'll be the stubbornest mule on the farm until the day he dies. Call it fixity of purpose, or just plain cussedness, his single-minded commitment and brutal honesty are refreshing in a world of spin-meisters and multimillion-dollar marketing campaigns.
Andrew Leonard,


Richard Stallman giving a speech on "Free Software and your freedom" at the biennale du design of Saint Etienne (2008)

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, The Dangers of Software Patents, and Copyright and Community in the Age of Computer Networks. 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.

Linus Torvalds has criticized Stallman for what he considers "black-and-white thinking" and bringing more harm than good to the free software community.

Stallman's staunch advocacy for free software inspired the creation of the 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. Stallman would disagree with parts of Debian's definition of free software.

In 1999, Stallman called for development of a free on-line encyclopedia through the means of inviting the public to contribute articles. The resulting GNUPedia was eventually retired in favour of the emerging Wikipedia, which had similar aims and was enjoying greater success.

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. In meetings with Hugo Chávez and in public speeches, Stallman criticised some policies on television broadcasting, free speech rights, and privacy. Stallman was on the Advisory Council of Latin American television station teleSUR from its launch but resigned in February 2011, criticizing pro-Gaddafi propaganda during the Arab Spring.

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.

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, French 2007 presidential candidate Ségolène Royal, and the president of Ecuador Rafael Correa.

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Richard Stallman giving a speech at WSIS-2005

Stallman has participated in protests about software patents, DRM, 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. ATI has since merged with AMD Corporation and has taken steps to make their hardware documentation available for use by the free software community.

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

After the death of Steve Jobs, Stallman wrote the following eulogy:

Steve Jobs, the pioneer of the computer as a jail made cool, designed to sever fools from their freedom, has died.

As Chicago Mayor Harold Washington said of the corrupt former Mayor Daley, "I'm not glad he's dead, but I'm glad he's gone." Nobody deserves to have to die—not Jobs, not Mr. Bill, not even people guilty of bigger evils than theirs. But we all deserve the end of Jobs' malign influence on people's computing.

Unfortunately, that influence continues despite his absence. We can only hope his successors, as they attempt to carry on his legacy, will be less effective.

— Richard Stallman
Richard Stallman using his Lemote machine at Indian Institute of Technology Madras, Chennai before his lecture on 'Free Software, Freedom and Education' organized by Free Software Foundation, Tamil Nadu (FSFTN).

Stallman's remark stirred up accusations of being in bad taste, while Eric S. Raymond, author of The Cathedral and the Bazaar, summarized that Stallman's statement was not personal, but was simply criticizing walled gardens.

Stallman's only computer is a Lemote Yeeloong netbook (using the same company's Loongson processor) which he chose because it can run with 100% free software even at the BIOS level, stating "freedom is my priority. I've campaigned for freedom since 1983, and I am not going to surrender that freedom for the sake of a more convenient computer." Lemote is a joint venture of the Institute of Computing Technology of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, an institution of the State Council of China. Stallman's Lemote was stolen from him in 2012.

Stallman has suggested that the United States government may encourage the use of software as a service because this would allow them to access users' data without needing a search warrant.


Richard Stallman gets into his St. iGNUcius avatar at Techniche, IIT Guwahati, India

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 software and open source communities.

One of his criteria for giving an interview to a journalist is that the journalist agree to use his terminology throughout the article. He has been known to turn down speaking requests over some terminology issues.

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. Thus it will not inform people of the freedom issues, and will not lead to people valuing and defending their freedom. 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." 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. Starting around 2003, he began also using the term GNU+Linux, which he pronounces "GNU plus Linux", to prevent others from pronouncing the phrase "GNU/Linux" as "GNU Linux", which would erroneously imply that the Linux kernel is maintained by the GNU project. (See: GNU/Linux naming controversy)

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. 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.

These laws originated separately, evolved differently, cover different activities, have different rules, and raise different public policy issues. Copyright law was designed to promote authorship and art, and covers the details of a work of authorship or art. Patent law was intended to encourage publication of ideas, at the price of finite monopolies over these ideas — a price that may be worth paying in some fields and not in others. Trademark law was not intended to promote any business activity, but simply to enable buyers to know what they are buying.

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

I think it is ok for authors (please let's not call them creators, they are not gods) to ask for money for copies of their works (please let's not devalue these works by calling them content) in order to gain income (the term compensation falsely implies it is a matter of making up for some kind of damages).

Personal life

Stallman has devoted the bulk of his life to political and software activism. 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."

Until around 1998, his office at MIT's AI Lab was also his residence. He was registered to vote from there. Nowadays he has a separate residence in Cambridge not far from MIT. His position as a research affiliate at MIT is unpaid.

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." Stallman often wears a button that reads "Impeach God". When asked if he was Jewish, Stallman said he was "an atheist but of Jewish ancestry".

Stallman chooses not to celebrate Christmas, instead celebrating "Grav-mass" on December 25. The name and date are references to Isaac Newton, whose birthday falls on that day on the old style calendar.

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." Stallman is a Green Party supporter, and a supporter of the National Initiative proposal.

Stallman recommends not owning a mobile phone, as he believes the tracking of cell phones creates harmful privacy issues. 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. For personal reasons, he generally does not actively browse the web from his computer; rather, he uses wget and reads the fetched pages from his e-mail mailbox, claiming to limit direct access via browsers to a few sites such as his own or those related to his work with GNU and the FSF.

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 correctly if there was a paper copy of the ballots.

Stallman enjoys a wide range of musical styles from the works of Conlon Nancarrow to folk; the Free Software Song takes the form of alternative words for the Bulgarian folk dance Sadi Moma. More recently he wrote a send-up of the Cuban folk song Guantanamera, about a prisoner in the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, and recorded it in Cuba with Cuban musicians. He also enjoys music by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and Weird Al Yankovic.

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

Along with his native English, Stallman is also fluent enough in French and Spanish to deliver his two-hour speeches in those languages, and claims a "somewhat flawed" command of Indonesian. He has never married.

Honours and awards

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Stallman receiving an Honorary doctorate from National University of Córdoba, Argentina

Stallman has received the following recognition for his work:

  • 1986: Honorary lifetime membership of the Chalmers University of Technology Computer Society
  • 1990: Exceptional merit award MacArthur Fellowship ("genius grant")
  • 1990: The Association for Computing Machinery's Grace Murray Hopper Award "For pioneering work in the development of the extensible editor EMACS (Editing Macros)."
  • 1996: Honorary doctorate from Sweden's Royal Institute of Technology
  • 1998: Electronic Frontier Foundation's Pioneer award
  • 1999: Yuri Rubinsky Memorial Award
  • 2001: The Takeda Techno-Entrepreneurship Award for Social/Economic Well-Being (武田研究奨励賞)
  • 2001: Honorary doctorate, from the University of Glasgow
  • 2002: United States National Academy of Engineering membership
  • 2003: Honorary doctorate, from the Vrije Universiteit Brussel
  • 2004: Honorary doctorate, from the Universidad Nacional de Salta.
  • 2004: Honorary professorship, from the Universidad Nacional de Ingeniería del Perú.
  • 2007: Honorary professorship, from the Universidad Inca Garcilaso de la Vega.
  • 2007: First Premio Internacional Extremadura al Conocimiento Libre
  • 2007: Honorary doctorate, from the Universidad de Los Angeles de Chimbote.
  • 2007: Honorary doctorate, from the University of Pavia
  • 2008: Honorary doctorate from the Universidad Nacional de Trujillo, in Peru
  • 2009: Honorary doctorate, from Lakehead University
  • 2011: Honorary doctorate, from National University of Córdoba.
  • 2012: Honorary professorship, from the Universidad César Vallejo de Trujillo, in Peru
  • 2012: Honorary doctorate, from the Universidad Latinoamericana Cima de Tacna, in Peru
  • 2012: Honorary doctorate, from the Universidad José Faustino Sanchez Carrió, in Peru.

Selected publications

Stallman has written and been the subject of several books, including the following:

Papers in technical and academic journals
  • Stallman, Richard M; Sussman, Gerald J (November 1975). Heuristic Techniques in Computer-Aided Circuit Analysis. CAS-22 (11). IEEE Transactions on Circuits and Systems. 
  • Stallman, Richard M; Sussman, Gerald J (1977). Forward Reasoning and Dependency-Directed Backtracking In a System for Computer-Aided Circuit analysis. Artificial Intelligence 9. pp. 135–196. 
  • Reevaluating Copyright: The Public Must Prevail, from the Oregon Law Review of Spring 1996
  • Stallman, Richard M (2009). Viewpoint: Why "open source" misses the point of free software. Communications of the ACM 52(6). pp. 31–33. doi: 10.1145/1516046.1516058. 
  • Stallman, Richard M (2010). Is digital inclusion a good thing? How can we make sure it is? 48 (2). Communications Magazine, IEEE. pp. 112–118. doi: 10.1109/MCOM.2010.5402673. 
  • Stallman, Richard M (1980). EMACS: The Extensible, Customizable, Self-Documenting Display Editor. Cambridge Massachusetts: MIT: MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory publication. AIM-519A. 
  • Stallman, Richard M (2002). GNU Emacs Manual. Boston, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN  1-882114-85-X. 
  • Stallman, Richard M; McGrath, Roland; & Smith, Paul D (2004). GNU Make: A Program for Directed Compilation. Boston, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN  1-882114-83-3. 
Selected essays
  • Stallman, Richard M (2010). Free Software, Free Society: Selected Essays of Richard M. Stallman (Second ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN  978-0-9831592-0-9. 
  • Williams, Sam (2010). Free as in Freedom (2.0): Richard Stallman and the Free Software Revolution (Second ed.). Boston, Massachusetts: GNU Press. ISBN  978-0-9831592-1-6. 
  • Stallman, Richard M. (February 1997). "The Right to Read". Communications of the ACM 40 (2): 85–87. doi: 10.1145/253671.253726. 
  • Stallman, Richard M. (2001). "Jinnetic Engineering". 
  • Stallman, Richard M. (2009). "Made for You". 

Stallman has four topics that he has spoken on often:

  • The GNU project and the free software movement, March 3, 2006
  • The Dangers of Software Patents, May 24, 2004
  • Copyright vs. Community in the Age of Computer Networks, April 19, 2001
  • The GNU GPL, and GPLv3, April 1, 2007