Richard Stallman is a very interesting character from the early decades of computing with regards to this website's primary focus on the interchange between Repetitive Strain Injury and computer technology. He was originally known as a programmer but has produced little code since the early 1990s, and is best known now as a radical voice in free software advocacy. That change in emphasis may have been driven by his three year battle with Repetitive Strain Injury that occurred around that time. Stallman claims that the Repetitive Strain Injury was resolved by switching to a keyboard that required less pressure to be applied to the keys when typing. That would be a very common Repetitive Strain Injury timeline, as many sufferers go through an intense period of pain that threatens to ruin their career and then find that after efforts to reduce the pain that it goes away completely. Stallman has not commented much about his experience with Repetitive Strain Injury and so while he is one of the most famous cases of the condition in the tech industry, there is relatively little to be learned from his experience because he has revealed so little about it. Therefore this article will focus on his failed plan to develop a completely free operating system and his positive and negative influences on the open source software movement.
An apt phrase to describe Richard Stallman is that he was once the future king. He had been a relatively junior programmer in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Artificial Intelligence Lab during a time of great upheaval as computing moved from being a military funded project at elite universities to being a mass market business. When most of his colleagues moved into employment in the private sector he chose to quit the academic world in 1984 to work on the project he announced that year to develop a completely free operating system. Early scepticism from fellow programmers was replaced with hope as he produced three key elements for writing software: a text editor (Emacs), a compiler (GCC) to turn human code into computer-readable machine language, and a debugger (GDB) to find and fix errors in the code. Other programmers worked on other parts of the planned operating system, which was developed on a commercial Unix system, with the intention to replace its main elements one at a time until eventually a completely free operating system was ready. That operating system was to be called GNU, which was an acronym for GNU's Not Unix.
Unfortunately for Stallman a GNU operating system never arrived. Instead in the early 1990s two separate free Unix-like operating system families went public: BSD and Linux. It was around this time that Stallman switched from programming to advocacy and a major part of his promotion of free software was taken up with arguing, in contradiction to the facts, that Linux was merely the final piece in the GNU operating system, and so it should be referred to as the GNU/Linux operating system. Stallman's ongoing attempt to claim credit for the Linux success story has tarnished the GNU brand and with it the advocacy organisation that he set up in 1985, the Free Software Foundation. The Unix, BSD, and Linux compatible software produced by the GNU project has continued to play a crucial role in the free software movement. Had Stallman and the Free Software Foundation been prepared to admit that GNU had failed to produce an operating system, then they would probably have played a bigger role in computer history. Instead Stallman and the Free Software Foundation come across as bad losers in the race to produce a free operating system. Linux began as a project to build an operating system on home computers and now runs everything from gadgets through smartphones to super computers. FreeBSD provided the basis for Apple's OSX and macOS operating systems, as well as powering Netflix's server farms. It is possible to run a GNU operating system, but only on an Intel i386 desktop computer, which was superseded by the i486 in 1989, so very few enthusiasts have the hardware capable of running the GNU operating system. On the other hand Linux continues to use many of the GNU Project's foundational tools. BSD systems did so as well, but Stallman's aggressive approach towards the BSD licence meant that in 2021 both FreeBSD and OpenBSD completed a six year project to remove all GNU dependencies from their operating systems.
General Public Licence
Probably the greatest contribution of Stallman to the success of free software has come neither through programming nor advocacy, but in the development of the General Public Licence, which is better known as the GPL. This licence began life as the licence for the Emacs text editor that became the first publicly released program from the GNU Project. With the help of pro bono legal advice this was turned into, as the name says, a general licence for free software. The revolutionary aspect of the GPL was that it forced anyone adapting a GPL application to release their adapted version under the same licence. The GPL is probably the most commonly used licence in the free software world and most famously is used by the Linux kernel. Or to be exact the Linux kernel uses GPL version 2, because of concerns that the current version GPL 3 is far too restrictive. It was the introduction of GPL 3 in 2007 that led FreeBSD and OpenBSD to abandon the GNU toolset and that has made the GPL lose favour among application developers.
The problem with GPL 3 is that Stallman saw it as an opportunity to re-establish his status as an important player in the computing present, rather than just someone who was recognised for his pivotal role in the early days of computing becoming a mass market product. The previous version, GPL 2, had come out in 1991 at a time when the FreeBSD and Linux projects were just taking off. At that point in time the GNU Project was the leading player in producing a free operating system and its after Linux switched to the GPL 2 in 1992 the licence became the most popular in the wider free software movement. The consultations to update the GPL began in 2005, by which stage Stallman had all but given up on there ever being a workable GNU operating system. This is evident in the preparatory document that he co-wrote with his main legal counsel, Eben Moglen: GPL Version 3: Background to Adoption. I cannot quote from that document as Stallman and Moglen only permit it to be repeated verbatim and I only wish to comment on one paragraph. They claim that the Free Software Foundation is primarily a political organisation, rather than a technical one. That claim would have surprised those that remembered Stallman setting up the Free Software Foundation in order to fund and promote the hoped for GNU operating system. There would have been even greater shock at the claim that free software was simply the first step in a social revolution to make all knowledge free. This produced a push back from those who currently had GPL 2 licensed software and the original version of GPL 3 had to be watered down. Even so when it came out in June 2007 many refused to switch their projects from GPL 2 to GPL 3, most notably Linus Torvalds, the originator and primary maintainer of the Linux operating system kernel. On the other hand, Stallman's political agenda was not a surprise to authors like me, who had endured his attempts since the late 1990s to deny us our moral rights to profit from our own labour.
Stallman might describe the GPL as a copyleft licence, but its application under law relies on international copyright law. Despite this legal basis, Stallman has spent the last quarter century arguing for a drastic reduction in the copyright protection provided to authors. He was particularly irked by the extension of copyright protection to 70 years after an author's death and instead wanted it reduced back to ten years after the author wrote the book. Yet he wants to preserve his own copyrights and those of software developers, for example the document that I cannot quote from was written by Stallman and Moglen more than ten years ago. If Stallman believed in his proclaimed beliefs he should have relinquished his copyright claim on that document in 2015. Stallman wants the right to buy a book and then give it away to friend, a right that has always existed for print books, although not for software. He wants to go further and have the right to buy an ebook, copy the content and give that book away to as many people as he wants. This is why he has waged a long campaign against DRM protection in DVDs, music, and ebooks. His public statements on the matter reveal that he has very little understanding of the ebook industry, or worse, that he deliberately misrepresents it so as to make his demands to be able to copy and disseminate an author's work sound reasonable. This is more than a little contradictory for the author of a software licence that relies on copyright law for its legal effect. Yet Stallman added anti-DRM provisions into GPL 3, which is one of the main reasons for the poor take up of GPL 3, the demise of GPL 2 in projects licenced since 2007, and the removal of GPL licensed work from FreeBSD and OpenBSD.
Open Source Software
Stallman's attempts to deprive authors of their rights received little attention in the late 1990s, because that era was dominated by his ongoing spat with the open source movement, which was driven to a large extent by his personal spite towards the movement's founder, Eric Raymond. The open source movement took its inspiration from Raymond's The Cathedral and the Bazaar, which began as a lecture, became an article, and was finally published as a very successful book. The title refers to two different models of software development, one with a project leader who micro manages the programmers (akin to a cathedral's original architect) and a free for all system that lets the developers' creativity flow. The book is clear that the chief inspiration for the bazaar was the way in which Linus Torvalds let developers from all around the world contribute to his Linux operating system. No one is cited as the example for a micro managing project leader, but as Raymond was one of the earliest developer's on the GNU Project, who quit due to Stallman's micro management, the GNU Project founder appeared to take Raymond's book as a calculated insult.
It is likely that the conflict with the open source movement is what led Stallman to take increasingly bizarre stances on knowledge freedom. The primary difference between open source software and free software (free as in the Free Software Foundation definition) is that the former wants to encourage more proprietary software to be developed in an open source manner, while the latter wants to bring an end to the existence of proprietary software. This culminated in the GPL revision process that envisioned the Free Software Foundation (who are the copyright holder of all GPL licences) as a political rather than a technological entity.
Richard Stallman has had the misfortune to become yesterday's man twice over. He began the GNU Project to develop a completely free operating system, but it was Linus Torvald's Linux that conquered the computing world (and off-world, as it runs the International Space Station and the Mars drone, Ingenuity). Then Stallman re-focused his efforts towards advocacy, but almost immediately the Free Software Foundation stance was sidelined by the success of the open source movement. Actually, make that yesterday's man three times over. GPL 2 was the dominant open source licence until Stallman sought to use its revision to regain control of the free software movement. In the process he neutered what will remain his most abiding contribution to software development.