One Man's Fight for Free Software
By John Markoff
New York Times
January 11, 1989
Richard M. Stallman is a computer programmer obsessed with a mission. He wants to bring back the good old days when programming was a communal activity and those toiling at the craft freely shared their ideas - and their source code, the internal instructions that tell the computer what to do.
Mr. Stallman, known among his colleagues as ''The Last Hacker,'' has spent the last decade battling a computer software industry that increasingly builds ownership walls around intellectual property. He believes that computer software should be freely shared and devotes himself to creating sophisticated programs that he gives away.
He spends his days and nights in a cramped office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Artificial Intelligence Laboratory working to spread his philosophy that software is different from other physical commodities since it can be copied at virtually no cost. He believes there should be no restrictions on freely copying and distributing it.
Mr. Stallman's ideas have gained increasing importance of late because the computer industry has been moving toward ''open'' software that will run on many different brands of computers. Consortiums of computer companies have formed to champion their version of the open software, based on the popular Unix computer software operating system.
But Mr. Stallman carries the idea one step further. Not only should the software run on different computers, but it should also be free.
Mr. Stallman is doing nothing illegal, but his is an argument that raises bitter objections from many programmers and companies. They counter that protecting intellectual property is vital to encouraging innovation.
During the last two decades intellectual property protection has become the foundation of the modern software industry. However, Mr. Stallman asserts that what he calls ''the use of human knowledge for personal gain'' has had a negative impact because information is no longer widely shared.
''It's impossible to do anything without copying something that has come before,'' he said. ''People talk about the bad effects of government secrecy in Russia. The U.S. is heading for the same place in terms of commercial software.''
In a manifesto that outlines his philosophy, Mr. Stallman says that software sellers want to divide the users and conquer them by making each agree not to share with others.
''I have decided to put together a sufficient body of free software so that I will be able to get along without any software that is not free,'' he writes.
Perhaps Mr. Stallman's concept of free software would be easier to dismiss if he was not universally considered - even by his enemies - to be one of the nation's most outstanding programmers. And his body of software is considered distinguished by industry experts.
The computer industry is now evenly split between two giant consortiums that each claim to champion open software systems based on the Unix system. They contend that the open systems will emancipate the computer user from a single company's private standards. One has allied I.B.M., the Digital Equipment Corporation and others opposite American Telephone and Telegraph and Sun Microsystems. Mr. Stallman is somewhere in the middle and his alternative of truly free software is gaining attention - and credibility.
For example, Steve Jobs's Next computer comes bundled with Mr. Stallman's free software, and a number of other computer companies, including the Sony Corporation, Sun, the Hewlett-Packard Company, the Intel Corporation and the Data General Corporation, are now giving support to aid Mr. Stallman's development work.
From his outpost on the M.I.T. campus, Mr. Stallman operates the Free Software Foundation, a loosely run organization of part-time staff members and volunteers that is now well on its way to creating a complete software system called GNU. The name is a Mobius strip-like acronym that stands for ''GNU's not Unix.''
When complete, GNU will include a computer operating system and all the tools needed by programmers to design and write the most sophisticated applications for a wide variety of computers. It will also include word processors, spreadsheets, data base managers and communication software, making it just as useful to non-programmers.
It is a Herculean undertaking, comparable to those that corporations like I.B.M., D.E.C.and A.T.&T. each devote millions of dollars and hundreds of programmers to annually.
But unlike commercial software ventures, GNU programs are distributed with source code, the original programmer's instructions. This permits any user to modify the program or improve it. While most software companies jealously guard their source code, Mr. Stallman argues that by freely sharing it he has created a software community in which each programmer contributes improvements, thereby bettering the program for all.
Mr. Stallman, who likes to be called by his initials, R.M.S., forged his values as a member of an elite group of M.I.T. computer hackers who, during the 1960's and 70's, conducted pioneering research in developing the world's first minicomputers and the first time-sharing computers. M.I.T., which is where the term hacker was born, also served as the incubator for many early computer hardware and software companies.
In that community, software was freely shared among the hackers, who would build their work on the earlier programming efforts of their friends.
While the press has come to identify the term hacker with malicious individuals who break into computers over telephone lines, the hackers themselves have an earlier and different definition. A hacker, Mr. Stallman said, is one who ''acts in the spirit of creative playfulness.''
But while hacking began as intellectual sport and became a way of life in the mid-1970's, many of the hackers who had participated in the tightly knit community of computer researchers left to take advantage of lucrative employment opportunities at the new companies. Only Mr. Stallman remained behind, intent on carrying on the traditions.
The breakup of the hacker community embittered him and for several years he labored in solitude intent on the incredible task of matching the world's best programmers, writing for free the same programs they were developing on a for-profit basis at their new companies.
In his book ''Hackers,'' Steven Levy describes how during 1982 and 1983 Mr. Stallman matched the work of more than a ''dozen world-class hackers'' at Symbolics Inc., rewriting their programs and then placing them in the public domain.
''He believes that information should be free and he interprets it in the most literal fashion,'' Mr. Levy said in an interview. ''Most hackers make accommodations with the way the world works. Stallman doesn't want to make those concessions. He's a total idealist.''
Some computer scientists believe there is a place for Mr. Stallman's free software. ''There is room in the world for free stuff and commercial stuff,'' said Brian Harvey, a computer science lecturer at the University of California at Berkeley. ''We don't have to take over the world. Its good enough that I can run his software on my computer.''
The most popular GNU program is an extremely flexible editing program known as Emacs. The software package, originally written by Mr. Stallman at M.I.T. in the early 1970's, has become one of the most widely used - and imitated - programming editors. Another widely used GNU program is a compiler, a program that translates text into a form that can be executed by a computer.
For a programmer, a compiler and editor are equivalent to a carpenter's hammer and saw, the two most important tools of the craft. Emacs's popularity is due to its flexibility, programmers say. An entire computer language is embedded in the program, giving it the utility equivalent to that of a Swiss Army Knife. For tens of thousands of programmers Emacs has become virtually the only program they use because they can fashion it into a data base, word processor, appointment calendar or whatever else they need.
''You start up Emacs and you never leave it,'' said Russell Brand, a computer scientist at Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in Livermore, Calif.
GNU software is freely distributed, but in a different manner from public domain and ''freeware'' software among personal computer users. While public domain software can be freely copied, freeware authors ask users to contribute a fee if they find a program useful. In contrast, GNU programs are not placed in the public domain. Instead they are distributed with a public license that Mr. Stallman calls a ''copyleft.'' This license insures that the software will stay freely copyable and not be incorporated into a for-profit program.
While Mr. Stallman's software is widely used at universities and research centers and by professional programmers, his zealous commitment to the idea of free software has angered others.
Several years ago the idea led to a bitter dispute when executives at Unipress Software Inc., an Edison, N.J., company that sells a commercial version of Emacs, pointed out that some of their code appeared in a version of Mr. Stallman's Emacs.
The problem stemmed from the fact that Mr. Stallman had decided that because the original idea of Emacs was his, he could freely borrow parts of a version written by another programmer, James Gosling, who now works at Sun. While a student at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Mr. Gosling had written his own version of Emacs and distributed it to friends before giving it to Unipress to sell commercially.
Mr. Stallman said he had been told by a friend of Mr. Gosling's that he could use parts of the program. Angry messages passed back and forth over computer networks before Mr. Stallman decided that the way to end the dispute was simply to rewrite the offending passages.
''We thought it was a little ironic,'' said Mark Krieger, president of Unipress. ''He says he plans on taking on the giants and then the first company he goes after is little Unipress.''
Despite the remaining bitterness over the quarrel, Mr. Krieger said he had great respect for Mr. Stallman's programming prowess. ''I would give him negative credit for his ideas on free software,'' he said, ''but give him a lot of positive credit as a brilliant design engineer and the creator of the first Emacs.''
Today, although he uses an office at the M.I.T. Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, he is no longer a staff member. He resigned a number of years ago when he set out to create the GNU software system. He makes a living as a part-time software consultant.
GRAPHIC: Richard M. Stallman (NYT/Rick Friedman)
Copyright 1989 The New York Times Company