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An Evening with Richard Stallman

by Richard A. “Dick” Rucker

Washington Apple Pi Journal, reprint information

This message thread appeared on the TCS here:

Computing Conference > Mac Union > Richard Stallman

(If the notation above seems cryptic, you should re-read my article on using the TCS in the March/April 2004 journal.)

FROM: Richard Rucker
TO: All
Tuesday, Mar 16, 2004
Thanks to Phil Shapiro, who posted a notice on the VMUG mail server, I spent an interesting evening last night at Yorktown High School in Arlington (with Phil and his young friend, Luke), listening to Richard Stallman, founder of the Free Software Foundation.

Stallman appeared somewhat tired and disheveled, having just arrived in this country from Vietnam where he had been spreading his gospel. He had also spent part of Monday with some defense-related group who was interested in learning more about his ideas.

When he arrived on-stage, his first move was to sit down, kick off his shoes, close his eyes, and yawn, all while he was being introduced. However, when he stood up in his stocking feet behind the microphone, he was off and running in a guru-like, soft-spoken but intense manner.

I had never seen or heard him speak before, but knew something about him from what others have written. I enjoyed his description of his early experiences at the AI Lab at MIT where "We didn't have any software that we weren't supposed to share." He defined "hacking" as it was appreciated by all his friends then as developing and improving software with "the spirit of playful cleverness."

As he told it last night, what really ticked him off and set him on the course that he still relentlessly pursues today, was a laser printer that Xerox gave the AI Lab. The printer was improvement over the impact printer they previously had, except that it still had frequent paper jams and or other problems, like the first printer.

Those problems were compounded by the fact that the printer was upstairs, and at least some of the offices, including his, were downstairs. Consequently, when the printer failed for some reason, someone had to discover it and fix it. Or, when the printer had printed your job, you had to decide when to climb upstairs to see if it had happened yet.

With the old printer, RS eased having to deal with both shortcomings by patching the printer's software to post a message on your computer's monitor saying "Your file has been printed" or "The printer has a problem." Unfortunately, the printer software that Xerox provided was a black box that they were not allowed to patch and no source code came with it.

Finally, Richard learned of a fellow who had the source code, and he went to get a copy for himself. Unfortunately, the fellow had signed a “Non-Disclosure-Agreement" with Xerox and refused Richard's request.

According to Richard, he was so steamed with the guy, he walked out of the guy's office without saying a word. After thinking about what to do about such NDAs, where companies were effectively making prisoners out of their customers and taking the freeing powers of software improvement away from them, he finally resolved to do something about it. As he put it, "This taught me that NDAs are evil because they have numerous victims, victims you don't even know or care about when you agree to sign."

I could go on, but Stallman tells his story much better here:


The title of his homepage at http://www.gnu.org/ shows where the recursive acronym for the operating system he has been promoting since 1985 came from: "GNU's Not Unix (GNU)." pronounced "guh-noo."

RS draws a big distinction between his idea of "Free Software" development and that of others, including Apple, who have chosen to develop "Open Source software," though curiously, the name of Apple never crossed his lips last night. A lot of others did though; he focused his strongest condemnations on Microsoft.

To be "Free," software must satisfy these four principles of Freedom, according to Stallman:

He noted that while most commercial and other Open Source software satisfy freedom 0, they don't satisfy the other freedoms.

He seemed most upset by the fact that most people refer to "the Linux OS" and think Linus Torvalds did it all, when in fact Linus wrote a kernel that matched Unix interfaces. He did not create all the other software components needed to make a more complete operating system. For that, others have relied on OS components produced for the GNU project. For more details per RS, see:


I've not met many "holy men," but RS sure plays the part of one quite convincingly, along with a twinkle in his eye and a smile on his lips. It's fun watching someone enjoy what he's doing so thoroughly and express his ideas so fervently.

FROM: Jon Thomason Mac Union
TO: Richard Rucker/all
Tuesday, Mar 16, 2004
Outstanding write-up! Thank you. Sounds like quite an evening. If you're interested in more, the other guy to read is Eric S. Raymond:


The two gentlemen have different but complementary perspectives on Open Source software and Free Software (that's "free-as-in-speech, not free-as-in-beer"). And both are must-reads for any lively open source licensing debate.