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Richard Stallman

Richard Matthew Stallman (RMS; born March 16, 1953) is the founder of the Free Software movement, the GNU project, the Free Software Foundation, and the League for Programming Freedom. He invented the concept of copyleft to protect the ideals of this movement, and enshrined this concept in the widely-used GPL (General Public License) for software.

An image of Richard Stallman taken from the cover of the O'Reilly book Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software by Sam Williams , published on March 1, 2002.
An image of Richard Stallman taken from the cover of the O'Reilly book Free as in Freedom: Richard Stallman's Crusade for Free Software by Sam Williams , published on March 1, 2002.

He is a notable programmer whose major accomplishments include GNU Emacs, the GNU C Compiler, and the GNU Debugger. Since the mid-1990s Stallman has relinquished most of his software engineering duties in order to focus on the advocacy of free software. His remaining development time is devoted to GNU Emacs. He is currently supported by various fellowships, maintaining a modest standard of living while discharging his duties as an itinerant evangelist and "philosopher" of free software.



Stallman was born in Manhattan to Alice Lippman and Daniel Stallman. He is perhaps better known by his initials, "RMS". In the first edition of the Hacker's dictionary, he wrote, '"Richard Stallman" is just my mundane name; you can call me "rms".'

In the 1960s, with the personal computer still a decade away, Stallman's first opportunity to gain access to a computer came during his junior year at high school. Hired by the IBM New York Scientific Center , a now-defunct research facility in downtown Manhattan, Stallman spent the summer after his high-school graduation writing his first program, a preprocessor for the IBM 7094 written in the PL/I programming language. "I first wrote it in PL/I, then started over in assembler language when the PL/I program was too big to fit in the computer", he later revealed. (Williams 2002, chapter 3)

After that job, Stallman held a Laboratory Assistant position in the Biology Department at Rockefeller University. Although he was already moving toward a career in mathematics or physics, his analytical mind impressed the lab director so much that only a few years after Stallman had departed for college, his mother received an unexpected phone call. "It was the professor at Rockefeller", she recalled. "He wanted to know how Richard was doing. He was surprised to learn that he was working in computers. He'd always thought Richard had a great future ahead of him as a biologist." (Williams 2002, chapter 3)

Stallman went on to other jobs where he would gain important contacts and experience in computing. In 1971, as a freshman at Harvard University, Stallman became a hacker at the MIT AI Laboratory. He was hired by Russ Noftsker, a man who would later found Symbolics and become a bitter opponent of Stallman. Later, at the age of nineteen, he worked for a timesharing company in Westchester County with a desk adjacent to that of Eben Moglen, now a well known technology attorney.

Decline of the hacker culture

In the 1980s, the hacker community that dominated Stallman's life began to dissolve under the pressure of the commercialization of the software industry. In 1980 Richard Greenblatt, an AI Lab hacker, founded LMI to market Lisp machines, which he and Tom Knight designed at the lab. Greenblatt eschewed outside investors, 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, Russ Noftsker and other hackers felt that a more traditional, venture-capital funded approach was better-suited. As no agreement could be met, most of the remaining developers gave LMI a year's grace, and then founded Symbolics. They recruited many of the remaining hackers in the process - most notably Bill Gosper (who had been working at Stanford and Xerox) - and persuaded them to resign from the lab on the grounds of a conflict of interest. While both companies delivered proprietary software, Richard Stallman felt that LMI, unlike Symbolics, had tried to avoid hurting the lab.

Therefore, for two years, from 1982 to the end of 1983, Stallman single-handedly duplicated the efforts of the Symbolics programmers to prevent them from gaining a monopoly on the Lab's computers. By that time, however, he was the last of his generation of hackers at the Lab. He was asked to sign non-disclosure agreements and perform other actions he considered betrayals of his principles, but chose instead to share his work with others in what he regarded as a classical spirit of scientific collaboration and openness.

Stallman's philosophy was that "software wants to be free": if a user or fellow hacker benefited from a particular piece of software it was the developer's right - and indeed duty - to allow them to use and improve it without artificial hindrance or restrictions on their rights to pass the original or derivative works onto others. Consequently, in January 1984, he quit his job at MIT to work full time on the GNU project, which he'd announced in September 1983. He has worked on GNU more or less full-time since then, and did not complete a doctoral degree. He has been awarded three honorary doctoral degrees.

Founding GNU

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 incorporated the non-profit Free Software Foundation (FSF) to employ free software programmers and provide a legal framework for the free software community.

In 1989 Stallman invented and popularized the concept of copyleft. By then, much of the GNU system had been completed, with the notable exception of a kernel. Members of the GNU project were working on a kernel called GNU Hurd, but a risky design decision proved to be a bad gamble, and development of the Hurd was slow.

In 1991, this final gap was filled by Linux, a kernel written independently of the GNU project using the GNU development tools and system libraries. The arrival of Linux, and the availability of a completely free operating system created some confusion, however, and most people now use the name Linux to refer to the whole operating system. Stallman has attempted to change this by asking people to call the operating system "GNU/Linux".

Free software and open source

Richard Stallman's political and moral pronouncements have made him a controversial figure. Some influential programmers who agree with the concept of sharing code disagree with Stallman's moral stance, personal philosophy, or the language he uses to describe his positions. One result of these disputes was the establishment in 1998 of the open source movement, whose aims are broadly similar, but whose proponents emphasize the technical merits of code developed in an open fashion, rather than the principles of liberty and freedom.

Few who have encountered Stallman or read his essays would deny that he is a man of deeply held (and readily expressed) convictions; this has been interpreted in both a positive and negative light. He has been the subject (some would say the instigator) of a number of widely-publicized flamewars on discussion forums such as the Linux kernel mailing list. Although occasionally for technical reasons (Tcl vs. Scheme), most of these flamewars have revolved around the use of non-free software.


Media appearances

The movie documentary Revolution OS features several interviews with Stallman from his MIT days to 2001.


Stallman has received numerous prizes and awards for his work, amongst them:

See also


External links

Wikiquote has a collection of quotations by or about:
Richard Stallman

Last updated: 10-24-2004 05:10:45