RMS (Wikipedia)

You can’t understand the "free" movement on the Internet without understanding Richard Stallman. A heavily bearded, iconoclastic computer programmer, Stall-man became a hacking legend at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the 1980s for his programming chops. His experiences as a freewheeling software developer, stifled by corporate usurping of his work, would lead him on a crusade he would pursue the rest of his life: a mission to free up software and content for the masses.

His saga began in 1971 at MIT, which had always been a powerhouse for creating top scientists and engineers. In computer science, it was certainly at the forefront of everything that was happening. It would be instrumental in developing technologies critical for the Internet, such as graphical display systems and standards for networked computing.

Stallman was a whiz, especially with a unique programming language called LISP, which became popular with artificial intelligence researchers. Based on the mathematical principle of the lambda calculus, it was known for its scores of parentheses used while writing computer code. It was simple, powerful, and allowed for creating complex programming. A basic LISP program looked something like this:


It was so easy to learn, though hard to master. Many consider it the most elegant computer language around because of its simplicity.

To understand Stallman’s view on the world, you have to understand the computer hacker ethic. The computing culture at MIT and other top scientific schools was one of sharing and openness. These institutions were full of people, after all, who were pursuing software programming not for dollar profits, but for the love of discovery and pioneering new solutions to problems. Worried little about where to live or when the next paycheck was arriving, these students could hunker down in a cloistered academic environment and concentrate on their programming creations.

Hackers would regularly improve how the emerging LISP language and its tools worked, and let everyone in the academic community know by allowing them to share and download new improvements over computer networks that predated the Internet. This was an important part of the hacker ethic: sharing to improve human knowledge. Changes and modifications were put in the public domain for all to partake in. Researchers would improve the work of others and recontribute the work back into the community.

In the 1980s, before it became commercial, the Internet was made up of these educational institutions and research labs in which academics and engineers transferred software packages or improvement "patches" of files back and forth as part of hacker camaraderie. This open marketplace of improvements helped rapidly develop the software that would build the modern Internet.

But Stallman would quickly learn that as idealistic as the phrase sounded, "public domain" was somewhat flawed and fraught with loopholes. "Public domain" meant that intellectual property was not owned or controlled by anyone and, paradoxically, could even be made more restricted.

The problem was that companies could copy computer code found in the public domain, make alterations, but keep these changes secret, not sharing the improvements with the rest of the world. Taking without giving back struck Stall-man as especially distasteful and caused many run-ins between him and companies commercializing and hoarding the computer code that Stallman himself helped to write. While he freely gave away his improvements that helped for-profit companies, under public domain they were not obliged to share their improvements. In fact, a company could restrict work derived from public domain by copyrighting that modified work, making it no longer free. The freewheeling hacker culture had, as a core belief, the idea that sharing know-how with peers promoted innovation for everyone, but suddenly there were many examples of this breaking down.

As computer software became more widespread, Stallman considered it unethical, antisocial, and harmful to progress to seal up works meant to be free. However, the legal system had no real precedent for solving this problem. "Public domain" sounded good, but it did not enforce sharing, because one could always restrict works derived from public domain works.

So Stallman decided to take this on as his crusade, and in March 1985, he wrote the legendary GNU Manifesto, which appeared in the influential publication for techies, Dr. Dobb’s Journal. For him, the hacker spirit was about sharing:

I consider that the golden rule requires that if I like a program I must share it with other people who like it. Software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them, making each user agree not to share with others. I refuse to break solidarity with other users in this way.

Stallman quickly gained a following among academic and professional peers. He proposed a system defiantly called a "copyleft license" (in a play on words and direct opposition to restrictive traditional copyright) ensuring that anyone could study, use, modify, and distribute a work and derivative works. While Stall-man was motivated by his experience and passion for computer programming code, he also envisioned that the license could be applied to music, documents, art, or any intellectual property covered by copyright.

At the time, it was a pretty radical idea and was only celebrated by the computer hacking community. It had no immediate recognition or traction outside of that closed culture. This was 1985, after all. The Internet as a conduit for sharing was unknown to the public, and it would be years before music and video files would be transferred via the network as a rival to physical tapes and compact discs.

One of the most important parts of copyleft was the stipulation for derivative works, or the variants people could make based on existing work. A derivative effort in software might be correcting a computer programming error, adding more functionality, or making a smaller version of a program. Stallman’s copyleft license stated that any derivative works must also be freely available with the same free license. This clause, effectively a one-way street to free up all computer code that ever touches the original, has been, affectionately or pejoratively, called a "viral license."

(Many years later, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig would use a similar observation to start his Creative Commons movement regarding free content. His epiphany came when he saw the same type of phenomenon as Stallman— that derivative works based on public domain content were not required to be public domain. The Disney Corporation is his most famous example of this. Disney can use stories from Mother Goose tales from the public domain, create new works based on Mother Goose, and sue anyone who creates content similar to Disney’s movies, specifically because it can copyright the derivative works.)

Stallman’s copyleft was not just an abstract idea. To lead by example, he put it into practice immediately by creating the Free Software Foundation, which would be committed to writing free software tools, all created under a new GNU General Public License.

At the time, even Stallman’s strident supporters were skeptical. The idea was powerful, but the stark reality was that large computer companies like Sun, Digital Equipment Corporation, Hewlett-Packard, Apple, and Microsoft ruled the landscape. And what could a motley crew of unorganized volunteers around the world achieve that could compete with these multibillion-dollar enterprises? Even more, how would these hackers even earn enough money to eat if they gave everything away?

The FSF started by proposing the creation of a free operating system that could run on a wide variety of different types of computer hardware, and a set of free software tools for programmers. Though it wasn’t his favorite system, Stall-man chose to base his work on a well-known system used in university settings called UNIX. In a joke typical of his hacking peers, he playfully referred to his project as GNU, using the recursive self-referential phrase GNU’s Not Unix.

A GNU operating system would, in a sense, bootstrap a simple operating environment to give folks free tools to make more free software. In a world dominated by computing juggernauts with proprietary software, Stallman saw the Free Software Foundation keeping the hacker flame alive, allowing programmers to inspect the "source code" guts that ran on computers and learn from it. Access to source code (the DNA of computer programs) was something that most companies would either not allow or charge large amounts of money for.

Confusingly, the word "free" has an unfortunate collision of meanings in the English language. Stallman is quick to point out that the "free" in Free Software Foundation is "free as in freedom, not free as in beer." Though having zero-cost software is a good thing, it was not the meaning of "free" for him.

While Stallman’s ideas have gained him fame and followers, his mercurial personality and ornery pedantry have earned him a reputation as a person best loved from afar. Notoriously uncompromising, he makes himself known not only in his technology endeavors but also in his commercial consumption. Stallman famously refuses to use Microsoft software because its Windows and Office programs are proprietary. At the many talks he gives, he forgoes the ubiquitous

PowerPoint presentation for other, low-octane alternatives such as plain text documents. At the podium, where he often stands barefoot, he insists on drinking Pepsi, absolutely shunning its competitor in protest of the suspicious murders of unionized workers at Coca-Cola plants in Colombia.8

It was perhaps his demanding personality that allowed him to have great success with a few projects at the FSF. Among his most popular were a powerful text document editor called Emacs, a mainstay within the programming community, and the numerous handy software tools called GNU utilities. But by 1992, after eight years of work, Stallman was not pushing forward very well on the elusive goal of delivering a complete operating system free of proprietary software that was "portable" and could run on a variety of computer hardware. He was executing most of this work with a handpicked crew and was particular about who was part of the project. As a result, it was moving forward slowly, while another, more chaotically organized open source project was moving much faster.

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